The Costa Brava Retreat
At times during this journey, we find ourselves in a gem of a small town that seems disconnected from the rest of the world and even from the current time period. Last week was one of those weeks. The four of us, plus our friend Cheryl, checked out of our Barcelona apartment and traveled several decades back to a cove in the Mediterranean called Begur.
In reality, we took a bus north to the region known as Costa Brava, which translates as “wild” or “brave” coast. Begur sits among a string of medieval villages and seaside hamlets connected by walking paths carved into the cliffs.
An hour and a half after leaving Barcelona, we were getting kissed on the cheeks by the couple who run a boutique hotel called Aiguaclara. It’s housed in one of several mid-19th-century mansions built around the town square by colonial entrepreneurs who went to Havana in the 1850s, made boatloads of money on tobacco and other products, and came back to build their dream homes by the coast. Aiguaclara is done in a Spanish neo-classical style, which means hallways and stairs made of terra cotta and decorative ceramic tiles, doorways carved in thick wood and embellished with antique hardware, and railings and balconies finished with ornate wrought iron.
The owners decorated it with a blend of antiques and mid-20th-century modern furnishings, so part of the hotel feels authentically 19th century while other parts feel frozen in the ’50s or ’60s. The windows look out to a hill crowned by an 11th-century castle, and right outside the door, the narrow cobblestone lane leads to a town plaza humming with families strolling and church bells ringing. It’s simply one of the most special, loveliest places we’ve visited so far.
We got to know the hotel quite well and spent more time there than anticipated due to an illness that knocked all five of us down for two days straight. Thank goodness we felt so comfortable there, and the owners were so helpful and caring, because a virus virtually turned us inside out and left the kids frightfully feverish. Finally, the kids felt well enough to go outside and walk about 200 meters to Begur’s town square and eat a few spoonfuls of gelato.
Sadly, Cheryl had to leave before we all fully regained our health, but at least we had one magical day together in Costa Brava before we all got sick, during which we explored the nearby medieval town of Pals.
Easter Sunday goes down as another atypical and memorable holiday on this trip. We skipped church (I didn’t want to subject the kids to a Spanish-language Mass, during which they might go yackety-yack midway through), but we did have a delightfully nontraditional pagan dinner that stretched late into the evening. Finally we were able to eat, and boy were we hungry, so we went to another tiny neighborhood on the coast called Aiguafreda and settled into the sofas and recliners that surround cocktail tables in the Vintage Lounge. The out-of-the-way restaurant and hotel is perched like an enclosed balcony on a terraced hill overlooking the pounding waves and coastline. I had discovered the place during a run, literally stumbling upon steps to its front door as I navigated the coastal trail. It’s called the Vintage Lounge and Hotel because it sits next to what had been a famous but short-lived five-star hotel in the 1960s, and the owners salvaged furnishings from there to decorate the place and turn it into a hip retro hideaway that truly captures the feel of another time and place.
We feasted on French- and Italian-inspired tapas like grilled tuna and risotto with truffle essence while playing backgammon with the kids and listening to the bossa nova strains of “The Girl from Ipanema.” After 9 p.m., the tables began to fill with beautiful and trendy-looking young couples whose conversation seamlessly switched from French to Catalan and Castilian. Then the lounge owner, a woman named K.C. who’s about our age, came over to find out more about this family from California. It turns out she’s from Southern California, went to the University of Colorado, married a French man and settled in Costa Brava about 20 years ago. They have two kids and speak four languages in their home (English being the fourth), and they designed and opened the Vintage Lounge and adjacent Vintage Hotel a little over a year ago. We drank up the conversation as well as the scene, inspired by the place and the example set by that woman. One of the best things about this trip is the people we meet along the way.
In hindsight, Costa Brava was the perfect place for us all to get sick and do almost nothing. The region feels like a dreamlike retreat from the rest of the world. I’d love to go back someday and do nothing more than explore more of its streets, coves and hills.