In the Land of Dalí

By Judy Cantor | Travel and Leisure en español | January 2004


Asked to choose our favorite places, most of us will meander here and there in our minds, our hearts tugging us toward one memory, our taste buds toward another, wavering between city and country, east and west. For Salvador Dalí, who was as prolific in expressing his opinions as he was making paintings, there could be just one place that was the most inspiring in the world. “What I call a landscape exists uniquely on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea,” the artist writes in his memoir The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. “Where this landscape becomes best, the most beautiful, most excellent, and most intelligent is precisely in the vicinity of Cadaqués, where each hill, each rocky contour might have been drawn by Leonardo himself.”

On a warm day last June, I leave Barcelona’s high design streetscapes and urban energy for Cadaqués, curious to explore the surroundings that incited Dalí to such flattery and sparked his creative flame. My fiancé, David Navas, is at the wheel, and as the turnpike ends and we drive north on the quiet curved roads of the pastoral Empordà region on Spain’s Costa Brava, I savor the details of passing sights that have since become lasting images in my mind. Persistent walls of crumbled medieval castles standing on hilltops, broad expanses of marshy rice beds, giant wheels of wheat, drying to yellow in the sun. Fields of sunflowers, one after another, and a flock of sheep crossing the road, raising a cloud of dust in their wake; the clear, deep water of rocky coves that suddenly appear around the bend. Some places our decidedly cinematic. This voluptuous region of Catalonia is certainly a painterly vision.


Awash in shades of green and offering a convergence of varying perspectives in its mountains ranges, sand beaches, fertile fields, white-washed ports and sculpted coves, El Empordà has been reflected in the work of generations of Catalan artists. The region encompasses an area that extends from the Medieval stepped city of Girona to the French border, where, Dalí enthused, “the mountains of the Pyrenees come down into the sea in a grandiose geological delirium.” In the summer, its tiny towns are second homes for residents of Barcelona; farmers and fisherman share the land with golfers. The summer residents languidly feast on fresh seafood and rice dishes in open air restaurants, and sometimes attend the kind of extravagant art gallery opening you’d expect to find in a trendy neighborhood in the city, not, as here, inside a centuries-old estate in a walled village where the cobblestone streets are too narrow for modern cars.

Dalí was born into a bourgeois family in Figueres, a commercial center in the upper Empordà nearing France, where he chafed against the provincial way of life. He spent his final years in the pueblo of Pubol, living in the 11th-century castle he had bought for his wife and muse, Gala. But Dalí most loved Portlligat. Set in the hills just above Cadaqués, he and Gala lived there for part of the year for four decades, gradually completing their dream home by building onto a fisherman’s shack “exactly on the spot” that Dalí “liked best in all the world.” Other artists of the time frequented Cadaqués, including Picasso, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, and with their stylish friends, influenced its transformation from a fishing village into the relaxed seaside resort town it is today.

The landscape that fascinated Dalí and attracted his fellow surrealists and other members of the 20th century vanguard remains largely unspoiled. Nearing Cadaqués, we see the dry moonlike terrain with groves of gnarly olive trees that often appear in Dalí’s canvases. All around the Empordà rise the anthropomorphic mountains found in the artist’s surrealist scenes. The broadest, three-peaked Mt. Torrolla resembles either a naked woman or a bishop with his hands folded over his chest, depending on the viewer’s inclination. Blame it on La Tramurtana, the strong wind that locals say causes eccentric behavior, but there’s a playful spirit in the air, an atmosphere that encourages the lust for life the surrealists were legendary for. We are more than happy to embrace it. One night, we go with a group of friends to Mas Sorrer, a fantastic outdoor bar hidden on a former farm in the middle of sunflower fields, where the owners soon have us playing toy instruments and putting on a puppet show under the full moon.

It’s my first trip to the Empordà, but David knows it well. His father, the architect Luis Navas, built a house here three decades ago by the ocean near the village of Pals. The beachside area in the Lower Empordá, about an hour and a half from Barcelona, was practically deserted then, and has since sprouted clusters of vacation homes and apartment complexes. But nature has held sway over tourism. The region’s relatively short temperate season – from June to September- sometimes interrupted by the strong wind, has kept the area from becoming as popular among the vacationing masses as Tarragona, to the South of Barcelona. The longtime summer residents may complain of an increase in vacationers and the locals increasing efforts to cater to them, but the Empordá remains enchanting. Encompassing an area of some 100 kilometers from north to south, with dozens of villages and towns of distinct character to explore, the region offers quiet respite in the interior countryside or a more active summer scene in the resort towns of the Costa Brava.

El Empordà is slated to see an increase in tourism in the upcoming year, since 2004 has been declared “el año de Dalí,” in celebration of the centennial of the artist’s birth. Exhibitions of his work are planned for museums throughout Spain, with most of the activity taking place in the “Triangulo de Dalí” – Figueres, Pubol, and Portlligat. Since the 1990s, Dalí and Gala’s homes in Pubol and Portlligat have been open to visitors, preserved as in the couple’s time. The Teatro-Museo Dalí in Figueres shows permanent and temporary exhibitions from its extensive collection of Dalí’s legacy of works. The artist’s crypt is also located there.

During our week in El Empordá, we make stops at the museum in Figueres, where there are long lines outside, and the castle in Pubol, where there’s a display of Gala’s designer gowns. But I’m anxious to get to Cadaqués, hidden by hills and accessible only by a twisting road which veers dizzingly downward toward the town’s small harbor, Port Alguer. Rectangular, bright white buildings pop pleasingly into view, jaggedly arranged on the hillside as if in a Cubist composition. We head right to one of the uncrowded calas around the port, where fishing boats bob, and a bath in the cold clear water quickly cures our vertigo.

Before lunch, we make a quick stop at the port tourist office to make the reservation required to visit the Casa-Museu Salvador Dalí. Then, passing the many outdoor restaurants and bars clustered around the port, we stroll over to Sa Gambina, settling at a table on the terrace with a spectacular view of the sea and mountains beyond. According to the guidebook I’m carrying with me, Dalí and Gala ate here regularly. The manager points out the table they preferred and a picture of the artist in situ that hangs on the wall. High on my list of things to do a la Dalí is eat the local lobster, immortalized by the artist in his famous sculpture Lobster Telephone, a phone that sports a crustacean for a receiver. The artist enjoyed lobster in excess, eating four at a time accompanied with bottles of young Catalan wine. We order plates of fat, broiled langostinos and fresh caught anchovies, then succumb to the tourist temptation of eating a zarzuela de pescado y langosta al gusto de Gala-Dalí, a huge stew of meaty lobster halves, chipirones (small squid), clams, and white fish in a light fish broth.

For coffee, we go to the bar at the nearby casino, which opened in 1837 and now fills up afternoons with men playing cards. It’s clear we’re in Dalílandia. At the mention of his name, the locals-who seem to enjoy a love-hate relationship with the artist’s ghost-launch into reminiscences (appropriately surrealist, we’ll never know if they’re real or invented). Typically, they gossip about his outrageous drunken behavior and hint at his sexual proclivities, and how he’d always look the other way when the check arrived, waiting for someone else to pay. That man sitting at the bar, the barman whispers in Catalán, frequented orgies at the house in Portlligat. “But he always just watched.”

As Dalí claimed, the house is in a perfect place, perched above a natural harbor, facing a wide expanse of sea. A guide who takes us on our tour points out the mirror Dalí rigged up specifically so he could watch the sunrise from his bed. The labyrinth of small rooms is filled with taxidermied animals, baroque French furniture and knickknacks. Dalí’s studio is stupendous, with picture windows looking onto the sea, and mirrors and 3D eyeglasses placed around that attest to his pioneering experiments in perspective. But overall, the décor, which must have seemed outrageous once, is now merely kitsch. Photos of Dalí show him striking the same haughty pose in each one, and the tour, overall, is really not much fun, well not as much fun as I’d imagined we’d have in Salvador Dalí’s house. The guides, in straight skirts and stockings, recite rehearsed lines in multiple languages but become angry when I ask where those famed orgies took place. (On our way out, an Italian woman in our group helpfully points out the phallic-shaped pool.)

Outside on the dock, two fisherman are knotting nets. Rafael runs a small boat christened “Gala,” said to have been used by Dalí on swimming excursions and to fish for sardines. Rafael is no gossip. Dalí he describes only as “lunatico,” although he does let us know another celebrity, who he refers to as Nicolas “Cai” (Cage), stopped by the day before. Rafael will take you out to swim at the artist’s favorite spots, only accessible by boat. It’s a great way of discovering why Dalí called it “the most beautiful landscape in the world.”

Although I’m fascinated by some of Dali’s earlier works and like many others not at all, I’ve never formed much of an opinion about Dalí himself. Maybe I’m not endeared to the impression of the posturing, stingy man I got in Cadaqués, but we’re in agreement when it comes to the beauty of the region where he lived. David and I drive back toward Barcelona, catching glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea as the surreal light of dusk wraps around the “delirious mountains,” and I remember that, of course, what’s important is not who an artist is, but what he makes us see.


Visit the museums where the artist lived and worked.

Teatro Museo Dalí
(34) 972 677 500Open every day from 9.00-19.45 h. from July to September
Open daily except Monday from 10.30-17.45 h. from January-June and October-December
Admission 9 Euros

Built on the site of the former Figueres opera house and also known as “the egg and bread building” for the Dalinean sculptures that decorate its roof and façade, the Teatro-Museo holds an extensive collection of the artist’s works from every period of his career, ingeniously installed. Included are well-known surrealist works, many portraits of Gala, and the famous Mae West Room, with a three-dimensional interpretation by architect Oscar Tusquets of the Dali’s The Face of Mae West That Can Be Used as A Drawing Room, containing the artist’s famous red sofa in the form of plump lips. Dali is buried here, and his crypt can be found on the museum’s lower level.

Casa-Museo Castillo Gala Dalí
(34) 972 488 655
15 March-14 June open 10.30-18.00 h.
15 June-15 September 10.30-20.00 h.
16 September-1 November 10.30-18.00 h.
Admission 5,5 euros

This gift to Gala from Dali, this 11th-century medieval castle has a gorgeous view of the green landscape of the Empordá. Gala lived here in the 1970s, and the artist himself took up residence in the castle after her death. Adorned with surrealist frescos of the artist’s muse, the castle contains Gala’s collection of designer dresses, as well as the furniture and objects that decorated the house during the couple’s lifetime.

Casa-Museo Salvador Dalí
(34) 972 677 500
Reservations required
15 March-14 June 10.30-18.00 h.
15 June-15 September 10.30-21.00 h.
16 September-16 January 10.30-18.00 h.
Admission 8 Euros

The house overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where Dalí and Gala spent the temperate months over forty-year period and where the artist said he spent his happiest moments. The tour allows access to the rooms where the couple lived and entertained (except the kitchen), and Dali’s work space. The house remains as the couple left it, filled with taxidermied animals, Baroque French furniture and a collection of kitsch knickknacks. Most impressive is the artist’s high-ceiling studio with broad windows looking directly out onto the sea. For suureal impact, check out, the phallic-shaped pool and gardens decorated with Michelin men statues, Pirelli tire signs and bottles in the shape of matadors.

For more information on the Dalí-Gala museums and exhibitions of the artist’s work during “Año Salvador Dalí 2004”, visit



Sa Gambina
Riba Nemesio Llorens s/n
Tel. 972-25-81-27

The Zarzuela de pescado y langosta al gusto de Gala-Dalí, bursting with lobster, seafood and fish in a light broth, pays homage to the artist in the terrace restaurant where the restaurant’s owners say Dali dined frequently. Delicious seafood and an inspiring view of the port of Cadaques make it perfect for long summer lunches after a swim. Next door, Es Baluart, (Tel. 972 25 81 83) and nearby La Galiota (Tel. 972 25 81 87) are also among Dali’s legendarily favorite eating places.


Dalí had a hand in the decoration and often partied at this “Surrealist disco” with Mick Jagger and other members of the seventies “jet set”. Today, top dance djs from all over Europe spin at the RachDingue, and people come from as far away as Germany to attend the infamous summer parties held here. Located on the top of a hill on the road between Cadaques and La Jonquera. For directions and event information go to www.rachdingue.com

Paseos en la Barca “Gala”

Captain Rafael takes passengers on an hour-long tour along the coast, stopping at some of Dalí’s favorite calas and fishing spots. Embarks from the dock in front of the Casa-Museo Salvador Dalí in Portlligat.

El Cellar de la Selva
Selva del Mar

Dalí is said to have enjoyed hanging out in this bar in a tiny medieval village near Cadaqués. Located in a dark former wine cellar opening out onto a shaded stone plaza, it’s a tranquil place these days, where an afternoon beer is accompanied by the hum of local residents’ idle conversation, punctuated by ringing bells from a nearby church tower.


Fruta del Mar y Tierra

The Empordá is filled with incredible Local bounty The seafood and rice to heavier local game of the mountains. Here are a few recommendations.

Can Rafa
Passeig, 7

All of the seafood served here is caught in the surrounding waters by fisherman whose catch is exclusive for the restaurant. Specialties include lobster from Cap de Creus, which food critics have claimed to be the best found anywhere, and the grilled local anchovies. The terrace offers a spectacular view. 25 euros

Cala Montjoi, ap.30
Roses (Girona)
Tel: 972 150457
Fax: 972 150717
e-mail: bulli@elbulli.com

Widely celebrated, El Bullí has three Michelin stars and was voted “best restaurant in the world” by Restaurant Magazine. International gourmands and celebrities come to Roses, located in the lower Empordá, to taste chef Ferran Adria’s wildly creative cuisine. The restaurant is open from April to September, and all tables are booked up to a year in advance for the spectacular experience of eating here. For those planning ahead, advance reservations can be made by emailing the restaurant. The multi-course tasting menu costs approximately 85 euros per person.

Restaurante Can Bonay
Placa de les Voltes, 13

Founded in 1936, Can Bonay is located in a stone house that originally served as a rest stop for travelers in medieval times. This inland restaurant offers regional dishes made with local game, including duck, pheasant, and foie gras. Specialties include goose with parsnip and pigs’ feet with snails con. 30 Euros.

L’Hort del Rector
In front of the church

Located amid lush foliage in front of a beautiful church in the small medieval village of Monells, this homey restaurant serves exclusively dishes made with bacalao. The fish is cooked up in every for imaginable- in buns, croquettes, or salads, with alli-oli, shrimp, spinach and honey, and there’s even cod ice cream. It may sound like a gimmick, but the food here is fresh, delicate, and delicious. A memorable meal at about 35 Euros.


Castell de Peratallada
Pl. de Castell, 1

A medieval castle built in 1065, the majestic Castell de Peratallada now serves as a four-star parador with eight guest suites. Restaurant offers dining under Roman arches in the castle’s great hall. 120 to 240 euros.

Hotel Aigua Blava
Playa de Fornells


Open in 1934, Hotel Aigua Blava has the romantic feel of a hotel on the Riviera of that era. The hotel is perched above a secluded beach with a sublime view of wide blue ocean and a streamlined seawater pool. Guests-many from Britain and France- dress for dinner here at the locally renowned restaurant serveing regional and international cuisine. The spacious terrace is a perfect place for more casual cocktails or coffee with an inspiring view. Restautant 36 euros per person. Rooms from 90 euros.

Hotel Playa Sol
Platja Pianc, 5

This Cadaques classic is still regarded as one of the city’s best, offering sweeping sea views from its rooms, tennis courts, swimming pool and a convenient location. Rooms from 96 euros in high season.

Hotel Mas de Torrent
E-17123 Torrent

This five star hotel located in an 18th-century stone farmhouse is known for the most luxurious accommodations in the region. Mas Torrent offers the comforts of a country estate, private pools off of some suites and a restaurant serving regional dishes with genteel service. Rooms and suites from 345 Euros in high season.

Lindos Huespedes

Carratera de Torroella a Pals, Kilometro 344A rice mill converted into a private haven combining natural splendor with modern style. Lindos Huespedes has only seven rooms. Each, with 30-foot high ceilings, artistic touches, and high-tech fixtures, is uniquely decorated with a minimalist eye to enhance views of rice beds, a river, and rolling hills. No children are allowed at this romantic retreat. The Comedor Verdor, the restaurant in a converted stable in the property’s garden offers an inventive menu of fresh, healthy food. Rooms start at 150 euros.

Original article published in  TRAVEL+LEISURE en español (ENERO 2004)