Ever since the movie/book Under the Tuscan Sun, Americans have been in love with Tuscany. The food, wine, rolling hills, castles, and villas – what’s not to like? However the one problem I have with Tuscany is that everyone loves Tuscany and this equates into too many tourists for my liking as well as rising prices. My goal is to find the ‘next Tuscany’, where is the next great geographical area for villas, food, landscapes, and relaxation? I’m happy to say that I’ve found it – Costa Brava in Catalonia Spain. If Europe was high school, Tuscany would be the cheerleader and Costa Brava would be the smart quiet band member who wants to be part of the show but doesn’t need to demand all of the attention.
Costa Brava means the Wild Coast – but it’s way more than just a beautiful coastline. The region actually sits within Catalonia, and is considered to include the northeast coast of Spain (north of Barcelona) and it extends from the shoreline inland to the Pyrenees covering farming country, and medieval towns in addition to beaches.
The region’s variety rivals anything Italy has to offer – landscapes, culture, food, beaches, farms, medieval towns, castles…a bit of everything! I have listed a few of the reasons why people holiday in Tuscany and where you can find those similar things in Costa Brava.
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The countryside is a patchwork quilt of farming and medieval villages. Across the region are big old villas that can be rented and used as a home base as you explore the region by car. You can decide to stay in a village at a home, in a villa in the countryside, or even head to one of the beach towns and rent a house/apartment.
I utilized Charming Villas and stayed in a big, secluded villa named Can Grau located deep in the backroads of Costa Brava. The villa was lovely and fully equipped with everything I would ever need to feel at home – including a pool and bar! Can Grau is a great place to stay with a large group of people (family or friends) as it had 6 bedrooms, a huge kitchen, a long dining table that seated 12 and plenty of outdoor space to lounge around. You can even hire a personal chef to come in and cook for your group or provide cooking lessons on Catalan cuisine. It was lovely to have a place to ‘come home to’ after touring around during the day. However my favorite time was always the morning sitting and sipping coffee by the pool , listening to the birds and enjoying the peaceful view!
In the larger city of Girona there are Michelin Star restaurants such as Celler De Can Roca that are to not be missed. However it was the little towns and villages that won my heart and surprised me on many occasions.
Villages are tiny and peppered about every 4 km. And in them you’ll find a church, some old people, cobblestone streets, and amazing little restaurants maintained and run with such great care. Life runs at a different pace in these places – there’s a beauty about that which you seldom get any longer. In my little nearby village of Pontos was Yollanda who ran the restaurant Can Cassolete. I walked in to hear Nora Roberts filling the intimate little room with stone archways. Yollanda’s daughter was on hand to help with English translating, and Yollanda’s partner was chef running the kitchen – a true family affair. I enjoyed mushroom croquettes, and their house specialty – fish cassolete with tender fish in a flavorful butter sauce. A wonderful meal in a laid back atmosphere.
The small villages also had some extremely high end surprises such as La Rectoria. This is a must stop in the area if you are a foodie – but good luck finding it as it’s tucked away in the tiny, tiny village of Espinavessa off the main roads. There are no signs, and no fanfare – but you’ll know when you’ve found it. I had the Menu Degustacio (tasting menu) which included an aperitif, six starters, two seconds, two desserts, and petit fours. It was a memorable eating experience that I would have experienced in any NYC top end restaurant – but this was set in a little stone village of less than 50 people. I was even able to go in the kitchen afterward and meet the Chef – Jordi and his amazing team.
There’s no shortage of wine tasting around Costa Brava too. You can try visiting small local wineries like Can Sais or try something totally Spanish and different – Cava. Cava is a bubbly wine made throughout Spain. A visit to Mont-Ferrant for some cava tasting is a great way to spend the hot afternoons in Costa Brava.
The variety of Costa Brava exceeds Tuscany by far. Not only do you have rolling hills and simple farm land, but you have the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. I situated myself in between the coast and the mountains at my Can Grau villa – only an hour drive to the coast and 2 hours to the mountains.
A road trip to Vall de Nuria is a great day outing if you want to experience the mountains. Getting there is half the fun if you have your own car! The drive there from my villa was a twisty corkscrew of 2 lane roads with spectacular views. Vall de Nuria is a hidden valley that you can only get to via an old rack railway. The railway cost is around 20 Euro roundtrip – so slightly expensive – or if you have about 3 or 4 hours you can hike it one way – which I would have loved to do! Once in the valley – you are treated to spectacular views and cool air. It’s a ski resort in the winter and in the summer months they have boat rides, horse riding, hiking and there’s a really nice hotel as well as a hostelling international there in the main part of the valley.
If you are looking for coastal experiences, then head east – you wil have a variety of towns to choose from. Lie on the beach in Calella de Palafrugell, go diving in L’Estartit which is home to the Medes island and super diving opportunities, or go hiking along the Camino Ronda coast trail and find hidden coves and beaches to spend the day at.
The countryside of Costa Brava is a quilt of rolling landscapes stitched together by little towns and villages. One such stop is Besalu which has an impressive 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvià river. The town features winding streets and squares and also a restored mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath dating from the eleventh or twelfth century and a beautifully simple cathedral in the middle of the town square squirted with outdoor cafes. I was lucky enough to accompany friends to Besalu and have a lovely afternoon of siteseeing and food in this quaint little town. There’s plenty more settings like Besalu all over Costa Brava.
One thing that most people look for in their travels is getting deeper into a region’s culture and meeting local people. Costa Brava has many opportunities for cultural interaction and involvement.
I used the Costa Brava tourism website to find out what festivals were happening in the area and was thrilled when I learned about a cultural dance festival in the coastal town of Palamos. I was able to experience the Sardines Dance Festival – it was held outside near the harbor known for it’s fish market. The dancing was nothing like I had seen before, but a great way to get more knowledge about the people and customs of the area.
I was also lucky enough to meet locals at a fish fry held at an old fishing hut on the coast. It was an afternoon of delicious food, music, learning to drink wine out of a porro, and siesta!
I was also lucky enough to have some very personal experiences there such as my Day with Albert which took me on a wild unplanned ride to new villages and friends.
The key to finding these experiences is to open yourself up, talk to the locals, and soon a web of opportunities will open to you. My villa owner, Richard, helped me find many of these experiences and other times I relied upon the Costa Brava tourism site. The Catalan people are eager to show you their culture share stories.
Move Over Tuscany – Here Comes Costa Brava
Catalonia has so much to offer and much of it is really unknown to other international travelers. Next time you are looking for travel that will provide variety and a rich cultural experience, think about Costa Brava.
View all photography of diverse and beautiful Costa Brava!
Want to listen to more about Costa Brava – then check out this podcast!
Amateur Traveler Episode 339 – Travel to Costa Brava, Spain
Disclosure: For part of my stay I was a guest of Visit Costa Brava, however all of the opinions expressed here are my own.