Under the Catalan Sun

July 24, 2012 16 Comments »

Medes Island Costa Brava
Medes Island – part of Costa Brava’s rugged coast

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 to 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 similar things in Costa Brava.


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 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 has six bedrooms, a huge kitchen, a long dining table that seats 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!

My villa pool
My villa pool – not a bad place to start a morning!
Can Grau kitchen
The beautiful kitchen of Can Grau

More Information:
Charming Villas Website  – Villa rental in Costa Brava

I Cook It Personal Chef and Cooking Instruction –  AND I Cook It Facebook Page


In the larger city of Girona, Michelin Star restaurants such as Celler De Can Roca are not to 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.

Find the best Catalonia food in the Pyrenees

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 the chef running the kitchen – a true family affair. I enjoyed mushroom croquettes and their house specialty – fish cassolette with tender fish in a flavorful butter sauce. A wonderful meal in a laid-back atmosphere.

mushroom croquettes
Mushroom croquettes from Can Cassolete

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 into the kitchen afterward and meet the Chef – Jordi, and his amazing team.

La Rectoria Tasting Menu
La Rectoria Tasting Menu
Chefs at La Rectoria
The Chef team of La Rectoria

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.

Cava Tasting at Mont Ferrant

Learn about Catalonia’s quirky Christmas traditions

More information:
La Rectoria – check out the latest happenings in the kitchen on their Facebook Page
Can Cassolete in Pontos
Mont Ferrant Cava
Celler Can Sais

Beautiful views

The variety of Costa Brava exceeds Tuscany by far. Not only do you have rolling hills and simple farmland, 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’s 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, and hiking. There’s a really nice hotel and an international hostel in the main part of the valley.

View of the valley of Vall de Nuria
Valley View – Vall de Nuria
hiking in the Pyrenees Vall de Nuria
Hiking in the Pyrenees – Vall de Nuria

If you are looking for coastal experiences, then head east – you will 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.

Llafranc Costa Brava
The Costa Brava beaches are picture perfect – Llafranc beach

More information:
Vall de Nuria
Camino Ronda
Medes Islands

Medieval Towns

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, 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 sightseeing and eating in this quaint little town. There are plenty more settings like Besalu all over Costa Brava.

Medievil Besalu Bridge
The bridge of Besalu – a beautiful site in this small fortress town

More Info:
Besalu Tourism


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 its 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.

Sardanes festival Palamos Spain
Sardanes festival of dance in Palamos

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 and music, learning to drink wine out of a porro, and siesta!

toast at the fishing hut
Friends toasting with cava at the local fishing hut

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 and 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 and 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.

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