If you’re looking for the authentic Caribbean experience, I can recommend a visit to St Kitts, one half of the island federation of St Kitts and Nevis. The fields that once grew sugar cane are lush and undeveloped while the island capital of Basseterre has a laid back and slightly scruffy charm. Yet if you know where to look there are plenty of places to delight the stylish traveller. If you enjoy great design, delicious local food and places that are stylish without being stuffy, read on my recommendations on St Kitts.
Stylish shopping in St Kitts
The Gallery on the square
I loved The Gallery on the Square in Basseterre, where I was tempted by beautifully designed gifts by local artists. Set on the north side of Independence Square, you’ll easily spot it from the colourful paintwork and shutters. It’s one of the oldest houses on the square, and was owned by one family since it was built, until artist Rosey Cameron Smith bought it in 1978 and opened it as an art gallery.
Rosey is known for her large, colourful paintings with scenes from life on St Kitts, featuring the vervet monkeys, vibrant carnival figures and abstract views of the island. She’s brought together the work of many other artists; pottery by Dale Kelley, glass plaques by Calvin Delpeche and scarves by Kate Spencer, another well known St Kitts artist.
While the walls are covered with larger pieces, there are plenty of affordable watercolours, small prints, gift cards and glassware, to bring home a stylish souvenir of St Kitts. I couldn’t resist treating myself to a large, flowing scarf with abstract designs by Kate Spencer, which doubles up as a beach wrap.
Stylish places to stay on St Kitts
Caribbean hospitality at Rockhaven B&B
I loved the colourful Caribbean vibe at Rockhaven bed & breakfast, a private home with just two bedrooms set on the hill above Frigates Bay near Basseterre. The owner, Judith Blake showed me to my room, with an ornate carved wooden bed and cheerful flowery curtains and bedcover. Judith and her husband lived in Canada for many years and when they returned to spend time in St Kitts, Judith told me she wanted to create a vibrant Caribbean feel, choosing a bright pink for the sitting room, and sunshine yellow for her kitchen. With dark hardwood floors, rattan mats and colourful paintings on the wall it all works to make a harmonious whole that’s both elegant and homely.
I took breakfast on the covered terrace, with the breeze rustling through the palms and a view of the Atlantic breakers. My delicious fresh fruit salad and spicy eggs with a chappati were served on colourful painted china with madras checked mats using the yellow, red and green St Kitts check. Set on the top of a hill, Rockhaven bed and breakfast has beautiful views in both directions, although you will need a car to get around if you’re staying there, as there are no shops or restaurants close by. Rockhaven is ideal for independent travellers who want a stylish base to return to after a day out exploring St Kitts.
Colourful contemporary style in Basseterre – Ocean Terrace Inn
If you’re looking for a stylish hotel in Basseterre, I recommend Ocean Terrace Inn which has recently gone through a refurbishment and re-opened with spacious, contemporary style bedrooms. The hotel is set on the side of the hill looking towards the port with the green slopes of Mount Liamuiga beyond. On the lower level are the landscaped gardens and pool area with colourful shrubs and enticing pools and waterfalls with plenty of sun loungers. In the evening try the hotel’s Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant which is set just across the road and overlooks the waterfront. As the name suggests, they specialise in seafood such as grilled snapper or Mahi Mahi and I really enjoyed my lobster with a ginger and lemon butter sauce. Read my full review of Ocean Terrace Inn
Atmospheric plantation style at Ottleys’ Plantation Inn
For old style luxury, Ottley’s Plantation Inn was my favourite hotel on St Kitts and I stayed in one of the cottages set in immaculately tended gardens around the Great House. In my charming bedroom with dark wood furniture, flowered bedspread and plantation shutters I felt like a heroine in Gone with the wind and could throw open the shutters in the morning to look across the gardens towards the ocean. The property borders the rainforest and there are walks through the grounds where you can spot the vervet monkeys with a pretty little spa cabin tucked away in the trees. The inn feels very tranquil and private although you are just a short drive from Basseterre but you’ll need to hire a car or taxi for the days you want to go sightseeing around St Kitts.
Luxury on the beach – coming soon at Park Hyatt St Kitts
Look out for the new Park Hyatt Hotel that is opening in late 2016 on the south-east peninsula on one of the most beautiful beaches overlooking the sister island of Nevis. I had a look around the site when I was there and although it was far from complete I could see that this could be perfect for the stylish traveller looking for a luxurious hotel right on the beach in St Kitts.
Stylish Places to visit on St Kitts
The batik at Romney Manor and Caribelle Batik
I enjoyed visiting Romney Manor, the site of the plantation owner’s house for the nearby Wingfield Estate, which is also worth a look around to see the ruins of the old sugar plantation and rum distillery. Up on the hill above the estate are the lush gardens surrounding the manor with a majestic 400 year old Saman tree spreading its wide branches over the lawn.
Inside the manor house is Caribelle Batik, where I watched the ladies demonstrating how the batik is made, in a painstaking process of painting the wax design and dying the cloth many time in different colours. Outside the batik cloths were left to dry in the breeze in what must be the most photogenic washing line in the Caribbean. After taking a look in the shop, I relaxed with a fruit punch on the terrace looking down on the plantation just as the overseer would have done, to keep check on the activities of the sugar mill.
The canons at Brimstone Fortress
Our minibus wound up the narrow road through stone gateways just wide enough for one car, finally reaching the fortress at the top of Brimstone Hill. The fort is a UNESCO world heritage site which dates back to the 18th century when the English and French were fighting to control the sugar-rich islands of the Caribbean. There are plenty of different parts of the fort to see, but the best bit was climbing up to the stone citadel, where canons pointed in all directions, guarding the coastline with stunning views across the island.
Fairview Great House
This is an easy stop when you’re visiting the historic attractions of St Kitts as it’s on the same road as Romney Manor and Brimstone Fortress as you drive out of Basseterre. It’s an 18th century plantation house, where you can see the dining room table set with antique silver and the bedroom with the four poster bed where Prince Charles stayed when the house was a hotel. There are lovely botanic gardens too, surrounding the house with flowering plants and shady trees and they sometimes host rum tastings as part of a guided tour.
Stylish places to eat in St Kitts
The Gallery Cafe
For coffee and cakes in Basseterre: head to The Gallery Cafe on the north side of Independence Square. I loved this small cafe at the back of the art gallery featuring the work of local artists, that’s run by the painter Rosey Cameron Smith. Her daughter Leah bakes the cakes and cookies while her boyfriend fishes for the wahoo which is smoked and served on a bagel with a spinkling of paprika – utterly delicious.
There’s a charming garden at the back where you can sit in the shade with a glass of freshly pressed juice or a coffee, as if you’d just popped in to a friend’s house for a chat.
For an organic vegetarian lunch and fresh pressed juices: stop at Ital Creations on By Pass Road road near the airport. The food trailer is open throughout the day to buy a bottle of juice and sit in the shade eating a baked veggie wrap with salad and hummus. While your thick green Moringa smoothie is being prepared, wander around the small organic farm run by Judah Fari and his wife Yayah where they grow papaya and pineapple, salad plants and the medicinal herbs used to make bush teas and flavour their dishes.
The Kitchen at Belle Mont Farm
For an elegant lunch of small dishes: call in at Belle Mont farm, the luxurious hotel built on the slopes of Mount Liamuiga in the northern part of St Kitts. Parking your car, you’ll be taken up in the electric buggy that winds on a narrow path through the forest to The Kitchen where lunch is eaten in the open sided dining room with views down to the sea.
The menu is made up of small plates, each designed to be a taster of local produce from the 400 acre organic farm and from the sea. I tried the lobster salad, almost too pretty to eat with artfully strewn herbs and dots of passionfruit and sorrel sauce, and the tasty ginger, pumpkin and spinach soup. You may not leave full to bursting but your taste buds will be tingling.
For drinks and bites on the black volcanic beach: stop at Arthur’s that is also part of the Belle Mont Farm development. It’s a stylish beach bar that was only just open when I stopped by, but the setting was lovely, on a black volcanic beach where the fishermen pull up their boats. The menu is based on traditional beach bar dishes such as conch fritters, grilled lobster and Mahi Mahi rillettes for elegant but casual dining at lunchtime and in the evening.
For cocktails at sunset to a cool Reggae beat: you can’t beat Salt Plage for a drink as the sun goes down. This trendy beach bar is part of the Christophe Harbour development with a deck beside the water and a jetty that also has comfortable seating to snuggle up for a romantic evening a deux. They serve drinks and cocktails every evening as well as small plates of favourite dishes such as coconut shrimp, chicken wings and market fish with garlic butter and island herbs. There’s often a DJ or live reggae music which really adds to the atmosphere as the sun sets and the coloured lights on the jetty reflect in the water lapping below.
Reggae Beach Bar
For lobster and a beer on the beach: try Reggae Beach Bar on Cockleshell Beach which serves drinks and food all day and into the evening. It’s a great place to base yourself for a day on the beach with plenty of sun loungers for hire (although they may get crowded when there are a few cruise ships in port) and the watersports hire next door. This is a local’s favourite, where you can try all the typical seafood dishes such as conch chowder and grilled lobster, with the sand between your toes.
Boozie’s on the beach
For a beach bar to relax with friends: try Boozie’s on the beach at St Frigate’s Bay strip. “The Strip” is a favourite area for locals and visitors in the evening when all that bars along the beach are open for live music, food and drinks. The menu features well cooked hearty Caribbean favourites and there’s a sports bar atmosphere with flags and number plates that happy customers have sent from around the world. This is the place to crack open a bottle of Carib beer or order a ‘Ting with a sting’ and relax with friends.
Delicious street food on St Kitts
As you wander around Basseterre you’ll find plenty of street food vendors, especially at lunchtime when they cater to office workers and on a Friday and Saturday when the locals like to buy jerk chicken and pork or grilled fish to take home for dinner. It’s not always obvious what’s offer but be adventurous and ask the vendor to show you what’s cooking under the metal covers. You may find the traditional St Kitts favourites like salt fish and Johnny cakes or goat water, which sounds disgusting but is actually a tasty stew.
Stylish places to relax on St Kitts
If you need a place to unwind and relax for the day, try Palm Court Gardens which is a favourite for cruise guests in Basseterre. The gardens are beautifully kept, there’s an infinity pool with views over the bay and you can swing in a hammock and buy lunch and snacks in the small cafe. To add to the charms there’s a vintage Rolls Royce parked in the drive, a children’s playground if you have little ones and a workshop where they make beautiful shell jewellery and ornaments that are sold in the shop.
A cool rainforest walk on St Kitts
Over a third of St Kitts is covered with rainforest, especially on the slopes of Mount Liamuiga, which you can climb for an adventurous day trek. For something a bit gentler I went for a forest walk from the Wingfield Estate with expert guide O’Neil Mulraine who learned about the plants and wildlife from his grandfather. We took the easy forest trail alongside a trickling stream as O’Neil pointed out the different trees of the forest such as the African tulip with vibrant orange flowers that was often used for shade on plantations and a tree trunk with needle sharp spines that the monkeys will climb, but only if they are desperate! Overhead we could hear both the cries of the vervet monkeys and the shrieks of the people as they whizzed by on the zipline above our heads.
Begin and end your visit to St Kitts in style at YU Lounge
On my arrival at the airport I was treated to the VIP service that’s available through YU Lounge which can be booked individually or used by business class passengers for some airlines. As I walked down the steps of the plane a car was waiting to whisk me the short distance to the private YU Lounge terminal where I could relax while the staff took care of immigration formalities and retrieved my luggage. I lounged around on the rattan sofas while nibbling some delicious canapés and sipping a cooling drink, thinking that I could get used to the millionaire lifestyle!
While St Kitts has been an unspoiled corner of the Caribbean, there are plenty of new developments that are putting it on the map for the stylish traveller. The Christophe Harbour marina, new luxury Park Hyatt Hotel and Kittitian Hill organic farm and hotel that are all nearing completion will soon provide even more to enjoy for the stylish traveller. Perhaps it’s time to start planning your relaxed but stylish holiday in St Kitts?
Have you been to St Kitts and if so did you discover any stylish places to eat or stay?
Visitor Information for St Kitts
To plan your visit to St Kitts check out the tourism board website at www.stkittstourism.kn or follow their social media channels: Twitter @StKittsTourism | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | Pinterest |
British Airways flies to St Kitts from London Gatwick twice a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays with the flight going on to nearby Antigua. There are regular ferries every day to Nevis, with a journey time of 45 minutes from Basseterre, making it easy to plan a combined stay on both islands.
To start and end your holiday on St Kitts in style, the YU Lounge offers a private terminal at the airport. A private car will meet you from the plane and whisk you to the luxurious lounge where snacks and drinks are available. While you are waiting your luggage will be picked up and you’ll be cleared through security by the YU Lounge staff.
Thanks to St Kitts Tourism for hosting Heather’s visit to St Kitts.
Discover Russia as a destination for art and literature lovers as Audley Travel country specialist Nick shares some of his cultural highlights from his travels to Moscow, St Petersburg and the Golden Ring.
This year is the official UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature – and with the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace bringing Tolstoy’s famous novel to life, it’s a great time to visit Russia.
Although reading Tolstoy’s words on the page or watching his stories on TV from the comfort of your sofa may seem vivid, nothing compares to experiencing the real-life settings, or seeing the places that inspired and influenced him.
Russia has undergone extreme political and social change over the past few centuries, and the highlight of any trip is the chance to witness this complex history at first hand. One of the other reasons I love Russia is that it has always publicly celebrated and upheld its rich artistic and literary heritage.
For example, on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow you’ll see a lot of publicity for performances of Chekhov. He’s perhaps the best-known Russian playwright outside the motherland, but it shows that works such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard are still popular.
The Bolshoi and Mariinsky ballet corps are feted around the world but still enjoy great acclaim among native audiences (and if you can’t catch a performance on your visit, I’d recommend taking a backstage tour of the Bolshoi or Mariinsky theatres).
Russia is also home to some world-renowned collections of art, notably in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Discover the collections of the Hermitage in St Petersburg
While Moscow is Russia’s political and economic fulcrum, St Petersburg is seen as the capital of culture, built by Peter the Great in the style of European cities such as Venice and Amsterdam.
To get the best views of the city and a sense of its layout, my advice is to climb to the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral on a clear day, or visit the Bellevue Brasserie at the Kempinski Hotel for a panoramic perspective that includes St Isaac’s itself.
Having said that, one of the best ways to see St Petersburg’s many churches, cathedrals, and imposing baroque and neoclassical architecture is from the water on one of the boats that skim the city’s 33 canals.
Art enthusiasts will enjoy the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest collections of fine art. The museum is housed in the Winter Palace, a former residence of the tsars situated in the heart of St Petersburg.
You may have spotted its distinctive mint-green and gold façade in the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace. Pause as you climb the grandiose staircase – there’s no better moment to appreciate the opulence of imperial Russia.
I recommend telling your guide which historical period interests you, or asking for his or her personal preferences, as you won’t be able to cover the whole collection. It’s said that if you were to spend one minute in front of every piece on display in the whole of the Hermitage, it would take an entire year.
I loved studying original paintings by Rembrandt and Da Vinci, but if your tastes are more modern, head to the part of the Hermitage called the General Staff Building which houses Impressionist and Postmodern collections, including several works by Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso.
I was struck by the haunting black and white photos on display in many of the Hermitage’s galleries. They show the bare walls and empty rooms of the building during the Nazi invasion, when many pieces were sent to Siberia to be saved from possible destruction.
Trace the footsteps of Dostoevsky and other famous Russian writers
St Petersburg wears its literary legacy with pride: if you look carefully at the buildings (and can read a little Russian) you’ll see they are peppered with monuments and plaques to Russian poets and novelists.
Many writers’ homes have been made into state museums. One of the most intriguing is Lolita author Nabokov’s apartment, which offers a glimpse of the communal living style of the Soviet period.
The apartment of poet Alexander Pushkin is close to Palace Square and the Hermitage, and easy to visit en route. It’s no exaggeration to say that Russians venerate Pushkin and he’s deeply etched onto the nation’s hearts. On my last visit to St Petersburg, my guide Galina spontaneously launched into a recital of one of his poems as we walked the gardens of the Summer Palace.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s memorabilia-crammed apartment in St Petersburg’s Vladimirsky district has been preserved in exactly the same condition as it was on the day he died, slumped over his writing desk mid-composition (the apartment’s clock remains frozen at the hour of his death).
Venturing beyond the apartment, it’s possible to retrace his and his characters’ footsteps around the city, from the Peter and Paul Fortress where Dostoevsky was incarcerated and almost executed to St Vladimir’s Cathedral where he would pray.
I like simply tramping the busy intersections and streets around Catherine Canal and Sennaya Square. This is where the action of The Idiot and Crime and Punishment takes place, and where the latter novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, famously battles his tortured conscience.
The city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, was even the subject of a short story by Nikolai Gogol, in which he described the mercurial nature of the street at night.
Dedicated bibliophiles can browse the shelves of the city’s most famous bookshop, Dom Knigi, which occupies an Art Nouveau building on Nevsky Prospekt. Then continue in the footsteps of St Petersburg’s writers by stopping for coffee at Pushkin and Dostoevsky’s former haunt, the Literary Café.
Relive War and Peace in Catherine’s Palace
I remember the first time I walked into Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Catherine the Great, which is located just outside St Petersburg in Tsarskoye Selo (renamed under communist rule as ‘Pushkin Village’).
I stood in the centre of the vast ballroom encased in gold and mirrors, and at that moment it really did feel like I was stepping into the shoes of a character from War and Peace: Catherine’s Palace was, after all, the real-life setting of the Tsar’s ball in the novel.
The mosaics that encrust the walls of the Amber Room (not the originals, which were allegedly lost during the German occupation) are a reminder of the wealth and grandeur of 19th century Russian aristocrats. It’s a gilded world that Tolstoy portrays so acutely in War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
See Fabergé eggs in the Kremlin’s Armoury and Russian sacred art
Moving from St Petersburg to Moscow, there’s no better place to start than in Red Square (the name has no connection to the red bricks that were once whitewashed, nor to the red of the communist regime).
It’s a fascinating yet sobering place: as you stand outside the Kremlin and look towards the bright onion-shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, you can’t help but reflect how this very square has witnessed some dramatic political upheavals.
The Kremlin complex is extensive, but the most striking objects d’art are in the Armoury – intricately decorated and sometimes jewelled Fabergé eggs that the tsar and tsarina would exchange at Easter, along with many other artefacts, such as a coronation gown worn by Catherine the Great.
The Tretyakov Gallery is excellent for seeing how Russian art has developed over time, and for the chance to study some of the most important pre-revolutionary sacred art in Russia.
The highlight of the collection is the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublyov – an icon (a sacred painting on wood that often features as part of a screen in Orthodox churches) that was considered so glorious its creator was effectively beatified.
Travel on the metro… and quote Shakespeare
Moscow’s underground metro acts as a time machine, transporting you not only to your destination but back to the USSR. Many of the stations are home to original Soviet statues, monuments and mosaics – in fact, the first time I ever took the metro in Moscow I ended up intentionally missing my stop just so I could spend more time going round and gaping at the decor of each station.
I especially like the Prospekt Mira Station for its lavish floral designs that are meant to evoke the Botanical Gardens of Moscow State University. The recently opened Dostoyekskaya Station is worth viewing for its murals depicting passages from Dostoevsky’s novels (including a murder scene that invited some controversy when it was first unveiled).
This year, look out for the special carriages decorated with Shakespeare quotations and characters in honour of the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature and the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
Get a glimpse of rural Russia at Suzdal and visit Tolstoy’s estate
I fell in love with the Russian countryside when I lived and worked in Kaluga, three hours south of Moscow. Anyone who is really interested in Tolstoy should try to see something of rural Russia, since it’s a theme he explores so passionately through the character of Levin in Anna Karenina.
At Suzdal, one of the main villages of the Golden Ring northeast of Moscow, you can look out over rolling green fields and rivers before visiting the Museum of Peasant Life and Wooden Architecture. It gives an insight to a bygone agrarian way of life.
Tolstoy’s connection to and interest in agricultural life is apparent if you visit the estate where he was born and lived for most of his adulthood, writing in his characteristic cramped style, which his wife Sofia would then copy out neatly by night. Yasnaya Polyana (‘Bright Glade’) makes for a peaceful, if long, day trip from Moscow (it’s about a six-hour round drive). Yet it’s a wonderful retreat from urban bustle.
Tolstoy’s possessions and his extensive library are on display, and I suggest taking time to explore the grounds. You can see the pond where the writer would ice skate in winter and swim in summer, and the fields where he would work alongside labourers during the harvest season in order to better depict peasant life and farming on the page.
His grave, situated in a quiet dell, has no headstone – save for the bunches of wildflowers that are customarily left by newly married couples and admirers of his work.
Visit Audley Travel to help plan your trip to see Moscow, St Petersburg and the Golden Ring in Russia
Nick Slater is a Russia Specialist for Audley Travel. Audley trips don’t come off the shelf – they’re tailor-made down to the finest detail. When planning a trip with us, you will speak to a destination specialist who has either lived or travelled extensively within the country or region that you are visiting. They will create a bespoke trip based on your tastes, interests and budget and with an absolute commitment to providing quality travel experiences.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Audley Travel
Ah, Costa Brava – fresh green wheat fields, yellow rapeseed edged with poppies and views over the olive trees to the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance. These are the memories that we brought home from our recent short break, staying in a rustic luxury villa with our hire car to explore a new place each day.
Visiting pretty, painted Girona
Our first day was spent in Girona, the regional capital of Costa Brava. I’d visited a couple of times before and was looking forward to showing it to the family. (Read about my last visit to Lloret de Mar) Girona has a similar feel to its big sister Barcelona, but without the crowds of tourists and dare I say a more authentic Catalan flavour (we don’t talk about Spain here). There’s modern shopping if you want it, but I prefer to just wander around the old streets that surround the cathedral, stopping here and there for some people-watching on a café terrace. If you want the postcard shot of Girona, cross the bridge and walk along for a view of the coloured houses that overlook the river.
Lunch on the terrace at Konig
Our lunchtime spot was Konig (Carrer dels Calderers, 16), a well placed café below the Basilica de Sant Feliu with a large terrace overlooking the river where we could bask in the sunshine. They serve good quality local dishes, salads and pasta – nothing too gourmet, but tasty and not too expensive if you are feeding a large group of hungry offspring.
Is this the best gelato in the world?
For desert we fancied an ice cream so I led the troops across the river (admiring pretty painted houses), through the Plaça de la Independència and down the small street to find Rocambolesc (Carrer de Santa Clara, 50). Of course, I knew the gelato would be great, since it is run by the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca fame, a.k.a The best restaurant in the world if you believe these highly prized lists.
The six flavours of ice cream change with the season and come out of the machine in a piped swirl, Mr Whippy style. If you think that six choices may not be enough, even if they include coconut and violet, just look at the endless selection of toppings! The lady who served us reeled off her topping recommendations in just the same way as they recite the dishes when they serve you in Michelin star restaurants. I knew then that we were on to a good thing.
Pastries that ooze with cream at Casa Moner
Right across the street we were tempted into Casa Moner (Carrer de Santa Clara, 45), a local bakery chain that serves artizan breads and pastries. I bought one of their Xuixo signature pastries, a rolly-polly doughnut filled with custard cream, the kind that oozes out the sides and drips down your chin when you take a bite. Beyond the narrow shopfront there was a sizeable cafe area at the back where you could sit to enjoy all the cakes, but sadly that would have to wait for another day.
A trendy cycle cafe at Fabrica
Crossing over the red metal lattice of the Eiffel bridge (made by Gustave Eiffel a few years before he even thought of that tower in Paris) we headed back into the old town, having spotted on the map the old walls that encircle half of Girona. We hoped to find some steps to get up onto the path that leads along the top, but it took a coffee stop at the trendy cycle café, La Fábrica (Carrer de la Llebre, 3) to get directions to the start of the wall.
Walking the walls of Girona
Once up at the top, the path was an easy walk giving us views over the rooftops. We could effortlessly peep into windows below us and snoop on gardens and terraces. The path ran from one end of the old town to the other, with towers along the way where you could climb up for even more expansive views. We walked around 30 minutes to get from one end of the wall to the other and ended up behind the cathedral so I popped in to have a look around.
Majestic Girona Catheral
The cathedral was majestic and tranquil, with towering stone pillars and stained glass lit up by the sun. Photographs were not allowed inside and although many people had their mobile phones out I decided to respect that. Instead I’ll give you a shot of the cathedral cloister which I visited on my way out.
Staying at Mas Gorral with Charming Villas
I think it’s time to tell you something about our villa which was kindly provided by Charming Villas Catalonia. Set in the countryside a short drive from Figures, we were blown away by Mas Gorral. It’s an old farmhouse that has obviously been added to over the years although all in such authentic style that it’s difficult to tell what is centuries old and what is new.
The villa was set on the hillside so we had views over the countryside towards the snow capped Pyrenees and over the nearby village of Pontos, all terracotta roofs and narrow streets that you could just about get a car through.
Inside we had 5 spacious bedrooms with 3 bathrooms between us and a huge dining room and living room that featured natural stonework, colourful walls and antique furnishings. Local painted pottery mixed with Asian pieces, perhaps inspired by the owner’s travels. With quirky artworks, well kept gardens and a (bracingly fresh) pool this was the perfect place for our two families to share.
The Dali Theatre-Museum at Figueres
When in Costa Brava there’s no escaping that giant of 20th Century art, Salvador Dalí who was born just down the road from our villa at Figures. As we drove the hire car into town and circled to find parking I have to admit that Figueres looked unremarkable. We walked towards the red towers topped with white eggs of the museum and luckily got inside just before waves of French school children began to arrive.
The museum was created over 10 years in the old municipal theatre and was Dali’s personal project. He called in his artworks from all over the world and added art installations specially for the museum.
Entering the first couryard that would have been the theatre auditorium we found the Rainy Cadillac topped with a huge breasted and bellied goddess figure. Gold statues like Oscar awards looked down from the walls and a fishing boat was stranded at the top of a column of Michelin tyres – I saw those again at Dali’s house in Port Lligat. On the stage was another artwork the size of a cinema screen and in the niche to one side a nude figure of Dali’s wife Gala with her back turned – except when you cross your eyes or look at it through your camera you realise that it’s a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
The whole museum was packed full of artworks with that feeling of ‘it’s not quite what it seems’. I did buy the guidebook but didn’t read it until afterwards so it was an enjoyable game to just wander through the rooms, absorbing the impression without overthinking the meaning. At the end of the day it seems to be a projection of Dali’s rich subconsciousness and dreamworld.
Once you have left the main museum, there is the jewellery collection which is included in the same entrance ticket, full of most gorgeous bling. I coveted the ruby lips with pearl teeth and the red ruby heart brooch that has a mechanism inside so it literally beats.
Gala’s Castle at Pubol
After the Dali museum we decided there wasn’t an awful lot more to see in Figueres so we drove back to the villa where the rest of the crew decided to have a relaxing afternoon. Guy and I (OK it was mainly me) wanted a bit more of the Dali fix and so we drove south towards Girona to visit the Castle at Púbol that Dali gave to his wife Gala. It really was a beautiful drive on country roads with little traffic and only the occasional mishap when we inadvertantly drove through one of those old villages where the houses close in and the lanes became so narrow that you worry for your wing mirrors.
This fortified country house or castel was a gift that Dali had promised Gala years before, a place that she could come on her own and relax, where even her husband would have to request written permission to visit her (or so the story goes). Once the museum at Figures was nearly complete the couple were able to start work on the renovations for their new project which was designed to suit Gala’s taste with some of Dali’s surreal art such as the cupboard painted with radiators to disguise the real radiators.
The decoration here was luxurious but the overall effect simpler than the house we would see the next day at Port Lligat where the same amount of furniture was squashed into half the space. This was much more Gala’s retreat where she would come for a few weeks at a time to relax away from all the showmanshop that surrounded her husband.
Gala was an clearly an elegant woman, her hair swept back into a girlish style, which was pinned with a large black velvet bow. Since I used to work in fashion, I loved looking at Gala’s dresses on display upstairs from the 50s and 60s, purchased from designers such as Pierre Cardin and Elsa Schiaparelli. Her dresses show her loved colour, luxurious fabrics and the subtle sparkle of lurex.
Driving tips for Costa Brava with Auto Europe
If you are staying in a villa as we were and want to see something of Costa Brava, you really need a hire car and ours was kindly provided by Auto Europe. The pickup and drop off at Girona airport was painless and we found that the roads easy to navigate, with much less traffic than we are used to in the overcrowded UK. It really made the driving a pleasure to pass fields full of wildflowers and yellow rapeseed edged with poppies. Of course in the high summer by the coast it might get a bit crazy, but away from the coast I suspect that even in high season these country roads are an easy drive.
The only thing I would advise with a hire car is to avoid the centre of older towns and village centres that were not really made for cars. In Girona or Cadaques, we found that when you get close to the centre it’s best to park in the first public car park you see and walk into the old centre. Beware also of the small country villages which normally have a route that goes around them as well as a road that goes through them. The streets can be incredibly narrow, as we found out accidentally on a couple of occasions, so drive around if you can. You can check out my driving tips for Costa Brava in the video below.
The wild Costa Brava at Cadaques
Our final day was blessed with glorious sunshine at Cadaques, an old fishing town that’s now quite a tourist hotspot on the wild and rocky Cap de Creus. You drive on a winding road that snakes up through the unspoiled natural park, and brings you down the other side to Cadaques.
Parking the hire car in the first main car park we saw as we came into town was the right decision as there was little space to pass in the smaller roads close to the beach. We walked around the seafront away from the busiest terrace restaurants and cafes and found a smaller place that had been recommended to me called Enoteca MF. It’s the wine bar and tapas restaurant that’s run by the same family that has a vineyard and winery set above Cadaques called Sa Perafita which you pass on the way into town.
They serve fabulous tapas with the seafood being especially fresh and delicious. We tried a bit of everything including a bottle or two of their Cava and a glass of the local Vermouth which is the fashionable drink of the moment in Catalunya. There was the pan tomat rubbed with tomato and garlic, a plate of local cheeses, red tuna sashimi and a salmon tartare topped with guacamole. We were impressed to see the staff peeling a huge bowl of pink shrimps which were then pulverised to make a shrimp carpaccio. It was enough to melt the heart of the most avid opponent of raw fish.
After lunch we walked up the lane beside the wine bar and in 10 minutes were overlooking the next bay at Port Lligat, a small fishing bay where Dali spent most of the time with his wife Gala. The house was created by knocking together a number of fishing huts and then extending them over the years. Because the individual rooms are so small you need to book timed tickets in advance (in April we were able to get them the day before).
Although there were not many large scale artworks here, Dali’s vision was felt everywhere although the dried yellow ‘everlasting’ flowers were in almost every room, a favourite of Gala’s. Dali’s art studio was one of the largest spaces with light flooding in and an easel that could be moved up and down so that Dali could always paint sitting down on his chair.
We moved from room to room, up a few steps each time since the different cottages were on different levels and emerged on a lovely terrace, with whitewashed stonework, pots of flowering plants and olive trees providing shade. The surprise was that they’d cleverly fitted in a swimming pool on the terrace with a round section and narrow channel for swimming up and down.
Since not all of our group had visited the Dali house, we joined the rest enjoying a drink at the Es Raco d’en Dani Xiringuito at the other end of the beach – another offshoot of the Sa Perafita winery. There was plenty of seafood on the menu and although we stuck to the beers and coffee the waft of grilled octopus was mouthwatering.
Rather reluctantly we walked back over the headland to Cadaques and wandered around the artisan market where we bought olive bread and pastries from the Cas Mona stand that we had seen in Girona.
What a fabulous break we’d had but the next day it was time to return to Girona airport for our flight home. Still we managed a quick trip to the Sunday market at nearby Bascara to buy some salad and rotisserie chicken for lunch on the terrace.
As we basked in the warm sun I think we were all trying to soak it up and take a little piece of Costa Brava sunshine home with us.
Have you been to Costa Brava or Catalunya and if so, what did you enjoy?
Read more about Costa Brava
Visitor Information for Costa Brava
Thanks to Charming Villas Catalonia for providing our villa Mas Gorral near Figueres. Charming Villas specialise in luxury and character villas in Catalonia from rustic villas in the countryside to modern coastal villas. They have over 80 villas to choose from and as Richard and his wife who run the company are based locally they are able to help with planning your holiday and on hand to sort out any issues.
Thanks to Auto Europe for providing our hire car for exploring Costa Brava. Auto Europe work with 20,000 car rental locations in 180 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, as well as North and South America.