“I could lie here and look at those mountains for hours” said Guy, as he sank into the easy chair in the corner of our bedroom. From Mas Gorral, our villa in Costa Brava, we could look over the countryside to the Pyrenees, the rising sun lighting up the teracotta rooftiles and the mellow stone of the farmhouses in the distance. The small town of Pontos lay below us, with birds chirping and a view of the pine forest where we never did manage to go for a walk. These are the memories that you bring back from a holiday and turn over in your mind when it’s raining in Bristol!
We were staying at Mas Gorral through Charming Villas Catalonia, a company that specialises in luxury villas that are full of character, in the Costa Brava region of Catalunya. Richard and Sara who run the company are based nearby in Besalu and give the villas a personal touch, helping you choose the villa that suits your needs and are on hand to sort out any issues that arise.
I hope you enjoy the video below about Mas Gorral with Charming Villas Catalonia
Rustic Chic in our Costa Brava Villa
Our five bedroom villa, Mas Gorral was an old rambling farmhouse that easily accommodated our party of nine, made up of our family as well as Guy’s sister and family. I enjoyed imagining the history of this place, how rooms had been added to over the years, to suit the needs and ambitions of various owners. With everything built of local stone, bound together by ochre mortar, teracotta roof tiles and green creepers clothing the walls, it was difficult to tell what was original and what was modern.
Inside the theme was rustic chic, with mottled plaster walls left natural in places, in others painted creams and yellows. Exposed beams held up the ceiling with stone sinks in the kitchen and three bathrooms. Every room was huge, with imposing antique armoires and chests of drawers to match the scale of the house.
Quirky artwork and furnishings
From the eclectic furnishings I imagined that the owners had travelled far and wide; a black Chinese laquer cupboard, a carved Asian wooden chest and a large leather topped desk that wouldn’t be out of place in an English gentleman’s library. The quirky feel continued in the bold, colourful artworks – verging on the surreal, and inspired perhaps by Salvador Dali who was born just down the road in Figueres.
On the landing a larger-than-life lady in an aviator’s helmet, surrounded by startled cherubs; is she kissing one of them or trying eat it? The long legs of a woman diving into a hat were propped near the kitchen and in the dining room we are greeted by the back of a reclining woman with ripples of creamy flesh.
A bracing swim in the pool
On the green lawn below the house, our swimming pool overlooked the valley and the forest. Being from England we are determined to make the most of every ray of sunshine and the girls were dressed as if for the hottest of August days in skimpy tops, loose flowing skirts and strappy sandals. They lay on the sunloungers ignoring the tramontana wind but after a while were forced to retreat to a more sheltered spot on the upper terrace.
We gathered around the pool daring each other to go in. A toe dipped in the water told us it was not going to be warm, it was April after all! My son took a plunge and dive bombed in, splashing everyone else. Then the girls followed, surfacing from the cold water, eyes wide with the shock. A brisk couple of lengths and they ran back inside for a hot shower!
Lunch on the sunny terrace
In the entrance hall hung a row of straw hats, waiting to be borrowed for a snooze in the sun or a walk around the garden. Although it was only April, the sun shone for us and we took full advantage of the warmth for lunches al fresco on the sheltered terrace. Feeling the sun on your back in the springtime when there’s still blossom on the fruit trees and wildflowers in the fields is one of the pleasures of being in Costa Brava.
After a day of walking the town walls in Girona, a seaside jaunt to Cadaques or a Dali inspired visit to Figueres we’d return to Mas Gorral to loll around on the white cotton sofas in the barn-like sitting room. Our hire car from Auto Europe was despatched to the local supermarket to return with mountains of food and all the cousins decided what we would eat and cooked it together.
Time for dinner at the long table
Later books would be cleared from the long wooden table where the girls had been working on university assignments and the table was laid for dinner. During the day we’d tried the local specialities; dreamy ice cream from Rocambolesc in Girona, seafood tapas and local wine at Enoteca MF in Cadaques. But in the evening we’d fall back on our home-cooked favourites, chicken kebabs barbecued on the terrace or mountains of meatballs and pasta.
On our last evening, however we took inspiration from the staff at Enoteca MF in Cadaques who we saw peeling a huge pile of red shrimps which were pulverised to make a shrimp carpaccio. In our version it was seafood linguine but the cousins pitched in to peel all the prawns from the supermarket.
Wine and cards in front of the fire
After a candle-lit dinner around the huge table, the fire was lit to take away the evening chill and we sat around playing cards and drinking local wine. The house became a backdrop for family conversations, catching up on news, planning bright futures. The card games were fircely contested, but at the end it’s not about the winning or losing but about the time we spend together. With our children flying the nest to carve their own paths in the world, these memories of time spent together become ever more precious.
All too soon it was time to leave our lovely villa at Mas Gorral. The views over the garden are still there, the teracotta roofs of Pontas below the house and the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance, waiting for the next guest.
As we reluctantly handed back the keys to Richard and drove to the airport past fields of yellow rapeseed scattered with poppies, the sun on the terrace was still warm in our memory. We’d had a chance to catch up, to cook together and splash in the pool. We’d recharged and soaked up the sunshine and made some memories to take home. Isn’t that what holidays are all about?
Have you any favourite holidays memories of spending time with your family? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
More memories from Costa Brava
Plan your stay in 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 Sara who run the company are based locally they are able to help with planning your holiday and on hand to sort out any issues.
Mas Gorral has 5 double bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, plenty of living space, a terrace, large garden and swimming pool. You can rent Mas Gorral through Charming Villas with rental rates starting in May at €2500 per week, rising to €3750 per week in high season. As Mas Gorral is in a rural location, we recommend that you hire a car to get around.
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.
Lloret de Mar on the Spanish Costa Brava is a holiday resort that holds a certain memory for many UK travellers. “That’s where I went for my first holiday abroad!” exclaimed my mother, now in her 70s, who visited on a coach tour in the early 1960s when she was a young nurse and Lloret was a pretty fishing village. In more recent years Lloret has gained a reputation as the place for a cheap holiday in the sun and while my son and his girlfriend had both been there on sports tours, neither of them seemed to spend any time playing sport! It seemed that everyone knew of Lloret de Mar, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
Towns like Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar expanded quickly in the tourist boom of the 1960s when many of the elegant mansions that lined the sea front were demolished to make way for multi-storey apartment blocks. This was a town that in the 19th century prospered from the wealth of those who left to seek their fortune in Cuba and returned as Los Americanos – the ones who had made it big in the Americas.
The Museu del Mar
Curious to discover more about the old Lloret de Mar, I visited the Museu del Mar on the seafront, one of the few remaining old houses on the seafront that was built by one such Americanos who had made his fortune in Cuba, which now tells the story of Lloret de Mar. The rooms of the museum were beautifully decorated with painted panels in green, red and yellow and coloured floor tiles from Valencia laid in intricate patterns.
Our guide Joaquim showed us around the museum and explained how the ‘Cabotage’ trade up and down the Spanish coast had expanded after 1778 when direct trade across the Atlantic was allowed from Lloret de Mar. The beaches that are now enjoyed by sunbathers and families were used at that time as shipyards to build the ships that would cross the Atlantic to bring back rum, sugar, coffee and tobacco.
In the 19th century many people from Lloret emigrated to the Spanish colony of Cuba, often at the age of only 13 or 14, to join relatives who would give them their first job. They set up small bodegas or import export businesses and those that made their fortune would return to Lloret de Mar to build fine houses in the town and marry local girls. The term Americano or Indiano was given to a rich man who had made his money abroad, but if any returned without making money it was joked that they had ‘lost their suitcase in the straits of Gibraltar’.
The Daiquiri Cocktail – the drink of Lloret de Mar
Another tradition that originates with the Cuban connection is the Daiquiri cocktail which is now considered the cocktail of Lloret de Mar. The drink was invented by Constanti Ribalaigua who emigrated to Cuba from Lloret in 1914 and opened the Floredita bar in Havana. The bar became the fashionable place to drink, with the stars of the day such as Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway coming to drink their daiquiri. When you’re in Lloret you can pick up a tapas and daquiri guide to all the bars in town where the cocktail is served or view it online here and I enjoyed my daiquiri cocktail at a special demonstration by Lloret’s most famous cocktail maker, Manuel Casademont of Bar Hula Hula.
Around the historic centre of Lloret de Mar
My exploration of the old Lloret de Mar continued as I wandered along the sandy promenade of Passeig Jacint Verdaguer that was being used for a petanque tournament, reaching the neo-classical town hall. In the square set behind the promenade was the 16th century parish church of Sant Roma, its fortress-like stone tower in contrast to the colourful modernist style of the side chapel beside it, built in 1916 with decorative turrets and domes.
Continuing my walk along the promenade I climbed up to Dona Marinera or Seafarer’s wife sculpture, which represents all those women who looked out to sea for their menfolk, the fishermen or those who had gone overseas to make their fortune. If you are at one of the summer festivals in Costa Brava you may catch a performance of the Havaneros, the mechancolic songs named after the capital of Cuba and sung by those who were missing their loved ones across the ocean.
From this viewpoint I could look across the bay towards the small d’en Plaja castle built in 1935 as a neo-gothic folly and now one of the most photographed landmarks of the town. Turning away from the apartment blocks of the main beach I skirted the headland to discover a rocky coastline with turquoise water, much more the ‘wild’ Costa Brava coastline I’d been hoping for.
The Santa Clotilde Gardens
I had planned to continue along some cliff path but here the path ran out, so I used the map on my phone to guide me for a 20 minute walk through residential areas, until I reached the gardens of Santa Clotilde. This was truly a different side of Lloret de Mar, a tranquil green haven with terraces and sea vistas, interspersed with statues, pools and fountains. The gardens were commissioned in 1919 by the Marquis de Roviralta, named after his wife Clotilde, and his family still use the house overlooking the sea as a holiday home although the gardens are now maintained by the town council.
The garden was made in the Italian renaissance style with formal hedges and shrubs, punctuated by the tall columns of cyprus reaching for the sky. All the steps were fringed with ivy and beautiful sculptures graced the steps and terraces, with bronze mermaid statues created by sculptress Maria Ilimona Benet. From the top of the garden we walked through the pergola dripping with wisteria and down the pathways until we were overlooking the beach below, which can be accessed from a path near the entrance to the garden.
I noticed that there are other gardens in the area such as the Pinya de Rosa Botanical Gardens and the Marimurta botanical gardens which can be reached on a garden route of bus, tourist train and the boat that runs between Blanes and Lloret de Mar. Take the bus from outside the Lloret town hall and buy a combination ticket that covers both the transport and the garden entrance. The Lloret card which you can buy in town also allows free entrance to the Santa Clotilde Gardens as well as several other museums including the Museu del Mar.
On my walk through Lloret I felt I’d discovered a different side to the town, the connections with Cuba that have shaped the town and the beautiful wild coastline. Personally I’d avoid the bright lights of the nightclubs and take the time to explore beyond the obvious, and of course drink a daiquiri or two to remember the ‘Americanos’ who brought their fortunes back to Lloret.
Where to stay in Lloret de Mar
While in Loret de Mar I stayed at the Evenia Olympic Palace Hotel where the TBEX travel blogger’s conference was being held. The hotel is part of a large resort complex comprising 4 hotel buildings with large pool areas and had excellent conference facilities. Although I typically prefer smaller boutique hotels, I was pleasantly surprised by my spacious and well furnished room with a modern bathroom and seating area.
The hotel is set in a residential area, around 20 minutes walk from the seafront and the food we ate as part of the conference was excellent. The other guests were mainly French families, and I would recommend this hotel for families looking for a good value sunshine break in Lloret de Mar. The rate for rooms in May and June starts from around £60 per night.
For boutique luxury – Hotel Sant Pere del Bosc
I also visited the gorgeous Hotel Sant Pere del Bosc which is set in the hills above Lloret de Mar for drinks and dinner as part of the conference, although I did not stay there. The hotel was originally a monastery but was bought in the early 1900s by Nicolau Font, a wealthy local businessman who had made his fortune in Cuba. When he returned to settle in Lloret de Mar, he added the chapel, tower and the house which was opened as a restaurant and boutique hotel in 2000.
We were treated to the amazing specialities of the hotel including smoky grilled mussels and creamy potato soup topped with smoked caviar, which were created on a special ‘gastro-grill’ that we were shown in the hotel kitchens. Each of the individually designed hotel rooms is themed after a notable woman and I especially liked the Diane Fossey room which had antique leather furnishings with an ‘out of Africa feel’ together with an amazing sink shaped from a piece of polished wood. The hotel is set above the town in an area of protected woodland so you’ll either need a car to get up the gravel road or take a taxi and then stay put for a few days enjoying the peace and natural beauty. This is just the kind of hotel I’d love to relax with my husband for a romantic getaway.
Visitor Information for Lloret de Mar and the region
I visited Lloret de Mar as part of the TBEX blogger conference and some of the experiences described were provided by the tourism board as part of the conference.
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Sir Francis Drake was born on a farm just a few miles from Buckland Abbey in Devon, a National Trust property that we visited while staying for the weekend at the Moorland Garden Hotel. From modest beginnings, ‘El Draco’ had grown up to become a buccaneer (that’s a polite word for pirate), great Elizabethan naval commander and scourge of the Spanish Empire in Central America where he attacked their ships and stole their gold at every opportunity.
Since Queen Elizabeth I was one of his backers, she was thrilled when Drake returned to England in 1580 with his ship, the Golden Hind, laden with Spanish treasure, of which she would take the lion’s share. Drake was knighted as a reward and bought Buckland Abbey with just a small part of his bounty, adopting as his motto ‘Sic Parvis Magna’ – from small beginnings come great things.
Buckland Abbey’s more recent claim to fame is the Rembrandt self-portrait which came to the property in 2010 as a legacy. Until recently the painting was thought to be a portrait of the artist by one of his pupils or a copy of one of his originals. A visit by the Rembrandt expert, Professor Ernst van de Wetering, prompted a reconsideration of the painting and investigations started to see if it could be a genuine self-portrait.
The now confirmed Rembrandt ‘Selfie’ is housed in a ground floor exhibition room at the abbey, with fascinating information about all the detective work that went into establishing that it was the real thing. The portrait has an element of the dressing up box about it, with the artist in a flamboyant cap with ostrich feather, flowing velvet cape and gold chain, using the ‘Tronie’ style of Dutch painting in which people were portrayed as historic or mythological characters.
We watched a video explaining the reasons that the portrait was agreed by art experts to be genuine, such as the fact that the signature had been made when the rest of the paint was still wet, rather than added afterwards. It also appears to have been written rather carelessly, with the artist running out of space so that he left off the D in his name, something you might not dare do if you were a forger.
Xrays and infra-red photography showed how the shape of the figure was blocked out on the canvas, which was a typical technique Rembrandt used and an analysis of the pigments showed they were consistent for the period.
After painstaking research, analysis and cleaning, the self-portrait was found to be genuine and now takes pride of pace in the centre of the exhibition room, where you can see the back with original labels and markings, as well as the front.
On arrival at Buckland Abbey we walked down into the Ox Yard, where old farm buildings now house craft workshops and a room where you can see a video about Sir Francis Drake. The shop and restaurant are in what was once the old monastic guest house.
Buckland Abbey was, as the name suggests, originally founded in 1273 as a monastery by Amicia, the Countess of Devon, in memory of her son who had been murdered. She endowed the monastery and large estates in Devon to the Cistercian order who divided their time between spiritual devotions and agricultural labours, especially sheep farming.
The Great Barn, which sits right beside the main house, was built at this time and is one of the largest of the period with oak roof beams arching 60 feet above you as you enter. It was built to store the farm produce, its sheer size indicating the wealth and productivity of the abbey estates and is often used for workshops and events like carol singing at Christmas.
Since we were there in the late autumn, we found that apples from the estate were being pressed to make cider, the group of volunteers only taking up a small space of the huge barn.
After King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the abbey buildings and estate were sold to Sir Richard Grenville whose heirs converted the monastic buildings including the church into a private home. Sir Francis Drake moved to Buckland in 1582, the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth aged 39, already famous for his 3 year circumnavigation of the world and his exploits in the New World.
We enjoyed a look around the various galleries in the house where portraits and objects from the house’s history are on display. Pride of place in the Treasures Gallery on the first floor is taken by Drake’s Drum, which he took on his naval voyages and is said to sound whenever England is in danger. To the side of this main display room was the oak panelled Drake’s Chamber, filled with oak furniture and portraits of the period, just as it might have looked in Drake’s day.
Along the corridor we moved on 200 years as we walked into the Georgian Dining Room, while up the stairs to the top floor was the Long Gallery, dominated by a huge statue of Sir Francis Drake. This long, open space was used in Tudor times for the inhabitants to get some indoor exercise and we found information about life on board the ships that Drake might have sailed and the lives of the Cistercian monks.
Back on the ground floor were the Tudor kitchens, laid out with 18th century cooking utensils and foods as if preparing for the dinner party upstairs. The final part of the tour was through the Great Hall, created in 1576 by Sir Richard Grenville when he converted the monastery into a house. Apparently the nave of the old church where the monks were buried sits under the pink and white tiled floor of the Great Hall.
Our tour finished, we came out of the house and back into the beautiful formal gardens, inspired by Tudor knot hedges filled with roses and a small orchard of apple trees. If we’d had more time, we could also have taken a walk around the Buckland Abbey estate through the great deer park and woodland where wild garlic and bluebells bloom in the spring.
If you are on the western edge of Dartmoor visiting Tavistock or Plymouth, do stop in to Buckland Abbey for a big slice of Devon’s history and to find more about Sir Francis Drake and the Rembrandt selfie.
If you go: Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6EY, Tel: 01822 853607
Closed in January, re-opens 14 February 2015. Open daily 11-4 in winter, 10:30-5:30 in spring/summer. Admission Adult £11, Child £5.50. (check website for more details) Follow on Social Media: Twitter @BucklandAbbeyNT | Facebook | Instagram |Thanks to the National Trust who gave Heather and Guy complimentary admission to Buckland Abbey.
Where to stay:
Heather and Guy stayed at Moorland Garden Hotel which is close by at Yelverton – read my review here. The hotel is an ideal base for those wanting to explore the area for walking on Dartmoor or to visit the Ocean City of Plymouth. The rooms are all decorated in colourful style using a garden and moorland theme and the award winning Wildflower restaurant is highly recommend for lunch, dinner or cream teas overlooking the lawns.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey