The Costa Brava is rich in spoils to explore, from its rugged coastline, secret calas and Roman ruins to windswept vineyards and natural parks. But its lesser explored heart belongs to the artists who have found inspiration in the region.
The wind-tossed coast and ever-shifting light of this part of the Catalan coastline are familiar protagonists in the paintings of Dalí, Chagall, and Picasso. The artists’ studies of the landscape reveal the powerful influence of place in their work, and none was more connected to the Costa Brava than Surrealist Salvador Dalí. Those who want to know his work intimately can journey to what is known as the Dalí triangle, in reference to the three iconic locations on Catalunya’s Costa Brava where Dalí lived and worked: Figueres, Púbol, and Portlligat.
Dalí grew up in Figueres and spent his summers in Cadaqués, just 35 kilometres north, although he didn’t spend his whole life on the Costa Brava. Born in 1904, Dalí came of age during a time of heady progress for the art world. He travelled first to art academy in Madrid in 1920 and later to Paris in 1929, where he worked alongside Picasso, Magritte, and fellow Catalan Joan Miró. The experience marked his first step toward Surrealism. It was in Paris that, in 1934, he met his future wife Gala—née Elena Dmitrievna Diakonova—a Russian immigrant who became Dalí’s business manager and his muse. They travelled to the United States at the height of Franco’s regime and returned to the Costa Brava in 1948, where they remained until their deaths.
Once a fishing village, Cadaqués is now a thriving tourist destination, packed in the summer and beloved by locals in all seasons. One kilometre north sits Portlligat, the tiny Mediterranean village where Dalí lived from 1930 until Gala’s death in 1982. His home, a former fishing hut, stands in a small cove at the edge of Portlligat Bay, a two-mile walk along the beach from Cadaqués. Its whitewashed walls and tawny roof tiles are its only traditional aspects. The inside is pure Dalí, sparse yet brightened by the splashes of colour and unusual objets d’art that defined his work.
The home itself, as well the surrounding area, were a strong influence on his work. In a 1919 letter, he refers to Cadaqués as an “ideal and fantastic village,” using language that melds the real with the surreal, a suggestive hint of the artist he would become. His canvas entitled ‘View of Cadaqués with Shadow of Mount Pani’, painted when he was just 13, reveals his idealised vision of place. The palette is the pinky-gold of sunset, the collection of rough brushstrokes a romanticised impression of the whitewashed village. That it was painted on burlap instead of canvas—the material of boat makers—further marks the extent to which the local landscape would become complicit in Dalí’s work.
Púbol, an hour south of Portlligat and 20 minutes’ drive from the sea, seems made to seduce visitors with its old stone buildings, narrow winding streets, and ivy-covered walls. It is also home to the castle that Dalí bought for his wife in 1962. He envisioned it as a continuation of his home in Portlligat yet fully dedicated to his love for Gala, a place where “she would reign like an absolute sovereign” and which became her final resting place.
The castle dates from the 14th century—its foundations are 300 years older—and is inflected with Dalí’s creative genius. The ill repair in which he found the building was used in small ways to showcase his work, the space and his art working in harmony. While the couple undertook restoration, collapsed walls structured the home into unusual spaces and became Dalí’s canvas. The effect is surprising: a large and impersonal space becomes intimate in unexpected ways. Hand-painted frescos and surrealist touches throughout the castle clearly bear the artist’s signature fingerprint.
Forty kilometres north of Girona and 140 kilometres from Barcelona, Figueres is a good central point from which to explore the Costa Brava. Connected to the high-speed rail, it is an easy day trip from Barcelona. It’s also a good ending point for those exploring the Dalí triangle. Not only is it the burial place of the artist—he died there aged 84 in 1989—but also the home to his museum and theatre, which holds the widest range of his work. Dalí built the museum in 1974 on the foundation of the Municipal Theatre, which held the first exhibition of his work. It stands opposite the church where he was baptised and just blocks from the home where he was born, bringing visitors full circle through his life.
Despite a troubled past—it survived a fire in 1271 and the bombings of the Civil War as a Republican stronghold—the city has gone on to become a prosperous tourist town that retains the charms of an ancient city. The austere castle of Sant Ferran stands on a hill high above the city and the church of Saint Peter, where Dalí’s family attended, is a striking study in Gothic architecture.
The Teatro-Museo is considered Dalí’s last great work, conceived and designed by the artist to transport visitors to the heart of his hallucinatory Surrealism. It holds over 1500 works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, installations, holograms, stereographs and photographs with his crypt at its centre, the artist’s final resting place. The Costa Brava stands time immemorial in the artist’s work but also as a memorial to the artist himself, who lives on in the spaces which shaped him.