Driving the surreal life

The landscape of Spain’s Costa Brava proved inspirational to Surrealist Salvador Dali, as well as latter-day visitor Paul Chai.

The dreamscapes of Salvador Dali appear plucked from the recesses of his (quite possibly disturbed) mind, but many are based in fact – and that fact is Cadaqués on the Catalan coast. Cadaqués is on the Costa Brava, which was first discovered by beach-happy Brits in the early 1960s as they fled the UK’s bitter cold, but was later forgotten as the Costa del Sol took over as the destination of choice for lobster-red holidaymakers from Blighty.

I first travelled to the Costa Brava in 1997 and had quite a surreal time myself, thanks primarily to sleep deprivation. A thick fog – in Spain’s early summer – diverted our plane and sentenced me to a night on the airport’s hard metal benches. When the car rental company reopened the following morning, the drive was less of a road trip and more of a controlled sprint to my bed, where I spent the next 12 hours.

Since my first trip, Dali’s original residence – a collection of fishing huts in the village of Port Lligat – has been converted into a museum so it is with more than mild anticipation that I head to Spain’s north-east coast once again.

Day 1 Barcelona – CadaquÉs, 130km

My plane lands fog free this time in Barcelona and I hit the E-15 north. It is a featureless main road, but I recall that the vertiginous approach to Cadaqués takes time so I avoid the slower coast road and exit the highway at Figueres. This is the birthplace of Surrealism’s favourite son, but I am using Cadaqués as my base because of its relaxed, seaside appeal. Cadaqués is reached by a curling ribbon of road that weaves through lush olive groves clinging tenaciously to the rocky ground, the trees’ roots gripping like gnarled claws. It is only about 20 kilometres but it is slow going.

Out of the verdant hills comes a shock of white as the afternoon sun hits the town; a horseshoe of chalky residences are dominated, as so many of the region’s towns are, by a large church, its central circular window looking down on the town like a watchful eye.

The church needn’t worry. We find the seaside town below not so much sleepy as comatose, abandoned bicycles resting against doorways, bathers lying on colourful towels on the petite crescent beach beneath a bronze Dali statue. At the beach’s southern corner a handful of fishing boats haul in the day’s catch and our choice of dinner destination is sealed as we watch one of the fishermen carry a box of fresh seafood across to one of the bayside eateries.

Later, the town comes to life. Cadaqués is more than just Dali – its laneways are replete with boutiques and art galleries displaying the works of young local artists and graffiti-covered roller doors are lifted to reveal vibrant local bars with glass-topped counters holding a wide array of tapas.

We take the short drive to the southern end of town to the Hotel Rocamar, a traditional white-stone villa sitting on top of a hill surveying the bay below. Our room is cavernous, with a cream-tiled floor and a large double bed with dark wood Spanish doors serving as an ad hoc bedhead. The curtains are rarely closed against the view of cerulean water lapping against the jagged rocks and it is from this vantage point that the area’s influence is apparent. Although it lacks elephants balancing on spindly stilted legs or burning giraffes, the landscape is unmistakably Dali.

The young artist used to wander the coastline, once finding a rotting whale carcass. The image infused his work, most notably in The Great Masturbator. Along the quiet road into Cadaqués the barbed rocks are familiar from many of his canvases while the town itself features in many early expressionist paintings. Later, we return to the restaurant we earmarked earlier, where we are presented with a paella brimming with the catch of the day, plump mussels and succulent prawns matched by the smoky, slightly bitter, aroma of Spanish paprika and perfectly cooked rice.

Day 2 Port Lligat – Cap de Creus, 7km

Dali moved to the postage-stamp-sized fishing village of Port Lligat in 1948, where the artist and his wife (and muse) Gala lived until her death in 1982. He made his home in a small fishing hut and in time he purchased the surrounding huts and joined them together so that these days his sprawling home constitutes most of the village.

During the 1960s, Dali was “rediscovered” by the hippie generation and his home became a pilgrimage for artists and fans. Opposite his home stands the Hotel Port Lligat, built specifically to house visitors as Gala would not let anyone stay in their home.

On my first visit to Port Lligat in 1997, Dali’s home was closed to the public and all a friend and I could do was give each other a boost up onto the fence where we had the tantalising glimpse of four snow-white, three-foot-high eggs sitting on the roof as if awaiting some giant toast soldiers. Now this is the Casa-Museu Dali. The museum only allows small groups (about eight people) to enter at a booked time because most of the house is just as the great artist left it, including a studio with an unfinished canvas. Dali’s whimsy is visible everywhere. Birds in various states of taxidermied flight; a fountain made of liqueur bottles in the shape of toreadors set beside the phallic pool.

Minds abuzz, we contemplate heading back to Cadaqués but instead follow the road further north towards Cap de Creus. The road is reed-thin and dusty and the trees vanish, leaving a barren moonscape of pitted rocks, many with sharp, rust-red peaks. It appears inhospitable and we almost turn back when we are given a sign – a “Bar” sign to be exact. Just that single word scrawled on the side of a large rock with an arrow beneath. An adventurous hour later our perseverance is rewarded.

The bar in question is perched on the furthermost point of a cliff that overlooks the rocky bay and a fine dusting of low-lying cloud gives the vista a Scottish Highlands feel. A second bony finger of land pokes out beside it, the crumbing ruins of a lighthouse at its tip receding into the sea piece by piece.

On the tiled terrace sits a handful of wicker chairs for those brave enough to weather the wind, which is so strong that one of them scrapes its way towards us on a particularly stiff breeze. Dogs, scruffy large ones and small terriers yap excitedly at our arrival; the bar has no name that we can see. We peer in and find the warm timber interior inviting us to take our chances. A crisp salad and tortilla, the inside warm and runny, the potatoes firm and earthy, and a glass of vino tinto are the reward for our curiosity. It is a fittingly unusual end to the day and we return to Cadaqués for the night.

Day 3 ScadaquÉs - Figueres 47km

After a second night at the Rocamar, we head to Figueres. When we arrive, the dusty rambla of Dali’s youth is nothing but a memory, replaced by a bustling mini-metropolis. It is clear the town’s main industry is, quite simply, Dali. His work adorns everything from tea towels to coasters; cafe tables are sculpted into the familiar form of melting watches.

Having steeped myself in the lore of the artist’s early life, I am a little disappointed by the rampant commercialism. But Dali himself is to blame. He is one of the few artists lucky enough to design his own museum and he chose his home town. The Teatre-Museu Dali was finished on September 28, 1974, and in a Field of Dreams moment – when he built it, they certainly came. It is now the second most-visited museum in Spain behind Madrid’s Museo del Prado. His body also lies within the museum’s walls.

It is impossible to miss the terracotta building with studded walls topped with his trademark person-sized eggs. Most town corners have a sign that funnels you through the small streets and lanes that lead to Placa Gala-Salvador Dali. The museum is surrounded by a courtyard ringed by outdoor cafes filled with those heading to, or leaving, the museum. The building itself is a 3-D painting guarded by an army of twisted figures and circled by harshly trimmed hedges that mimic the artist’s reedy moustache.

But the exterior of the building is just the garnish. It is the body of work that shows his unique genius – although his most well-known paintings are littered around the United States. The Dalinian Sistine chapel that houses the most striking work has as its centrepiece a nine-metre high backdrop from Labyrinth, a ballet he conceived in the 1940s based on the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne. At one end of the room is the enormous painting Gala Nude Looking at the Sea, Which, at a Distance of Eighteen Meters, Is Transformed Into a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko), which is exactly what it does. Nearby in the open courtyard is the famous installation Rainy Taxi from 1939. An old car that, for a few cents, will release a jet of water inside; the water keeps the ivy alive, which in turn feeds the snails that live within; the two shopfront mannequins that sit inside, mouldy and covered in snail slime, are anyone’s guess. Above are more golden figures, their arms out in a pleading gesture as more ivy climbs the walls to the blue Catalan sky. Also of interest is the Hall of Masterpieces, which holds much of Dali’s private collection of works by artists who inspired him, such as Marcel Duchamp.

You can see why the cafes are so full in the plaza. After such a sensory overload there is little to do but sit and try to take in the museum’s effect.

Dali considered it “a gigantic surrealist object, everything in it is coherent, there is nothing which escapes the net of my understandings.” Although the experience itself is wonderful and travelling around Dali’s one-time home gives glimpses of what drove him, one thing is for sure: I am clearly fishing with a different net.

Guide to spain

Where to stay
Hotel Rocamar
Double with sea view
from $210. Cadaqués; +34 972 258 154

Teatre-Museu Dali
$14 entry; open from 10.30am to 6pm.
Gala-Salvador Dali Square, 5, Figueres
+34 972 677 500

Casa-Museu Dali
Port Lligat

$10 entry. Reservations are mandatory; small groups only are permitted.
+34 972 251 015

For more information see Spanish Tourism at



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