Well hello, Dali. I’m outside the surrealist master’s house overlooking the bay of Port Lligat in the Girona region of northeast Spain, and I’m fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition by following in the unlikely footsteps of Russell Harty of all people. For it was the Yorkshire-born TV presenter who, in 1973, stayed with artist Salvador Dali and his wife Gala for several days at his home and filmed the bizarre encounter for an Emmy-winning Aquarius documentary. The moustachioed painter played up for the camera a treat, “baptising” local children like some Catalonian pope and throwing his nonplussed pet ocelot into a swimming pool, but the footage of the quirky, sprawling, whitewashed buildings was just as memorable.
I vowed to go there one day, and it proved worth the wait. My wife and I with our three children are among a party of ten people on a pre-booked guided tour of the house and grounds, and we are blown away by the combination of the beautiful and the bonkers both inside and out – such as iconic giant egg statues on the rooftop, and a stuffed polar bear as a lampstand/walking-stick-holder in the entrance hall.
The 90-minute tour takes us through the couple’s living quarters and bedchamber, Gala’s dressing room and Dali’s studio and workshop, and a bird room where he kept canaries (with a matchbox-sized wooden cage on the wall to house a solitary singing cricket), before we emerge into acres of olive groves with views over the countryside and Mediterranean sea.
Port Lligat was the only lasting home and studio Dali ever had, and exploring it in this personal way helps cast a little more light on the life and work of a genius.
Afterwards we walk 30 minutes under the scorching sun to the charming coastal town of Cadaqués and have a well-earned tapas lunch of patatas bravas, Spanish omelette, Iberico ham and tomato bread washed down by sangria in Sal restaurant, one of several welcoming eateries overlooking the bay.
Revived and refreshed, we drive 45 vertiginous miles south, back to our home for this holiday, Camping Cypsela, near the village of Pals on the Costa Brava. We are staying with Canvas Holidays in a Select 3 Bedroom Plus mobile home with air-conditioning. With one double bedroom and two twin bedrooms, plus two shower-rooms with toilets and sinks, it’s perfect for a family with older children – ours are aged 15, 13 and 10 – and has an oven, fridge-freezer, dishwasher, microwave, decking, gas barbecue and stereo (if I never hear Despacito again it will be a million years too soon).
The site is vast, spotless and self-contained. It has a supermarket, bakery, pub with bowling alley, quality restaurant and takeaway. It also has an Olympic-size pool, four water slides, a diving pool with two springboards, which proves popular with our offspring, and plenty of sunbeds even at busy times. If you prefer sea and sand, a free and frequent shuttle bus will take you to and from Playa de Pals, which offers superb swimming conditions, various watersports and lovely beachfront bars and restaurants (Sol Y Mar at the far end serves up unparalleled paella).
There are gorgeous medieval villages in the Girona area, and the easiest way to explore them is by the “mini train” road tour bookable from the site. At €20 for adults and €15 for children, mile for mile it’s probably more expensive than the Orient Express, but it’s worth every cent as it meanders among paddy fields around the historic hill-top centre of Pals, stopping to allow passengers to scale the 15-metre high Romanesque clock structure, built between the 11th and 13th centuries and known as the “Tower of the Hours”.
Also on the route is Peratallada, known for its castle and cobbled streets, plus the enchanting hamlet of Fontclara, whose Sant Pau parish church dates back the best part of 1,000 years. The best is left to last, with a stop at a historic rice mill, which processes the locally grown cereal for use in paella and beer – several delicious and thirst-quenching glasses of which we quaff by the picturesque mill pond before the mini train takes us back to Cypsela.
After some days chillaxing on site, we visit dear friends who have fortuitously arrived nearby in the exquisite horseshoe-shaped bay of Tamariu, which stakes realistic claims to be the best beach resort in the region. Diving off the rocks into clear blue waters filled with colourful fish during the day is an unforgettable highlight, as is dancing in the moonlight alongside locals as music belted out by a band in a beachfront bar fills the balmy evening air.
The next morning, we can’t resist a trip to Barcelona, about 90 miles away. Camping Cypsela runs buses there, but for five of us it’s more cost-effective to drive and park for €30 next to Gaudi’s Casa Batlló masterpiece on Passeig de Gràcia. The house is a mindblowing modernist visual feast, enhanced by augmented reality tablet devices we are given on entry which allow us to “see” the rooms as they would have looked when they were completed in 1904. Afterwards, we walk to Sagrada Família, find it to be fully booked, and take an open-top bus tour instead, giving our weary feet a rest and getting a great view of the city’s main tourist attractions.
There are, however, more than enough activities, including football, basketball, pool tables, mini-golf and kids clubs, to keep everyone entertained at Camping Cypsela for an entire holiday – and I can fully appreciate why adults might wish to avoid getting behind a steering wheel on unfamiliar foreign roads. For on the way back from Dali’s house in our Avis hire car, we narrowly avoid a total wipeout on a high-speed dual carriageway only by the grace of god combined with the evasive actions of an oncoming motorist, as I momentarily forgot I should be driving on the right. That night we hugged our children a little tighter. Well, not really – we just guzzled several litres of wine in about half an hour, and knocked back a couple of mojitos, but the calming effect was much the same.
Anyway, a big thank you to the sharp-reflexed Audi driver on the C31 just outside Verges, whoever you are.
Seven nights at Camping Cypsela, Pals, Costa Brava with Canvas Holidays in a Select Three Bedroom Plus mobile home costs from £409 in June 2018 with early booking discount. This increases to £1,613 from 2-9 August, 2018, without discount. To book go to https://www.canvasholidays.co.uk or phone 0345 268 0827.
Avis has car hire at Girona Airport, which is 35 miles from Camping Cypsela (www.avis.co.uk)