Sea kayaking the Costa Brava
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Food, glorious food.
OK, here’s the mission: To paddle the entire Costa Brava from it’s start in Blanes, north of Barcelona right up into France.
The navigation should be pretty easy – keep the coastline on your left and carry on ‘till the cliffs end. However even if the navigation is easy I’m keen to ensure that the planning gets further thought because there’s a secondary mission: to visit as many great fish restaurants as possible en route. This is not going to be the kind of sea kayaking trip where you survive on tins of baked beans. I’m after a gourmet trip, fulfilling the Quill motto of sleep cheap, eat well.
It’s about 11am when we eventually leave Blanes, I’m still full from yesterday having got off to a flying start on that secondary mission. I’d arranged to meet up with the others late in the afternoon but I arrived somewhat earlier, in time for lunch at Can Flores where I’d a fine view of sa Palomera, which marks the start of the Costa Brava. When the plate of pescado con patatas al horno arrived my immediate thought was that the direct translation does it a serious injustice. The sea bass on a bed of vegetables was sensational. You’ll understand that later on it was solely in order to fulfil the mission that I allowed myself to be persuaded to visit Las Gaviotas and tuck into a succession of red snapper, mussels and young squid.
So, as we set off the next morning, the water is understandably calm in the harbour but outside of that shelter there’s a fair swell running from the north. The sun is trying hard to break through the clouds. It was raining pretty hard earlier while an impressive electrical storm ran its course offshore but it’s still pretty warm and I’m paddling wearing no more than shorts and a t-shirt.
The swell is such that rock hopping is off the agenda, indeed there are so many reflected waves that we’ve no choice but to paddle a fair distance away from the cliffs that already line the coastline. It’s a shame, as we’re missing dozens of caves and coves which would otherwise more than deserve a closer view. We’re making good progress, confirming my conclusion to last night’s discussion about how far we’d be able to paddle each day. Undoubtedly, it would in part hinge on how much opportunity we got to explore.
So, the initial 10km pass pretty quickly and we’re already at Lloret de Mar. I’m paddling alongside Jaume, who on first impressions is the least banker-like banker you’ll ever meet. He lives in Blanes and describes Lloret as a British enclave, like Gibraltar. He’s only half-joking but fortunately this invasion isn’t typical of the entire Costa Brava. We press on, passing a series of deserted cliffs and eventually land in the shade of a large tower on the small beach south of Cap de Tossa. It’s mid-afternoon, so given the tradition of eating late we’re just in time for lunch. Today is Sunday so we’re not alone in looking for a restaurant but we find a table at La Bahia and order the local speciality, cim y tomba, a superbly rich, garlic-laden fish stew made with gurnard and lashings of allioli. We leave a couple of hours later, fully sated.
Back in the kayaks, we head towards St Feliu de Guixols with the plan of finding a small beach on which to spend the night. The waves haven’t eased and we’re having to skip loads of small coves, what’s more landing spots are in short supply. Before we know it we’re already in the harbour at St Feliu. Things aren’t looking too good. The mental picture I had of a quiet bivvy spot is going to be impossible to find here. Furthermore the clouds are building up and it looks like there’s going to be another storm. We spot three other paddlers in the harbour and ask them for advice. What luck! One of them, Xavi, turns out to run the local kayak school (www.kayakguixols.com) and what’s more has linked up with a local boat owner to run courses using the boat as a hugely comfortable base. The boat is already full of his clients but we end up under the shelter of an improvised tarp on the sundeck of Ayesha, a gorgeous wooden schooner. The original plan had been to snack on the beach but as we’re so close to a better offer, we head into town for another Catalan speciality, escalivada or roasted vegetables served with toast drenched in tomato and olive oil.
It’s even windier the next morning as we exit the harbour and swing again to the North. It’s pretty much a direct headwind and we’re making slow progress past the headland of Cala Molí where there’s a fantastic via ferrata on the cliffs. Unfortunately it’s been shut by overzealous health and safety. I bet, like me you thought that only happened in the UK.
It’s a bit of a slog along the beach at Platja d’Oro so we stop briefly at the north end in a sheltered little cove protected by the next headland. There are two other paddlers there, one using slim Greenland-style paddles. The debate over their relative merits keeps Paco and I entertained as we cross the next bay, off Palamó. The sun’s out now and half way across the bay, almost like a switch being thrown the wind disappears. Seemingly on cue, Ayesha and our hosts from last night reappear. So picture the scene: we’re a couple of miles off shore, halfway across a bay, they’re becalmed. It’s hot. We paddle over to be greeted with cans of ice-cold beer and lemonade. Carles and I mix a shandy and agree that, yes, this really is the life.
Once across the remainder of the bay we sneak through a narrow gap between bare rocks and on past the small port. It’s 2.30pm, so time to find some nosh. There’s not a huge amount of choice but La Fosca gets the nod and we all order a massive fideua, a paella-like dish made with fine pasta rather than rice. It arrives, stuffed full of sea food. Today is Juanjo’s birthday so we celebrate with a couple of bottles of Cava which triggers the meal’s main discussion point: which area of Cataluña produces the best.
There are still waves breaking onto the beach as we leave but further out the swell seems to have subsided so it makes a nice change to skirt round the bottom of the cliffs. First up is a small gap guarded by a rock looking for all the world like an Easter Island statue. This is quickly followed by a small cove and a gracious arch, the first we’ve managed since leaving Blanes. A couple of hours later we pull into Cala Estreta, opposite the Illes Formigues (literally Ant Islands). The plan is to use the shelter of the fishing hut we have spotted there for tonight’s bivvy.
In all honesty, because of the wind, so far we’ve made pretty poor progress. That night, over a meat-fest of chorizo, jamon iberico and fuet we chat through the plan for tomorrow. The forecast is for still windier conditions. Depressingly, at this rate, there’s no way we’re going to make it to France. Morale is helped though by making a serious dent in the supplies from our erstwhile amiga, Mar, who runs a wine shop in Girona. The Valnogal in particular hits the spot.
The next day is clear, sunny and warm. Unfortunately the reason for the clear skies is the Tramontana, the north wind that frequently plies this part of the Med. In order to avoid the worst we made a very un-Spanish early start and so far we’ve managed to sneak some shelter by hugging the coast up to Cap de Sant Sebastià. But now, rounding the headland we’re exposed to the wind’s full force. It’s hard work and we’re making slow progress. The waves are bigger and steadily increasing in size. I’ve got that “if-we’re-not-careful-this-could-turn-into-an-epic” feeling. The cliffs are pretty continuous and what small coves there are offer little shelter. Despite the fact that the wind is now ripping the tops off the waves, Juanjo is convinced that we can land in the small bay after La Musclera Trencada. I disagree, there’s no way that some of our party are going to make it as they’ll need to turn broadside on to the now breaking waves. They vote with their paddles and follow me. At the moment, keeping going straight into the wind and the waves is the only viable option. Looking ahead, I’m convinced that, if only we can get there, the bay at Tamariu will give us the shelter we need to get ourselves into the beach.
It’s with some relief, an hour later, that I’m enjoying a coffee in Tamariu. Looking back out to sea the wind is still continuing to pick up strength. It’s obvious we’ll be going no further for a bit. If the paddling is disappointing then this trip’s dual mission enables us to find an upside. Life seems a lot better after lunch at Restaurante Royal and an arroz negro, or black rice. This is another variation on the paella theme but made using squid ink rather than saffron.
It’s more in hope than expectation that later that afternoon we decide to give it go and try to make further progress. We make it past the first headland but it really is obvious now that trying to get any further would be suicidal. It seems weird though as we pull into the shelter of the small cove of Aigua Xelida: we’re effectively stormbound but still basking in gorgeous sunshine. We shin up the cliffs and peek over the headland, the sea the other side is a mass of white. There’s no question that we’ve made the right decision.
I struggle to translate the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” but it’s particularly apt as we’re going to get a comfortable night in Juanjo’s apartment which is in easy walking distance. What’s more we get to raid the fridge so the evening goes well with the simple but delicious Catalan classic of pan amb tomate, accompanied by sardinas and caballa all washed down with limoncella and ratafia.
We’ve still a hell of a long way to go and we’ve still to do the most exposed and least accessible part of the Costa Brava, the Cap de Creus. I’m confident that we’ll continue to eat well but I’m also keen to complete the paddling mission and make it to France. We’re going to need some better luck.
We’re half way through the time I’d allowed for this trip but because of the headwind endured so far we’re seriously less than half way along the Costa Brava to our destination in France. We need to get a move on! Fortunately the Tramontana, the north wind that’s given us so much trouble thus far, has eased significantly this morning. In fact we’ve idyllic Mediterranean weather as we leave Cala Aigua Xelada on a much smoother sea. Mind you, there’s still a fair swell running which makes investigating the caves just round the corner pretty scary. It’s like paddling into a giant’s mouth while the swell acts like a huge tongue sucking you down into its deep, dark throat. The sunshine outside is infinitely friendlier.
The cliffs are stunning past Aiguablava and around the Cap de Begur. These start to decline in size as we paddle past Cap des Forn and we’ve now a large, fairly featureless bay to cross. However, there’s motivation on the horizon as we can see ahead the Illes Medes. These are a set of islands with an undoubted wow factor although still currently in the distance at the far end of the bay.
This small group of uninhabited islands is massively popular with divers. It’s a protected maritime area where fishing is banned and consequently there’s a huge fish and lobster population just under the surface. Above the water the islands are equally gorgeous and home to a spectacular variety of birds. The weather’s still fantastic and while we re-hydrate I spot a kingfisher and a peregrine falcon.
Past the islands, our route and the newly returned cliffs swing towards the northwest. We’re en route to L’Escala and the spectacular scenery doesn’t let up. The cliffs are fantastic and there are loads of caves and narrow passages to explore. This is one of the least populated sections of coastline and totally unspoilt. We’re making good progress so there’s time for a spot of rock hopping off Cala Montgó but by now it’s towards the afternoon and I’m seriously hungry.
Given the late-eating tradition in Spain I’m shocked to find when we land on the beach in L’Escala that some of the restaurants have already closed. We manage to find one still serving lunch so it’s over a well-earned cold beer that we study the menu at the Restaurante Volante. Paco and I order Catalan salad followed by paella. The salad is ok – a traditional variety of delicious cold meat and salami, it’s a shame that the paella is not the best, nevertheless the quantity is more than welcome.
On the way to the supermarket to stock up on provisions for the night we pop into Toni Albert’s Kayaking Costa Brava shop. Toni specialises in sea kayaks and his newly extended shop is packed full of sea boats from a much wider range of manufacturers than you’ll find in most UK kayak shops. Some of the Spanish glass boats seem spectacularly good value for money.
It’s getting dark by the time we get back to our boats so it’s a short hop across the bay before landing on the beach by los Ruїnes d’Empúries. These are amazing Greco-roman ruins and well worth a visit. Our bivvy though is on the beach. I’m woken up in the wee small hours by a bright light in my face and a visit by the local police. “Are you Spanish?” is the question. Fortunately Juanjo beats me to the answer. After a brief lecture on the illegality of sleeping on the beach they depart with the classic Spanish phrase “no pasa nada” (literally “nothing’s happening” but more akin to the meaning behind “hear no evil, see no evil”) and we’re left in peace for the rest of the night.
The next morning starts with sensational weather. Wind free and gorgeous, warm sunshine. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to the paddle across the somewhat featureless Bay of Roses. We’re too far off shore to be able to enjoy the amazing birdlife at the sanctuary near Sant Pere Pescador. Nevertheless the mirror-like surface creates some incredible reflections, a feast for the eyes with the foothills of the Pyrenees in the background. Paco and I give each other an impromptu language lesson and before I know it we’ve completed the 14km crossing and we’re landing on the Platja de Canyelles for a cup of coffee.
The cliffs start again in earnest by Punta Falconera. I’ve been looking forward to this section of coastline, marking as it does the start of the natural park of the Cap de Creus. It’s a slow creep around the bay of Montjoi, not because of problems with the wind or other adverse weather, simply because the cliffs are so impressive that they deserve close, unhurried inspection. The Cap de Norfeu is similarly spectacular, the cliffs are the highest we’ve yet seen and a dark grey, at times almost black rock but by now I’m hungry again and thoughts of food increase our speed until we eventually land on the beach in the Badia de Jóncols.
If yesterday’s lunch disappointed today’s exceeds expectations. The chiriguito or snack bar on the beach is unprepossessing but a delicious salad precedes a truly sensational platter of freshly grilled sardines liberally garnished with garlic, olive oil and parsley. Simple but delicious. The only downside of a fantastic meal is that the bill also exceeds our expectations!
Back in our boats the stunning cliffs and caves continue all the way to Cadaqués. The traditional white casas are currently basking in the warm, late afternoon sunshine giving them a pinkish glow. Like lots of people on the promenade we take a stroll around the port, albeit we have the advantage of being able to do it on the water. It’s then a short paddle round to Portlligat where we stop for the night on the island that protects the cove’s entrance.
It’s here that I should mention Salvador Dalí. On my first paddling trip to the Costa Brava some ten odd years ago, I had to be dragged to the Dalí museum in Figueres. I really did not want to go but I was so blown away that first occasion that I’ve since returned lots of times. Why mention it now? Well, Dalí owned the island that we’re currently bivvying on and his house with its trademark, egg-topped roof is not 500 metres away. I’m no art expert but I can assure you that a visit to the museum will add to your enjoyment of paddling here if only because you’ll recognise the cliffs around the Cap de Creus in the background of loads of his most famous paintings.
Despite the no camping signs we enjoy a police-free if not entirely mosquito-free night. Next morning we start by exploring Portlligat. Despite the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the Casa Dalí each year this is still a working port and the beach is covered with small fishing boats. Currently it’s still early and there are no tourists, only a few fishermen landing their catches after a night’s work. Their traditional lifestyle is in a stark contrast to the money-making machine that is the Fundación Dalí.
It’s a grey day, dull and overcast. It’s a disappointment really, the last time I tried to paddle the Cap de Creus it was beautifully sunny but massively windy and we had no chance of getting round. Today it should be easy enough even if we’re not bathed in sunshine. There’s a classic cave just before the cape at Cova de s’Infern but it fails to lift my spirits. Maybe it’s the gloomy weather but looking at the dark cliffs now on the north side of the Cap de Creus they seem to be covered in gargoyles. I’m reminded of that other famous Catalan, Gaudi, and his most famous building, the Sagrada Familia in Barçelona. Clearly Gaudi was never a paddler but did he ever visit these cliffs, is this where he drew his inspiration from? I can’t shake off the morbid thoughts: those dark grey cliffs seem to have been moulded by the sea and wind into the faces of thousands of screaming, drowning sailors.
The cliffs lighten nearer to el Port de la Selva and so, fortunately, does my mood. It’s time to eat again and we find, tucked away in the backstreets, Restaurante Sol y Sombra. A beer, some wine, a huge bowl of delicious, fat mussels to start followed by a fine mixed grill of hake, sole, monkfish, prawns and yet more mussels. I’m a new man by the time we’re back in our boats heading for Llançà. If only the sun was out we’d be in the shade of the 2,000ft Sant Salvador Savedera, with its stunning Monastery, Sant Pere de Rodes perched near the top.
Needing some grub for tonight we pull in to the beach just before the entrance to Llançà’s harbour. Strolling towards the shops we bump into Pau Calero. Pau runs a kayak school here (www.skkayak.com) and organised the first Spanish sea kayaking symposium a couple of years ago. He’s organising a second one in March in Port de la Selva. Pau is massively enthusiastic about all things sea kayak and shows us some traditional skin boats that he built over the winter. He also waxes lyrical about his “fishing from a sea kayak” courses to Carles.
Shopping done, we press on to Colera where we intend to bivvy. That night on the beach we’re joined by Toni from Kayaking Costa Brava. Toni’s main market is sit-on-top hire on the tourist beaches during July and August but without a doubt his main passion is sea kayaking and he’s arranged many trips for groups of British paddlers visiting the Costa Brava. For certain, few people know the coastline better than Toni. He’s an excellent source of expertise. The conversation extends well into the night and includes topics such as UK suppliers, the difficulty of making kayaking trips commercially viable and, never far from the food theme, great restaurants in Cataluña.
Disappointingly for our last morning it’s another grey day, giving the lie to the phrase that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. We’re only a few kilometres south of the French border but the plan is to keep going up to Collíoure. Despite the poor light the cliffs are still gorgeous and there’s more than a few caves to keep up the entertainment value as well as hundreds of the somewhat hilariously named fried-egg jellyfish. The entrance to the small harbour at Collíoure is stunning, dominated as it is by the Châteaux Royal and the 18th century church.
There were times that I really didn’t think that we were going to make it. Worthwhile? No doubt. I’ve previously paddled quite a few sections of the Costa Brava. This has been the first time that I’ve been able to put the whole coastline together. It’s not the most deserted piece of Spanish coast so I would recommend paddling it with locals particularly if you intend to camp on the beaches. Without the company of my Spanish mates I’m not sure the police from a couple of nights ago would have been quite so understanding.
For most paddling trips the story would end here. For the next couple of days I’m still on my gastronomic mission: highlights include: esqueixada, albóndigas and sepia con guisantes.
Kayaking Costa Brava is certainly the biggest and probably the most experienced kayak school in the area and supplied me with both sea kayak and paddle. Contact Toni on 00 34 972 77 38 06 or via his website at www.kayakingcb.com