BEGUR — For sure, visit Barcelona. Few of Europe’s great cities can match its seductive embrace of life, modern art, architecture, beauty, fashion, food, and wine. It is a hedonist’s fantasy come to three-dimensional life.
But don’t stay too long. For us, Barcelona this year was less a destination than a springboard to the craggy coastline to its north, the Costa Brava, where the glittery inducements of the city are dwarfed by the meeting of mountain and sea and the medieval hilltop towns that dot the landscape, some of them sentinels with commanding views of the sea.
In English, Costa Brava means “Wild Coast.’’ Its beauty quickens the pulse, yet quiets the soul. Its throngs are seabirds, not tourists. It is an off-the-beaten-track destination that has resisted overdevelopment.
And there is no more enchanting a town for exploring the Costa Brava than Begur, with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, especially from the 16th-century castle at the town’s highest point. Splendid shops — the bakery, the butcher, the fishmonger, the greengrocer — and restaurants line the town’s narrow historic streets.
Begur is a place to blend in and savor. And so we did. This was part vacation and part family gathering — my wife, Barbara, and I, my sister Sheila Robinson and her husband, Brian Unger, from Alberta, and Michel Metge and France Gaillard-Metge, close friends of theirs from France.
Since Begur was to be home for a week we rented a house to die for. Here many of the finest, like ours, are etched on and into hilltops overlooking the green hills that plunge into the Mediterranean.
From our house, perched 626 feet above sea level — according to an elevation app for the iPad — we had magical views of the sea that extended nearly 15 miles north along the coast, well past the Medes Islands.
The elevation made the walk to the beach quite easy. The walk back? Let’s just say it took longer.
The 2,000-square-foot house is set on a private half-acre, and nicely landscaped. Like most of the homes, Villa de Veleta’s dining room, living room, and kitchen are on the upper level, made all the more expansive because of a large, wraparound patio. We’ve rented many vacation homes, but none with a kitchen as well equipped.
Did I mention the three bedrooms on the ground floor, two of which open onto terraces overlooking the sea? Or the home’s most singular architectural detail, a rounded stone tower atop the house with its own small bedroom?
All of that at a rental rate substantially less than anything similar on the US coastline, if you could find something so matchless.
Yes, there is also a pool, though we were there the first week in May when the pool water was cold enough to nicely chill a bottle of Spanish white wine.
For us, the climate could not have been better. To be sure, it was not summer, when Spaniards flock to the shoreline wearing much less than would be legally permissible — or to some, appropriate — anywhere on the Massachusetts coast.
But we tend to be off-season travelers. Crowds are sparse. Rates are low. And on the Costa Brava, May is a delight. We had nothing but sunny weather and daytime temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. That week in Boston, lest you forget, was pretty rainy and in the 50s.
And all of this was a fraction of what we would have spent for a hotel stay. In Barcelona, for example, we had stayed in a moderately-priced room in a four-star hotel, Hotel Denit, on a pedestrian-only street near the Plaza Catalunia for just under $200 a night.
Villa de Veleta? Out of season, mind you, but the weekly rate in May was $1,887 for three couples, based on a euro that has since dropped relative to the dollar. So not quite $90 a night per couple. In July and August, of course, the rate tops $3,000 a week. But in August on Martha’s Vineyard, $3,000 would get you half the house and none of the view.
Begur was out-and-out charming: Narrow, cobblestone streets, half a dozen very good restaurants, whether you’re looking for tapas or a full meal, a couple of supermarkets outside of old town, and some very good shops.
But we were there to explore this northeast corner of Spain, for which Begur was the perfect base camp. Begur is about halfway between Barcelona and the French border, and an easy drive north from the city on a major highway. (Though more challenging for us because I was too tight-fisted to pay an extra $100 to add a GPS to the rental car for a week.)
But with the help of maps, well-signed roads, and Barbara’s very good Spanish, we saw so much, all within an easy drive of Begur. Not 15 minutes away was the beautifully restored hilltop town of Pals. Some of its walls date to the 4th century and it has a Romanesque tower that was built around the 12th century. From the battlements that faced west, the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees poked up over the rolling hills nearby.
Leaping forward in time, we drove the next day to Figueres for a must-see morning visit to the Salvador Dalí Museum. After that, it made no sense to do anything other than drive east, and over a winding mountain road, to the artist’s seaside hometown, Cadaqués, with its whitewashed buildings. There, we had a midafternoon lunch on the harbor.
Late in the vacation, Barbara and I slipped away for an overnight trip to the beautiful inland city of Girona, though it, too, is an easy day trip from Begur. And while in Girona, we ventured north, and stumbled upon a 13th-century walled city, Besalu, with its central square ringed by al fresco dining spots and dominated by San Pere Church, which was completed in the 12th century.
But Villa de Veleta was the sine qua non for this vacation.
There are many rental homes on the Costa Brava, and even in Begur, though we saw none that matched our villa’s distinctive architecture. So how did we find it?
We’ve had great success using the rental site vrbo.com, and we’ve found that properties are likely to be quite good, and even more reliably good if the owner has a local broker. For the coast of Spain, which attracts many British tourists, the best websites are probably Home Away (homeaway.com) or Owners Direct (ownersdi
In this instance, however, we had an advantage. Another one of my sisters, Jane O’Connor, her husband, John, and another couple had rented Villa de Veleta last October, and raved about it. So after visiting the site (www.holiday-rentals
.co.uk/p445253), I contacted the owner, Denise Germer, who lives in New Orleans.
Germer, who used to lead tour groups to Spain, first rented the house herself in 2002. It was a wreck then, she said, “but I loved the bones.’’ So she and her husband bought it in 2008, and totally renovated it in 2010. This winter, she’s adding a full bath for the largest bedroom, a sitting area for the third bedroom, and expanding the upstairs patio.
Paying the rent was the trip’s only sore spot. I thought I would just have to mail Germer a check. Not so easy. I had to wire 1,300 euros for the week’s rent and a 300-euro deposit to her bank in Begur. At both ends, the banks charged fees and made even more by taking advantage of the exchange rates. So that $1,887 included close to $200 in middlemen fees. Germer says she’s going to find a hassle-free payment method for US renters.
But the bankers were forgotten once we saw the house. After dinner out the first night, we planned to cook in the second night, alerted that Michel and France would be arriving with dinner ingredients. Such a meal needed good wine, so Brian and I found a couple of expensive bottles of Rioja.
A needless expense. Michel and France brought a crate of vegetables, out of which they created the best French potato soup ever made in Begur, with wonderful bread and several cheeses from their small village in central France, all of it heartily consumed while overlooking the rugged coastline.
And complemented, not with the Rioja, but with a fine merlot that Michel had bottled himself from a wine cooperative in his village. At a cost of one euro per bottle.