Travel Guide to Portugal

#inCostaBrava I saw some marvelous things

By Ryan Opaz

BeechA momentous 2013 has almost come to a close, and to be perfectly honest, it’s been a good year. I’ve travelled a considerable amount, moved countries and had a son. 2013 will mark one of the most memorable years of my life. However, it’s around this time that we sit with a list of what our future may hold, and if I may chime in with a suggestion, you should seriously consider visiting “The Costa Brava“.

The Costa Brava, translated to “Wild” or “Rough Coast”, is located just along the Mediterranean in northeastern Spain. A stunning landscape extending from Blanes (approximately 60 km northeast of Barcelona) to the French border, it is renowned for its gorgeous scenery, avant guard cuisine, and of course, its wine.

Over the course of the 7 years we have visited much of this area, thoroughly enjoying its lush hiking paths and diverse gastronomy, but it wasn’t until I took part in a recent press trip that I seriously fell in love. It’s easy to overlook the everyday wonders, not to mention the majestic treasures, of a region when you live there. But by stepping out of your everyday routine, the normal suddenly becomes exotic and exciting. So today, I want to give you 4 reasons you should absolutely visit the Costa Brava.

#1 – The Food

Catalunya, home of Ferran Adria and Spanish molecular cooking, is not to be missed. Located in the Costa Brava, El Bulli was consistently rated as one of the best Spanish restaurants for years, until finally usurped by its neighbor, el Cellar de Can Roca. We had the great fortune of visiting Can Roca to savor a series of nibbles and flavor bombs, while chatting with their Chef, Jordi Roca. A bit of a culinary savant, it was incredible to listen to his stories on how Can Roca approaches their regional cuisine.

But what was even more breathtaking was watching Pep Nogue manhandle a red onion which grew from the volcanic soils of La Garrotxa. Pounding their hard flesh on sharp rocks, he eventually pulled the sweet onions apart with his fingers and served them with tomatoes and olive oil. Pep claimed the process softens the onions strong flavors, but I rather prefer the idea he’s an ultimate fighting aficionado and this was his way of relieving stress. Whatever reason, the onions were tender, sweet and delicious.

I often feel that people spend to much time considering the high-end of the culinary spectrum when they think of Spain. This is a mistake. Spain holds several gastronomic treasures that should be savoured, including a cured/grilled sardine like fish, oily and intense. Sitting in the palm of our hand with a few sweet Moscatel grapes between our fingers, the salty fish flesh mingled with the sweet juice to create a flavor tsunami. Oil slicked hands and sticky sweet fingers never tasted so good. Our hosts from the winery Espelt insisted the workers enjoyed this during the harvest, lucky people.  I know it sounds like an odd pairing, and it was, but it worked, and left us all with smiles

At the end of the trip, we “broke fish” with some local fisherman who whipped up a large pot of Catxoflino, a thick rich stew of seafood, pork, tomatoes, bread, onion, garlic and parsley. I’m not entirely clear on where one finds this dish, but if you can get your hands on it, do so! Intense and full of flavor, it clearly demonstrated that your food doesn’t need to be served on a silver platter to be next to god.

#incostabrava-20130926-10#2 – The Nature

The coast of northern Catalunya is unreal. Crystal clear waters and undulating slopes that eventually blend into the Pyrenees, their sides wrapped in cacti, succulents and wild flowers. Head inland and you’ll find volcanic meadows of cork oaks, beech trees and forests of pine. Depending on the season these are often filled with mushroom hunters seeking out the bounty that is even more coveted than gold: Rovellons.

I’ve done my fair share of hiking in Catalunya, but I did miss a few trails. Upon my return, I intend to explore the western portion of La Garrotxa, a comarca (county) that houses ancient volcanic cones. The soils are rich in lava which the locals say impart a special character to the food and wine. This could be true, or not but either way, I’m dying to head back.

I also had the incredible opportunity to enjoy a day of sea-kayaking, a long time goal I was finally able to experience. Along the coast, we paddled through stunning blue waters lined with giant jellyfish, gorgeous birds and little coves kept secret by the locals. A short break allowed us to jump in and enjoy the still warm and refreshing Mediterranean, an experience unto itself. I could have spent all day paddling about, but we had things to do and I left with an earmark in my “book of life” to make a return trip one day soon.

#3 – Wine

Anyone who has read Catavino for any length of time will know we love the wines of Catalunya, and Carignan is by far my favorite. There is plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon, some quite good, but the old vine Carignan is magical.

If you’re keen to lean towards something a little more “exotic” try the vast number of vermouths popping up across the region. This is not your store bought vermouth. We’re talking homemade brew that is absolutely delicious and worth seeking out! We didn’t explore vermouths as much as I would have liked this time, but we did have a particularly fun evening with a jug of Vi Ranci. Literally translated as “rancid wine” it’s a wine that is allowed to “go off” without becoming vinegar. Similar to a sherry in intensity, and full of volatile acidity, it is the most traditional of drinks in Catalunya. It took a considerable amount of time to fall in love, but when I did, I was smitten. This trip only rekindled my appreciation by giving me one of my top lifetime wine experiences! No need to go into detail other than to say 3am, Mediterranean, 3 friends and an empty jug.

Wine is fun. Wine is for sharing. Wine is not hard work, unless you take it too seriously. Costa Brava is the perfect place to enjoy the local wines and watch the world fly by.

#4 – X-factor

The x-factor is the thing you can’t put your finger on. Costa Brava has an x-factor. Much like the red onions crushed upon the rocks, there are layers that Costa Brava only reveals when you come at it from different angles. I lived there, led wine trips through the vineyards there as a consultant, spent a family vacation up there in a house with a pool, and despite my thought that this trip would only strengthen my idea of the region, I was wrong.

Small villages infused with history. Foods that taste of the land and are served up with the same pride the people transmit when speaking with you. Nature weaves itself, or I should say, humans have woven themselves into the fabric of the textured landscape. If I return, I will taste more, swim more, hike more, share more. This was Dali’s home for much of his life and like Dali’s paintings, Costa Brava leaves the visitor awestruck.

If 2014 has a slot for a quick break from the real world I would highly encourage you to visit Costa Brava. It’s a place with passion. I’ll be posting a bit more about some places to eat later on, but warning: don’t read them on an empty stomach! If you do go let us know, or if you want some more personalised advice just let us know!



Check out more of my photos from the trip here: 

Feature Tours

Dinner in a Portuguese Family Home

When we travel, we want to immerse ourselves in the experience. We want to feel their lives in real-time,

Wine Tasting: Introduction to Portuguese Wines

Portugal not only lays claim to founding one of the very first demarcated wine regions in the world,

Costa Vicentina Luxury Biking Tour

This seven-day tour will take you along Portugal’s western coast, backed by beautiful wild vegetation

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Catavino is the best place to learn about travel, food
and wine in Portugal and Spain.

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