Rupert Wright looks at the transformation of Catalonia’s Costa Brava from a property investor perspective.
Originally published in The Sunday Times April 2003
Property on the Costa Brava
When journalist Roger Cooper was released after more than five years in a Tehran jail on charges of spying, he was asked what conditions were like.
“Anyone who has been to an English public school and served in the ranks of the British army is perfectly at home in a Third World prison,” he said. Somewhere along the way he must also have learnt to appreciate the finer things in life. For once out of Iran, Cooper did not head back to England, but to Blanes, a small town on the Costa Brava. Here he runs a guesthouse, and rents out a villa and half a dozen apartments.
“Blanes is the beginning of the Costa Brava,” he says. “It’s a fabulous place, full of festivals – in July they let off enormous quantities of fireworks – fine beaches and good restaurants. I first came here when my uncle settled here in the 1950s. Blanes was as far up the coast as the train from Barcelona could get before the coast got too rocky.”
If your idea of the Costa Brava is “kiss me quick” hats, donkey rides and warm English beer served to people with handkerchiefs on their heads as they turn red in the sun, it is time to think again. There are still some ghastly developments on the Catalan coastline. Some of the most shocking crimes were committed north of Barcelona around Playa d’Aro, and worst of all to the south of Barcelona on parts of the Costa Daurada, which until the builders turned up was considered to be the most beautiful coastline in Spain. But the Catalans learned fast. They watched the excesses on the Costa Sol and Costa Blanca and were horrified. It is harder to get planning permission in parts of Catalonia than it is in central London or Paris, although people say you can still get things done if you know who to talk to. And if you want nasty concrete development and cheap holidays you can still find it, particularly in Lloret de Mar, but for the most part, the Costa Brava – the wild coast – is the most stylish place on the Mediterranean.
Close to Barcelona
This is partly due to its location close to Barcelona. Most people heading south from France bypass the coast and stick to the A7 motorway going through Barcelona and beyond. The traffic visiting the coast comes from Europe’s coolest city. Head north from Barcelona on a Friday evening and you will follow a convoy of elegant people who are all going to their country homes for the weekend. Unlike the French, who for the most part shun the attractions of the countryside, the Catalans are very keen on getting out of the city.
The Costa Brava is the playground of the Catalans. They are a proud, industrious people, who like to work hard and play hard. The Romans landed in Blanes in 200BC and later made Tarragona their capital. Once Catalonia stretched up into France and the Pyrénées – Mont Canigou is still the spiritual home of the Catalans and many of them make an annual pilgrimage up its slopes – and was once one of the Mediterranean’s major sea powers. Even though its borders have been checked, the people are keen to emphasize their difference to the rest of Spain. For example, they insist on teaching their children in Catalan. Spanish is taught as a second language, often by Catalan speakers, something they may live to regret when half the population cannot speak the language of the country properly.
Most of the Barcelonese will drive north for one-and-a-half hours to towns and villages in the Baix Empordà region such as Begur, Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell, where there are some of the finest bays and bars in the world. “The Baix Empordà part of the Costa Brava is extremely popular with the Pijos (posh people) of Barcelona,” says Maria – a Catalan property specialist. “It is a Catalan version of Tuscany, with beautifully kept orchards and farms, and every few kilometers a picturesque village like Peratallada, Begur, or Palau-Sator.”Unfortunately the prices already match the location. In Begur, for example, you can buy a small house with three or four bedrooms, and room to build a swimming pool for 510,000. The only house for sale in Sa Tuna, a tiny bay ten minutes from Begur that is full of bathers in the summer but deserted in the winter, will set you back 1 million.
Adrian McGinley and his wife Susan, who are both in their 30s, bought a four bedroom villa with a sea view in Sa Riera two years ago for 250,000. It is five minutes from Begur and two minutes from the sea. They moved four years ago from Islington with their two children, who are aged 10 and 8, initially to France in the Midi Pyrénées near St Antonin Noble Val.
“The house in France was fantastic, but while there was plenty of life in the summer, it was a bit desolate in the winter,” says Adrian. “We have found that the Catalans have a more open, more European outlook than many of the French people we met. And there is much more to do in the winter. There is horse riding, tenpin bowling, skiing a couple of hours away, as for me, I head down to the Nou Camp to watch Barcelona play football.”
McGinley deals in industrial food machinery on the Internet, so is lucky enough to be able to work from home. Others inhabitants in the area are mostly retired. Even so there are not many English people living on the Costa Brava. But from February Ryanair will be flying direct to Girona, a pretty town that has been compared to Avignon. And in the not too distant future the TGV fast train from Paris will stop here on the way to Barcelona and Madrid. Not only will this bring in British people, but also Germans and Italians. Some of them may end up buying properties in Girona. The best properties are those that overlook the River Onyar. They are tall and pastel coloured. On sunny days they are festooned with blinds and washing that blows in the wind.
Others will head north to Figueres, a market town where Salvador Dali was born and is buried. To the east is Cadaques, one of the most unspoilt spots on the coast that can only be reached by a single road, or by sea. All the houses are white, so from a distance it looks like a cool, cubist painting. This is where Dali lived for many years. In the 1960s Cadaques was known as the St Tropez of Spain. Young people and ageing roués flocked to watch the master paint, or twiddle his moustache. It is still possible to hire the barge that he built for Gala, his last mistress, and potter along the coast, swimming in the rocky bays.
But many travellers who arrive in Girona expecting to snap up a second home on the cheap will be disappointed. There is a great variety of property, from country farm houses, called masias, to villas and apartments on modern and stylish residential estates. But it is not a cut-price location like the Costa Blanca, though it compares favourably in terms of value-for-money with cramped beach property in the Costa del Sol and the Balearic Islands.
Maria claims the region’s cultural patrimony, diversity, and beauty, not to mention its proximity to the south of France, attracts more discerning buyers than the sun seekers of the Costa del Sol. “The Costa Brava is where Majorca was twenty years ago,” says Ronnie Miller, a retired property developer. He now lives near Begur, but spent fifteen years on Majorca. “I love it here,” he says. “When I left Mallorca I went all over Spain, but didn’t find anywhere I liked. Then I came here and fell in love with the place. The women are so stylish and immaculately dressed, you want to ask them what magazines they have been reading. I still love Mallorca, but it’s got so expensive there. Mind you, I reckon here will go the same way.”