Author Tom Sharpe’s 1995 decision to buy a villa in Llafranc, Costa Brava, was astute, says Mark Stücklin, as it is now one of Spain’s priciest locations.
Llafranc, Costa Brava. It is late morning, and the bestselling comic novelist Tom Sharpe is enjoying the expat lifestyle. “I’m on pink gin, but there’s also whisky and vodka,” he says, barely visible behind a cloud of fragrant Havana cigar smoke.
Sharpe, author of bestsellers such as Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Porterhouse Blue, Wilt and Blott on the Landscape, moved here about 15 years ago.
“If I’d stayed in England, I’d be dead by now,” he says, without a trace of irony, drink in one hand and cigar in the other. Sharpe, 77, is scathing about the NHS – he has health problems and once suffered a stroke on Spanish TV – and believes that only the competence of the Spanish health service and his new doctor have kept him above ground. “Healthcare here is all completely free for OAPs like me,” he points out, with evident satisfaction.
Sharpe claims to live in Spain purely for health reasons (his idea of heaven is really Northumberland) and his adopted home is a small fishing village nestling in a picturesque bay on the Costa Brava, 90 minutes drive north of Barcelona, and roughly the same again to the French border. He stumbled upon Llafranc after his Spanish agent recommended the Hotel Llevant during a speaking tour in Barcelona in the late 1980s. Five years later, Sharpe was still at the beachside hotel, which is one of Spain’s hidden gems.
Sharpe graduated from hotel resident to Costa Brava property owner in 1995, when a seven-bedroom villa overlooking the bay came on the market. A familiar figure in the hotel bar, Sharpe was tipped off by one of the locals that the vendor was in financial distress and in a hurry to sell. Sharpe isn’t very interested in real estate, and hadn’t been house-hunting, but he did know a bargain when he saw one. “It cost me about €293,000, furniture included, though I had to move quickly at that price.” His house is probably now worth about €804,000, before allowing for any “celebrity premium” – Sharpe is as well known in Spain as in the UK.
The plain white villa is set on three floors, with a small lawn and a few bushes at the front. Sharpe was once a passionate, hands-on gardener – “I have planted more than a thousand roses in my life and I always double dug” – but those days are over, since a serious fall in his English garden some years ago damaged his foot.
Built as a holiday home, the villa’s interior is plain and functional rather than luxurious and Sharpe has had to do virtually nothing to it. His old injury has affected his mobility, so the lift that’s been installed is a boon. His wife, Nancy, prefers to spend most of the year at their home in Cambridge, which may explain why the decor remains relatively impersonal, though there are the trappings of a writer – including row upon row of books – and beautiful black and white photos taken by Sharpe during his days as a photographer and anti-apartheid activist in South Africa turn his office into an intimate gallery. His activism landed him in jail on more than one occasion.
“I enjoyed being interrogated,” he laughs. The police who arrested him gave him material for the characters he ridiculed so entertainingly in his books.
Sharpe spends most of his time in his large, sunlit study on the first floor, sitting at a broad wooden desk, hammering out manuscripts on an old typewriter or re-reading favourite authors such as P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Noise is not a problem: outside the holiday season he is one of the few people in residence on his cul-de-sac. “I call myself the porter, as I’m the only one whose lights are always on.” When the summer crowds descend in July and August, he heads back to the UK.
Sharpe may have settled upon Llafranc almost by accident, but his decision to buy here was astute. It is now one of Spain’s most expensive holiday-home destinations.
“Llafranc has everything,” says Rita Fryer of The Property Finders, a buyers’ agent based in the area. “It is still just a little fishing village, but it’s alive 12 months a year, unlike so many places in Spain that close down out of season.
“It’s tranquil, and everywhere in Llafranc is within walking distance of the beach, which is fantastic for families with kids.” These qualities, plus its beautiful bay and beach, make it highly desirable among Catalan buyers from Barcelona and Girona. It is possible to find a small apartment for €250,000, but most with two or three bedrooms and two bathrooms start at €400,000; semi-detached properties sell from €500,000 and villas from €1m.
Such steep prices surprise many buyers, who still associate the Costa Brava with package holidays and the expat taxi driver set. That side of the coast still exists, but predominantly on the southern stretch, around towns such as Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar. Come as far north as Llafranc, and you enter the “posh” Costa Brava.
This starts at Calella de Palafrugell, just below Llafranc, and stretches north to Begur and Pals. The terrain is green and hilly – Sharpe calls it “wild-boar country” – and the coast winds through a series of pretty bays with sandy white beaches. Building has not been excessive, and inland it looks like Tuscany, with some of Spain’s most beautiful medieval villages, such as Pals, Peratallada and Palau-Sator.
Calella de Palafrugell and Llafranc are really just a few hundred metres apart, separated by a headland, but Calella is bigger. Compared with Llafranc, it seems overdeveloped, though judged by the standards of southern Spain, that is a bit harsh. Still, the higher density, plus a few camp sites, can make it feel crowded in summer. As with Llafranc, most of the town is within walking distance of the beach – a huge plus to the Spanish, who value such proximity over sea views – and the water is warmer than anywhere else on the coast. Property prices are about 20% cheaper than in Llafranc: quality apartments start at €300,000 and villas at €800,000.
Further north, Aiguablava lacks the village-like atmosphere of Llafranc and Tamariu, but makes up for this with privacy and spectacular views. Most properties are detached villas, and few are close enough to walk to the beach. Still, privacy, the views and substantial properties make Aiguablava popular among local and international buyers with good budgets. Villas start at 1m. “The people who buy here aren’t looking for cheap property, they’re looking for something special, which is what they get,” says Rita Fryer.
At the top of this upmarket stretch is Begur, a quaint hilltop village crowned by an old castle and probably the most sought-after spot of all. “Barcelona’s elite all have second homes here or want one, and there are always more people looking to buy than properties on the market,” says Willem Boerhof, of estate agency Your House In Spain. “This also gives buyers the security of knowing that they can sell easily when the time comes.”
Begur’s mixture of old-world charm, stylish restaurants and bars, beautiful countryside and easy access by car to all the best beaches means that it should remain what Fryer calls “blue chip”. Buyers need at least 500,000 to buy anything but the smallest village house in need of refurbishment.
This 10-mile stretch of the Costa Brava may be monied, but it’s also understated and unpretentious, much like Tom Sharpe himself, and he’s clearly happy in his Llafranc hideaway. Although his villa is within walking distance of the beach, it’s a stroll too far for him these days; he’s more comfortable admiring the view from the Llevant’s bar. But it’s not just the pink gin that’s flowing; so are his creative juices. Last year, after a long battle with writer’s block, he brought out a new Wilt book, his first in 20 years.