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Catalonia in the Off Season


Brooke Slezak for The New York Times

Like so much else in Cadaques, lunch at Casa Anita feels like a skip back in time. The rough communal tables covered in red-and-white checked oilcloth, the wine bottles smothered with candle drippings, the walls decorated with framed photos of portly, satisfied customers all seem like tickets for travel to an another era, though it's oddly hard to pinpoint our final destination. Rural Spain in the 19th century? Greenwich Village in the 50's?

The Teatre-Museu in Figueres, built by Salvador Dali in the 1970's, incorporating part of the old city ramparts as well as a facade of the former Municipal Theater.
Casa Anita's proprietor -- one of those jolly, theatrical, life-loving guys whose girth seems like an advertisement for the skills of his chef -- would seem at home in any number of regions and decades.

In summer, our friends in Barcelona have told us, long lines of eager customers spill into the street, waiting for seats at one of Casa Anita's crowded tables. But on a Sunday afternoon in early December, the clientele consists of a total of three couples: my husband, Howie, and me, two weekenders from faraway Madrid and a pair of young lovers from the nearby city of Girona.

So the proprietor has time on his hands and nothing much to do but open a bottle of light, young, local white wine and sit down at our table for a leisurely discussion of today's menu. First, a dish of olives and a Catalan specialty, pa amb tomaquet -- toasted bread smeared with olive oil, mashed tomato and garlic. Then a fish soup so flavorful and thick with tiny crabs and giant shrimp that Marseille's robust bouillabaisse seems, in memory, like canned clam chowder. The soup is followed by a platter of grilled sardines, another of fried calamari. All simple, all divine.

Our host suggests a short break while we consider dessert, a decision he facilitates with shots of herbal brandy. In the pause between courses, he waves his arms like a semaphore to announce: Now for the entertainment! He grabs a porron, the traditional Catalan drinking vessel, an alchemical-looking glass flask with a long, slender spout. Drinking from the porron, your lips should never touch the spout. The whole point is to hold the flask as far as possible from your face and tilt a high, arched stream of wine into your open mouth. The perfect marriage of hygiene and showing off, drinking from a porron requires a high-wire combination of nerve and hand-eye coordination.

Senor is an expert. He holds the porron at arm's length. After every long gulp he grins, and his six customers applaud. Suddenly his grin becomes exponentially more wicked, and he tilts the porron and directs the stream toward the middle of his forehead. Magically, the river of wine converges between his eyebrows and travels neatly down the sharp edge of his nose. With hardly a drop wasted, the wine ends up in his mouth. Our host bows. His forehead is slick with wine. He looks like he's run a race. He bows and smiles at each couple in turn.

''It's sexual,'' he says.

The performance aspect of lunch at Casa Anita may be more intense at the height of the summer season, when tourists swarm the lovely, endearingly funky fishing town of Cadaques, at the northern tip of Spain's Costa Brava. But somehow I doubt it. The owner of our comfortable, unpretentious hotel, which tonight has only eight guests, and which is due to close tomorrow for a holiday vacation, tells us that -- although the high season provides much of his income -- he can't imagine why any sane person would come to Cadaques in August. To sit in traffic? To struggle for a few feet of space on a beach crowded with sunbathers?

The December day is chilly enough that it's hard to imagine wanting to lie on the beach. Yet even though the winter sun keeps disappearing behind the clouds, it seems like the ideal time to visit Cadaques, the most idyllic moment to spend in what is arguably the most unspoiled town on the Costa Brava. Unlike its neighbors along the coast south toward Barcelona, Cadaques has prohibited the rampant overbuilding that makes so much of this scenic territory seem occupied by invading armies of condos. And simply getting to Cadaques requires a serious commitment. After you leave the main highway that continues up into France, there's a long and daunting drive along a road that barely clings to the sides of the mountain until at last Cadaques appears in the distance, rising up a hill from the ocean, the houses, inns, waterfront cafes whitewashed and trimmed in that Mediterranean blue Matisse so loved.

In winter, Cadaques reverts back to its private self: a working-class fishing port where, on Sunday, as ringing bells signal the end of Mass at the church on top of the hill, families are already gathering in the casino -- now converted into a cafe -- and are drinking coffee and listening to the heartfelt efforts of a homegrown brass band. If you could somehow unfocus your eyes to screen out the cars and satellite antennas, almost nothing would seem to have changed since the early 1930's.

Here's my recipe for a blissful winter afternoon, though perhaps not to everyone's taste: From Cadaques, you drive up through Cap de Creus National Park, a winding road through an otherworldly, lunar landscape, paradoxically lush and austere, a scrubby headland pocked by bizarre, sculptural rock formations, with startling views of the ocean around each impressive curve. Cap de Creus is the easternmost point of the Costa Brava, and it's become a ritual to come here to watch the sunrise, especially on New Year's Day.

At the top of the road, not far from the lighthouse, is a restaurant whose exterior suggests a battered remnant of the Wild West. At 4 on a Sunday afternoon, it's jammed with local people -- solitary barflies, huge families, children and dogs. It's a spirited, friendly crowd, and the place is simultaneously evocative of a tavern in Goya's era, of a contractor's bar in upstate New York and of a home for stranded members of the 60's Joe Cocker show. Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley sing on the sound system. You can order a full meal of Catalan home cooking or, as we do, absinthe and Galician brandy, then sit in a chair by the fireplace and meditatively sip your drink. It's impossible not to notice that you have come to a special place that could hardly be farther from your ordinary life.

At twilight in Cadaques, the twinkling lights surrounding the crescent cove are the only things that even seem to move, except for the wheeling seabirds. In the morning, just before dawn, I wake up to watch a fleet of local fishermen shipping out in wooden boats. At such times, it's easy to understand why the town's charms attracted some of the 20th century's greatest artists and writers, including Picasso, Bunuel and Man Ray.

Cadaques is where Gala and Salvador Dali first met in 1929, when she came from Paris on vacation with her husband, the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. In the early 1930's the Dalis -- who were officially married in church in 1958 -- returned there to buy and renovate the cottage that functioned as the refuge to which they retreated to plot their conquest of the wider world. Only eight visitors at a time are admitted to the Casa-Museu Dali, the Dalis' house at Port Lligat, a few minutes from Cadaques. In season, it's necessary to call or e-mail far ahead for reservations. But today we are invited to come in with the next group, in 10 minutes.

A succession -- a sort of tag team -- of knowledgeable guides takes us through the charming, predictably strange and unpredictably modest cottage that makes you see one of history's most famously difficult art couples in a more tender and flattering light. A goofy stuffed bear greets you in the entrance hall, holding a welcoming lamp and offering a first taste of the Dalis' ubiquitously evident passion for taxidermy. Dali's studio has a magnificent ocean view, and on the wall are the red-and-green 3-D-movie glasses with which he experimented in the 1970's. Given that outsiders were rarely invited into the house itself, you can only conclude that their theatrical bedroom was meant for themselves alone: the thronelike, almost comically regal beds, the bird and cricket cages, the mirror in which Dali could watch the sunrise without getting out of bed, the melancholy trios of children's chairs that were among Gala's contributions to the couple's obsessive decorating scheme, along with the dressing room she papered with photos of them posed with A-list celebrities ranging from Harpo Marx to Picasso to Laurence Olivier in full Richard III drag.

The last of the guides tells us that the Dalis only entertained guests in their garden, which does indeed feel like a more public space, modeled, whimsically if immodestly, on the gardens of the Alhambra. Familiar Dali objects -- eggs, teacups -- are scattered around, along with touches like a large flamingo-pink statue of the Michelin man and a fountain Dali created from cheap tourist-souvenir liquor bottles in the form of bullfighters.

The artist's less appealing sides are on full display in Figueres, Dali's birthplace (he was born in 1904), less than an hour away, where, perhaps as a sort of parting shot at the bourgeois city he found so oppressive, Dali built the Teatre-Museu, a turreted, rose-colored palace, built to include part of the ancient city ramparts; its roof is lined with monstrous, sentrylike white eggs, its walls encrusted with gold-painted knobs. Much about the Figueres museum -- for example, the gold jewelry Dali designed -- evokes the more vulgar, cynical aspects of his career. But I loved discovering, in the museum's courtyard, ''Rain Cadillac,'' a piece I remember seeing as a child, in the garden of New York's Museum of Modern Art: a vintage black Cadillac, its interior filled with jungly greenery watered by a steadily dripping rain. Seeing it was like meeting an old friend, a friend, who -- that day -- happened to be singing in the voice of Bing Crosby. The music emanating from the car, Crosby singing Christmas carols, made me laugh out loud, and seemed like something that Dali, at his best, would have loved.

Driving through this corner of Catalonia, you rapidly understand that Dali represents only a punctuation mark in the lengthy and complex book of the region's art and culture. A twisting drive that gives new meaning to the phrase ''not for the faint of heart'' takes you to the sublimely melancholy ruins of the monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, begun during the 10th century and constructed intermittently until the 18th. So in harmony with its surroundings that it suggests a mysterious geological outcropping rising from the mountain, the abbey -- with its vaulted crypt, soaring basilica and arched loggias -- has to be, you feel, more lovely in its present state than it was in its glory.

At Empuries, a brief and considerably less hair-raising drive down the coast, are extensive, elaborate remnants of Greek and Roman settlements. Dramatically situated on a bluff above the sea, they are notable for the skilled, inventive landscaping that has turned what remains of the ancient cities into a terraced park with marvelous topiary, rosemary hedges, stands of pampas grass. A few minutes away is the sleepy (at least in December) medieval village of Sant Marti d'Empuries. In the small plaza across from the church, sited to catch the maximum winter sun, are several inviting, elegant and reasonable restaurants. At the Meson del Conde, in a pink-walled dining room with an open fireplace and beamed ceilings, we're served artichokes with cod brandade, monkfish ''scallops'' with cinnamon sauce, partridge with black pudding and bream with duck breast in mushroom sauce. At the next table, a young man digs into a portion of calcots, the broiled scallions that are a seasonal specialty of the region and that are eaten -- or rather stripped with the teeth -- by diners wearing plastic gloves and a bib.

In fact, the area is dotted with perfectly preserved medieval towns that in winter seem more like human habitations than theme parks. As we climb up to Begur, a tolling church bell warns us that a funeral is in progress. Sure enough, half the town is in mourning, gathered in the plaza. It's hardly the time for tourism, and we head back down the hill. In Pals, by contrast, at 9 on a weekday morning, we don't see one other human being as we wander through the tastefully restored walled village. Nothing's stirring but the mist and a few stray cats in this magical town that in August begins to resemble a medieval mall selling local crafts.

At that point, Pals might be better admired from the windows of the Mas de Torrent, an 18th-century inn converted into a luxury hotel. When I call from the road, the receptionist says: Please. Come on over. Whenever you want. There are two other guests at the hotel, an American mother and son. The desk clerk says she hopes we'll understand if the restaurant is closed. Our room has a terrace and a long wall of windows with a view of the distant landscape and of Pals, rising from the valley floor. We walk in the formal gardens and, in the evening, watch the lights come up in Pals and the nearby farms.

Checking out the next morning, we're surprised to hear the buzz of an excited crowd. In the lobby, we find a large group of young men and women -- a class from a hotel school. They stare at us, as if surprised to see a guest, as if a guest were something exotic. And we stare back because, with their scrubbed faces, slicked-back hair and neat, navy blue blazers, they seem so innocent and appealing.

An instructor herds them into the gardens, and we follow, on our way to the car. The hotel students keep looking at us, and we keep looking at them as they head deeper into the mist, like a flock of quail scurrying through the austere, lush Catalan winter.

Francine Prose is the author, most recently, of ''The Lives of the Muses'' (HarperCollins).

The New York Times
Domingo 14 de septiembre de 2004