The best places don't give away their charms easily. At first, there's just a little spark - mysterious and unfamiliar - and then, gradually, the details that at first were strange or unremarkable become the very essence of your experience.
This is how it was with Spain's Costa Brava. We were on our way from Barcelona, where we had spent four frenetic, joyful days, to Cadaques, the Dali town a few hours north. We had picked Begur as a stopping point, about halfway in between. We had scarcely heard of it - and didn't expect much.
The road north was well marked and we were happy to be on our way, hot wind whipping our hair and Vampire Weekend's hot, poppy tunes in our ears. Our favourite Barcelona café had packed us beautiful Spanish ham sandwiches for the journey, and our three kids were safely occupied on the other side of the ocean. My husband and I were giddy with freedom.
The buzz wore off when it was time to find the way to our hotel at the centre of town. Once, twice, three times we circled old Begur in our hot little car without finding an inroad. Two calls to the hotel and one passionate disagreement later and we were, at last, walking into the cool and casual lobby of the Aiguaclara Hotel. Our room had an ancient checkerboard floor and a huge old-fashioned key. We made up quickly.
The next morning over melon, charcuterie and Spanish cheese, our hosts gave us a map and left us to find our way to the beach. We didn't know what we were looking at: Some of the beaches seemed to be joined by footpaths, and the names, all in Catalan, seemed strange - Aiguablava? Sa Tuna? Only Aiguafreda was familiar, because we had heard there was a lunch place there, so off we went.
Soon, we were parking the car near a small cove where the thundering sea smashed against huge, smooth rocks. Sunbathing was out of the question so we picked up the cliffside path and walked the kilometre to Sa Tuna, a small rocky beach where we stayed until lunchtime. On the way back to Aiguafreda, we saw a few others, but mostly had the path, sun and sea to ourselves.
The cove that had been deserted a couple of hours earlier had now sprung an exquisite outdoor restaurant with a sophisticated menu. Sitting in our bathing suits, the only English speakers there, we lunched on raw fish salad and fava beans sautéed with baby octopus.
That afternoon, we got back in the car and found our way along steep roads and hairpin turns to Aiguablava, a small, sandy beach on the other side of Begur. There were more coves and tiny beaches, but this path led through arid landscape and a string of private gardens - strange and lovely. But we had one more beach to see.
The next morning we got to Sa Riera early and noticed a happy little beach scene coming to life - a shop selling espadrilles and beach umbrellas, an ice cream place, and a good espresso and pastry bar. At the far end of the beach, we spotted stairs cut right into the rocks - it was another coastal path leading to a place our map called Illa Roja.
This trail was different. It was almost all stairs, never-ending and steep, taking us higher and higher above the ocean, which sparkled crazily in green and blue and turquoise. The air smelled like hot pine needles and salt water. I felt a little dizzy.
Finally, when we were starting to think about turning back, the grade shifted and the path started to slope downward. We hurried down what must have been more than 100 stairs, eager to get to the beautiful sheltered beach, the cold water. It was not until we were almost on the sand that we noticed people were nude. We looked at each other and smiled - it was yet another unexpected twist, fun and certainly foreign.
Neither of us had taken off our clothing in public before, but we got used to it pretty fast. If anything, I felt less exposed than I usually do on the beach. Nobody stared, approached or laid their towel too close to mine: The tacit understanding was that this was a place of respect, privacy and freedom. Somehow it worked - so well that we decided to postpone Cadaques to spend three days losing track of time on Illa Roja.
We fell into an easy routine - dressing and undressing, climbing back and forth over the high stone wall for iced coffee or a glass of horchata or a lazy lunch, our espadrilles filling with Spanish sand, our minds pleasantly blank.
We read and we talked and we swam out to the clear, deep water. We did not wear bathing suits. I don't know if getting away is a place or a state of mind, but those days on Illa Roja, we were definitely far away.
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