The midday sun is delightfully warm, never scorching; the air is softly humid. Sweet scents drift in the sea breeze and bright colours are everywhere. From the layered white-washed walls, pink bougainvillea flower clusters reach down to connect with limegreen palm fronds and intense yellow cactus spikes. The expansive backdrop to this beautifully flowing garden-flanked neighbourhood is painted a deep black opal blue, graduating to a gem-like aquamarine. This colour fills the horizon, it’s a truly marvellous sight: the Mediterranean sea.
At this higher altitude, as far as the eye can see, the sea and horizon line are dominant. The water sparkles and reflects the sunlight, a handful of sailing boats set a relaxing pace. A stroll along these cliff-top streets showcases an extensive list of brilliantly designed homes, terraces, gardens and hidden staircases. We discover one magical 1000-step gem that winds its way down, passing several private properties to an unsurpassably beautiful beach cove and boating marina at its base.
While the journey may sound challenging, and certainly is if climbing, it rewards with thrilling mountain and sea-view photo opportunities at its many hairpin turns. We are walking within the beach cove and seaside village of Cala Canyelles – a place you won’t find in any tourist brochure, as it’s reserved for a lucky few. This is the hidden Costa Brava.
Cala Canyelles is a place so beautiful and peaceful it smoothes the creases of the mind. While tourism authorities promote its main beach and high-rise city neighbour, Lloret de Mar, Canyelles, tucked only a few kilometres away hidden in forested hills, offers both authenticity and charm – something that’s hard to find among Lloret’s aging neon-lit 1960s disco-techs and sandwiched-in concrete-stacked apartments.
In contrast, Canyelles’ streets are a maze of impeccably built classic Spanish stone villas with stepped and terraced gardens of flowers, succulents and cacti flourishing in the sun. Some gardens step up to luxury pools, or down to hidden underground garages. We continue to walk amid colour and lush foliage. Purple lavender, fresh-green rubber plants, Canary Island date palms, tall stands of yucca and, in the distance, cypress pine covering hillsides strewn with rocky outcrops, falling steeply to the sea.
The houses, tunnelled roads and cleverly terraced gardens of Cala Canyelles combined are a delight. While there’s a feeling of stepping back in time, there’s a polish and charm that feels ever-so modern.
We check into a well-appointed all-stone villa apartment on the high main road of Carrer Ronda d’Europa, owned and managed by Dutch-born host Theresa Huveneers. The villa’s mid-level two-bedroom apartment features just enough mod-cons including WIFI and an LCD TV with Foxtel. We switch on for just one night to view the World Cup soccer final; but most evenings are better spent admiring the mountain and sea views from the balcony while sipping a fine Positano limoncello from Italy, sold by the tiny store across the street.
Theresa, who provides first-rate service, had arranged swift airport transfers for us and, once we’d arrived, provided friendly local knowledge. She points us in the direction of the local Michelin-starred restaurant (and apartments) El Trull, only metres from our door. It’s also a spot, we’re told, where we can take a dip in the pool at any time, gratis.
El Trull’s restaurant produces gastronomic art with a focus on fresh seasonal Catalonian seafood and premium meats, all locally mountain-reared. Within this expansive resort-style establishment European fine dining remains a highlight, produced to a high standard that El Trull has maintained since it opened in 1968.
We are seated at the restaurant’s outdoor dining terrace, shaded by fig trees and with views of gardens. It overlooks a terracotta-lined patio complete with foot bridge and central fountain and containing an enormous six-lane pool. The menus and wait staff are appropriately guest-oriented, catering to multiple languages: Catalonian and Spanish, of course,; also French, English and Russian. Among the 10-15 tables dining sit local families, couples, businessmen and tourists. The mood is relaxed but not stuffy. El Trull’s famed silver service is impressive yet understated.
Our French Alsatian riesling arrives at the table wrapped in cloth. It’s carefully poured and then rested in a tableside ice-bucket. After we decide to order salads and lobster from the menu our waiter fetches a live lobster from the tank, displaying it at the table and stretching its tail out so we can gauge the size of our meal. We request a more modest sacrifice, and sip wine until a smaller beast is presented, approved, and sent away to be cooked.
Our lobster tail and claws are succulent, sweet simplicity, perfectly cooked in its own juice, and finished with a little butter. We notice that El Trull’s more detailed classic plates consist of faultlessly executed examples of haute cuisine. These include such specialties as sea urchin with cream and aroma of truffle, and octopus carpaccio with tropical fruit vinaigrette and tartare of smoked fish. Some plates are garnished with a surprisingly decadent touch: what appears to be an artichoke cream mousse with sauce beurre blanc has a bright red palamós prawn swimming through it. It’s old school but seriously cool.
Terrace menu daily starters include salt-cured anchovies from the Bay of Biscay, terrine of duck foie gras with calvados jus served with assorted jams, and monkfish soup flavoured with thyme. But the seafood selections and hams are what prove to be truly impressive.
There are barnacles and king crabs from the Cantábrico Sea of northern Spain, giant live clams from Carril and spiny lobsters from the Mediterranean. Then we take a peek at the row of cut-to-order jamón beside the waiters’ station, and have to admire the ‘Joselito’ Gran Reserva Iberian ham (cured for more than 36 months), a high quality Faustino Lafuente acorn-fed Iberian ham and another produced from pigs fattened on pasture.
Three whole legs are on display, glistening with their silk textured fat, a beautiful sight. Stewed, crunchy Iberian suckling pig with caramelised apple timbale also features alongside Girona-reared beef with fresh duck liver and cabernet sauvignon wine sauce. It’s a classic Catalan menu balance ranging from mountain to sea.
We eschew those more robust options, begin our first course instead with salad and shavings of the Gran Reserva Iberian ham. The salad appears to be painted onto the plate, its presentation respectful of each perfectly cut piece of raw vegetable. The arrangement is to be self-dressed with aged Cavalli Balsamico Classico (balsamic vinegar); it is a simple addition and proves sweet, well rounded and in perfect balance.
El Trull is a beautifully cared-for property consisting of dining and function areas, a pool terrace and luxury apartments. Its focus on traditional fine dining preserves a living piece of history that connects us with the more extravagant tourism boom of the 1950s and ’60s.
While the Spanish government and offshore investors earmarked the Costa Brava for packaged holiday tourism development in the ’50s, British film directors John and James Woolf jumped on the bandwagon, using the coastal town of Tossa de Mar as the backdrop for the production of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, featuring Ava Gardner, then a rising star. The film’s plot had all the right ingredients: an English expatriate archaeologist who uncovers local myth and legend, a land speed record-breaking race driver and a femme fatale of a showgirl all blended with edge and grace. The central concept was the ghostly return of a murderous 16th-century sea captain (and artist) wrapped in a timeless love triangle featuring, also, a rather gruff, over-acting bullfighterer.
In its heyday it was a winner and boosted tourism. The American film critic Dave Kehr wrote, on the film’s release, ‘Pandora achieves a feverish, dreamlike quality with its eerie landscapes … It should be kitsch, and yet Pandora carries such conviction that it achieves a kind of crazy grandeur’.
Its opening scene features Tossa de Mar’s Vila Vella enceinte – reputedly the last example of a fortified medieval town on the Catalan coast. Today it still looks as it did at the end of the 14th century with original perimeter battlement stone walls, four turrets and three cylindrical towers with parapets crowned by Catalan flags. Climb higher along its winding cobbled street and you encounter a statue of Ava. Further along the road are a lighthouse and art gallery, both with staggering views out to sea.
By road, Tossa de Mar is a pleasant 9 kilometre drive from Cala Canyelles. We found the town centre easily; parking was a breeze. After exploring Vila Vella enceinte, we step through a cut-out in a lower perimeter wall that leads us to yet another private cove with a sandy beach. After a quick cooling dip, we follow the narrow streets of the old town deep into its centre. Here we come across Bar Don Juan, a serious eye-opener with no fewer than 70 cured whole Iberian hams hanging from the ceiling. Owner Pere Anson Vazquez inherited the business from his father and grandfather who in turn had successfully operated it since the ’50s. Throughout this time the successful bar menu, reputedly, has remained virtually unchanged. Indeed, even the meats for the bar snacks are still supplied by the very same Girona butchery that supplied Pere’s grandfather.
We sample a platter featuring the house speciality, serrano ham that’s moist, rich and impressively delicate in texture, cubes of manchego cheese (we’re told it is Spain’s favourite cheese), slices of Catalan bread topped with tomato and olive oil, and sweet fragrant skewers of seared pork and small chorizo sausages that boast a deliciously creamy texture.
Spying guests beside us with a jug filled to the brim, we ask Pere his opinion regarding the best ingredients for a fine Spanish sangria. Pere is kind enough to share his own recipe, drawing a diagram and writing a list of ingredients on a waiter’s ticket: first, brandy at the base of the jug, then wine, ice, fruit and orange liquor then, finally, top that with sweet grenadine to create the perfect sangria.
Armed with our sangria road map, safely stashed for future festivities, we next hunt for some premium food and wine to take back, something to share on our apartment balcony as the sun sinks. There, on Carrer Nou, just off the main drag, Costa Brava Avenue, we spot Tossa’s Deli de Love. Perfect: there are a selection of French raw milk cheeses, today’s freshly marinated white anchovies and crisp baguettes, as well as exceedingly fresh just-picked vegetables and fruits and an array of European wines. Filling our bags seems effortless – and it costs much less than expected.
Back at our villa apartment, we bump into Theresa, chat, and invite her to share some of our gourmet loot. The friendly conversation reveals that Cala Canyelles has some of the most expensive property on the coast but, Theresa tells us, only a select few discover its hidden charms.
More lazy days were met with more sunshine and several satisfying walks. We happily shared Canyelles’s refreshing deep-entry sand swimming beach with the friendly and very active kids from Colònies Cala Canyelles – a sport and recreation camp that’s popular during summer months. Every day the company was safe, friendly and carefree. We basked in the sun, dived into the cool blue Mediterranean and enjoying every living moment.
Theresa Huveneers’s Spanish Villa Apartment
Carrer Ronda d’Europa, Cala Canyelles
Restaurant El Trull
Carrer Ronda d’Europa, Cala Canyelles
Bar Don Juan
Carrer del Pintor Francesc Serra, Tossa de Mar
Deli de Love
Carrer Nou (just off Costa Brava Avenue),
Tossa de Mar