The Dali Theatre-Museum is Spain’s
second most visited museum.
The Costa Brava in Spain’s northeast corner is famous for its spectacularly rugged coastline, well-preserved medieval cities and world-class cuisine.
It is also Salvador Dali country. The surrealist painter—one of the best-known artists of the 20th century behind Picasso—lived and worked in this part of Spain most of his long career. On his death in 1989 at age 84, Dali left to the public three museums, each packed floor to ceiling with art and the bizarre accoutrements of one of the great iconoclasts of our time. Known as the Dali Triangle, the museums are each an hour’s drive from the other and make for a delightful tour through a part of Spain that is often overshadowed by glamorous Barcelona, two hours to the south.
A good place to start is in the picturesque seaside village of Cadaques. Dali spent summers here as a child and forever after considered it the most beautiful spot on earth. In 1930, Dali’s wife and soulmate, Gala, bought a small fisherman’s hut that they would enlarge upon over the decades and decorate to suit their decidedly strange tastes. Dali produced many of his best-known works among them “Persistence of Memory,” the original soft-watches painting in a studio here that looked out on the coast and the rock formations that give this part of Spain its distinctive personality.
Today, this odd assemblage of fisherman’s huts, located in Port Lligat a short drive north of Cadaques, is open to the public as the Salvador Dali House-Museum. The museum is so small and the passageways so narrow that visitors are let in only a few at time. Reservations are a must.
The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres
This museum is every bit the mind trip one would expect. A jewel-bedecked stuffed grizzly bear welcomes visitors at the entrance; a phallus-shaped pool and life-sized Michelin Man adorn the backyard. Dali boasted that he was the first Spaniard to see the sun rise, so be sure to look for the bedroom mirror positioned so that the painter could see the morning sun without getting out of bed.
Accessible by a single road that twists and turns through the mountains, Cadaques is enchanting, bohemian and blessedly unspoiled. Narrow, cobblestone streets are lined with white-washed villas, artist’s studios and old wine caves that today are restaurants serving plates heaping with the bounty of the sea. The most famous is Casa Anita, one of Dali’s hangouts. The original owner, Anita Motacortes, still holds forth half a century after she opened this cave-like eatery, offering fresh fish, gazpacho, grilled vegetables and a bottomless tumbler of wine. Anita’s son, Tito, opened a restaurant on the opposite side of town. The specialty at Restaurant Can Tito is a black rice that will leave your fingers ink-stained but your palate divinely satisfied.
The afternoon is well spent on a short drive north through the rocky and otherworldly terrain of Cap de Creus National Park. The hilltop Restaurant Cap de Creus, where a waiter rushes a small plate of brine-cured green olives to your table the moment you sit down, is a beautiful spot for a short break.
The next point in the triangle is the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the painter’s birthplace. Dali commissioned this fantastical showpiece to Surrealism so that the world would not quickly forget the genius who was the “Divine Dali.” He succeeded brilliantly. The museum topped by a geodesic dome and embellished with dinosaur-sized eggs and gilded mannequins is Spain’s second most popular behind the Prado.
Dali delighted in visual tricks and this museum abounds with double images. In the Mae West Room, a reducing lens transforms side-by-side pictures of the Seine and a lip-shaped sofa into the broad-nostrilled face of the actress.
The triangle ends at the 14th-century castle in Pubol that Dali purchased as a refuge for an aging Gala, who enjoyed the company of much younger men. The decor here is regal and more austere than that of the Port Lligat home yet still entertaining. Be sure to peer down the glass top on the small table, actually a skylight giving way to a stuffed, white horse on the floor below.
Many medieval castles in this part of the Costa Brava are now beautifully appointed hotels. Among the best known is the Mas de Torrent Hotel & Spa but my favorite is the dreamy, 13th-century Castell d’Emporda. The patio and pool area at this hilltop retreat look out on a vast and verdant plain. Ask for a castle room, sumptuously decorated with Indian silk and Marrakech tiles.