Not everyone is born an artist, you know.
Not everyone has the natural, innate ability to create something out of nothing. Or furthermore, to create something interesting or beautiful or noteworthy out of nothing. And as I’ve learned in the past year, it’s not always easy to foster my creative side while traveling non-stop. There are too many other things to think about — like where to stay, how to get from A to B and where to find street food that won’t kill you.
Cue Costa Brava, a character-driven region of Catalonia in Spain’s northeastern corner – a place guaranteed to bring out the artist in just about anyone.
Seeing Art: Getting to Know Salvador Dali
Costa Brava exudes a distinctive character much like one of its most famous residents – the artist Salvador Dalí. The famous surrealist drew inspiration from his surroundings, made of equal parts thoughtful reason and stirring eccentricity. He was kooky, edgy, whimsical and fun, all characteristics possessed in equal measure by the region itself.
If you want to glean some inspiration from Dalí on his own turf, you must check out the trifecta of sites in Costa Brava. In the coastal hamlet of Port Lligat at the Dalí House Museum, a strangely decorated stuffed polar bear greets visitors in the house Dalí occupied since 1930. He initially purchased just a small fishing shack on the rocky coast, acquired other similar structures nearby, and eventually combined them into one curious artist’s retreat. In the backyard, you can pose for photographs with a variety of original Dalí sculpture creations, including a large pair of hot pink plastic lips near the pool and a giant, person-sized egg.
Just being in close proximity to Dalí’s life makes you feel a little quirkier than normal…
Nearby in Púbol is Dalí’s extravagant gift to his muse/wife Gala, an 11th century castle he purchased in 1969 and subsequently endowed with his brand of genius (or madness depending on how you look at it). Inside there’s Gala’s grave, her throne (for real!) and an exhibit of some of her fantastic dresses. The gardens are dotted with spindly legged elephant sculptures — a common sight in Dalí’s works — and a bizarre fountain created from dozens of carvings of composer Richard Wagner’s head.
Further down the road in Figueres, the Dalí Theatre-Museum is the cornerstone of sites dedicated to his genius. I was blown away by the museum and wish I had a whole day to take in every exhibit! At first glance, each and every piece in the theater seems extreme, wild and nonsensical; but there’s always more to the story where Dalí is concerned and the whole place leaves you slack-jawed by his genius. And you don’t have to be a museum nerd or art aficionado to be in on the joke.
Surprisingly, I was enthralled by the jewelry exhibit. Before we arrived I was thinking, “Eh, jewelry? Big whoop.” But once I saw these creations – some living, almost breathing ones – I was rendered speechless.
The man was a mad genius and the mutual impact he and Costa Brava had on each other is clear everywhere you look.
Making Art: Pottery at La Bisbal d’Emporda
There’s no way to know if you’re any good at art unless you give it a try, and after experiencing Dalí’s life and creative genius all over Costa Brava, I was feeling pretty artistic myself.
In La Bisbal d’Emporda, an artsy Costa Brava village, ceramics are the mainstay of the local economy. One morning, my travel cohorts and I visited an art school with all sorts of classes, from woodworking to painting. Given the area’s reputation as a pottery mecca, we parked ourselves in front of some locally sourced clay blocks and a spinning wheel and set out to create the next Costa Brava masterpiece.
I swirled that mud for a couple of hours and while the finished product wasn’t terrible, I wasn’t necessarily the most gifted potter either. I don’t think I can overstate the fact that Unchained Melody never played nor was there any sign of the ghost of Patrick Swayze, two very important inspirations for any serious sculptor.
Despite not making a single vase, bowl or pot worth taking home, I certainly felt like my creative impulses were satisfied for the time being.
Eating Art: Have Dinner with a Surrealist
Or make that Strombotist! While Salvador Dalí died in 1989, his legacy and influence is as much a part of Costa Brava as its rugged coast, its fresh seafood or its sparkling Cava. Dali’s surrealist vision continues in Costa Brava today in the studio of artist Quim Hereu, and I had an unforgettable opportunity to spend an evening with the artist and his work.
Quim Hereu is currently on a 10-year mission to create the three largest oil paintings in the world in the Strombotic style, an offshoot of surrealism that balances “seny i Rouxa” – or reasonable sanity and wild imagination, thought and flamboyance.
Upon entering his studio outside Girona, visitors are greeted with two sensory assaults – the striking visual of his massive 6×12 meter painting “The Strombotic Birth of Venus or the Time Factory” dwarfing an artfully set table in the center of the room; and the delightful scent of dinner cooking in the corner.
The painting is absurd and ridiculous in every positive way possible – its size, its attention to the tiniest detail, its fantastical, mythological, symbolic content. There are depictions of a woman giving birth to snails, hollowed out trees with staircases to new worlds within, piglike flying men, and of course the dominant central figure of Venus with a cow’s head. Like Dali’s art, at first it seems to be crazy nonsense, but once you digest it, each detail has a significance that comes into perfect focus.
Now, if there’s one thing that’s easy to do well in Costa Brava, it’s eating.
I never had a bad meal during my week in the region, but by far, the seven course spread prepared at Hereu’s studio by star Chef Gonzalo Martinez was the best. In fact, it was in the top 10 meals of my life, real talk.
Every bite was inspired by the art on the walls around us – foie gras shaped like the snails that represent eternal youth throughout the Birth of Venus painting; a multilayered dessert featuring local apples prepared half a dozen different ways; a checkerboard of red & silver tuna; pumpkin soup served in a decanter Costa Brava-style. (I never quite figured out how to pour the soup in my mouth the way the Catalan folks do. It always gets in my eye or up my nose!)
Most prolific artists who I admire are long dead, and if they’re not, they’re inaccessible to a regular Joe like me. That’s one of the reasons spending the evening with Hereu was so brilliant. You get a couple of hours to walk through the details of the painting; get your questions answered about what in the world it all means; and you get to share some of the tastiest, and certainly the most artistic, food, you’ve ever had.
The Strombotic experience is the perfect bucket list addition for any foodie or art lover, or even just a regular gal like myself. Check it out at StramPrivata.com.
Art, when done right, finds a way to appeal to more than just the eyes. My night with Strombotism and my week in Costa Brava did exactly that.
Special thanks to the Costa Brava Tourism Board for hosting me and providing all the world class experiences listed above. As always, movie-related hallucinations, opinions and bad puns are my own.