French painter Marc Chagall was so taken by the quality of light he found in Tossa de Mar that he nicknamed the Spanish coastal town “Blue Paradise.”
As my wife and I lay in bed one evening, in a hotel a few blocks from Tossa’s main commercial drag, I found myself more fixated on the city’s noise, specifically that coming from the revelers outside our room.
As is customary in many Mediterranean towns, evening social activities in Tossa begin at an hour well past my normal bedtime and continue long into the wee hours of the night. Before arriving in Spain, my wife and I had agreed to adjust, as best we could, to the Mediterranean style of living. But two days into our trip, a combination of prolonged jet lag and the weariness of touring put the kibosh on that plan. Synching our bodies with the rhythms of the Spanish coast remained an elusive goal.
Nestled among the pine-tree-covered mountains and rugged, pink-rocked shores of Catalonia’s Costa Brava (a.k.a. the Wild Coast), the stretch of seaboard that runs from the resort town of Lloret de Mar to the French border, Tossa has long attracted tourists from all over Europe. My wife and I had come here for the scenery. Several months earlier, we’d been flipping through Costa Brava guidebooks and found that each one featured at least one picture of a well-preserved castle overlooking a beach.
We were looking at the Vila Vella, a walled-in medieval city that sits on a rocky hillside overlooking the Platja Gran, Tossa’s primary beach. This juxtaposition of sand and castle struck us as particularly idyllic, and it seemed like a destination where we could easily reconcile the two conflicting desires inherent in Mediterranean vacations: an eagerness to spend hours relaxing on beautiful beaches with a drink in hand, and the impulse to tour sites of natural beauty and historical consequence.
Although each of our guidebooks pictured the Vila Vella, the old town whose 14th-century stone wall is so devoid of any visible wear and tear that it looks cribbed from the Charleton Heston film “El Cid,” few of the publications had positive things to say about Tossa in general. They decried it as a “concrete-covered” tourist trap where commercial development intended to attract out-of-town visitors and purge them of money blighted the city’s historic charms. I couldn’t help wondering whether such criticisms were a bit overwrought, and in spite of these negative reviews, we put Tossa on our itinerary.
When we first arrived in town, via a road trip from Barcelona, I began to understand where some of the aforementioned criticism stemmed from. Much of the newer sections of the city were developed in response to a post-World War II tourist boom that transformed Tossa from a seaside village into a modern resort town of modest proportions, and many of the newer buildings lack architectural character. Tossa is particularly popular with Britons, and we passed several restaurants with signs advertising traditional English breakfasts. We also found an Irish pub, and the commercial district near the beach had no shortage of little shops selling figurines, mugs and other kitsch.
After checking into our hotel, we headed to the Platja Gran. Because my wife and I both have Britishlike complexions (and it should be noted that Tossa natives once referred to British tourists as “lobsters” for the way their skin turns bright red after a few days in the sun), a beach umbrella and oodles of sunscreen were required accessories. In spite of our protective efforts, we found that our skin was turning a pinkish hue after just an hour on the sand, and so we ditched sunbathing and headed for the Vila Vella.
The Vila Vella is the only fortified medieval city that remains standing on the Catalan coast. Given this significance, we expected it to have the feel of some hoary museum. But as we passed through the Vella’s still foreboding main entrance, we found instead a thriving business district. A smattering of restaurants lined the winding medieval roads. People sat outdoors drinking wine and eating paella, while others took pictures in front of the stone wall.
Coming from the United States, where historic sites tend to segregate the preserved from the modern with “Do Not Touch” signs and other schoolmarmappropriate touches, we found the integration of new businesses into a historic village charming. The Vila Vella had a welcoming, homey feeling. We sat down at a restaurant, ordered a plate of Rice Tossa, a soupier version of paella whose recipe originated in this city, and stayed there for hours, as is the Spanish custom, enjoying glass after glass of cold wine and watching the people walk by.
We spent the next few days alternating between lying on the beach and leisurely strolling throughout Tossa’s various sections. We saw the Villa of Els Ametllers, which the Romans built in the 1st century B.C., and we learned that prior to the Romans’ arrival, Iberians had settled the area and named it Turissa, which over the years morphed into Tossa.
We visited the exceptional municipal museum, where we saw Chagall’s “Celestial Violinist.” In the 1930s, European artists such as Chagall flocked to the city to paint by the coast and enjoy what one of our guidebooks described as a “sophisticated summer season.” We hiked Mount Guardi and learned that it was the Abbot Ramon de Berga who granted Tossa a charter of dependence in the 12th century and ordered the construction of a castle, thus giving Tossa its signature feature.
On our last evening in Tossa, as we strolled through the city’s new commercial district, I couldn’t help thinking that people who write off Tossa as a tourist trap miss a more profound point about the city and the region where it’s located. Catalans have long referred to their homeland as a “terra de pas,” or “place people pass through.” That phrase might sound depressing on first read, but it carries a positive connotation, implying that Catalonia has benefitted from centuries of travelers passing through and leaving bits of their culture behind.
Tossa is a prime example of this phenomenon. The Iberian settlers, Roman city makers, impressionist painters and British tourists, all of whom spent significant time in the city during various periods of its history, left indelible marks behind. As a result, Tossa balances its Catalan identity with a variety of absorbed cultural touchstones (some kitschy, others profound) in a very unique way.
Tourists who want a different Catalonian experience, one in which the restaurants offer only traditional Spanish fare and merchants don’t overtly try to pry money out of their visitors by offering cheap trinkets in return, might fare better in Begur or Cadaqués. Tossa tastefully blends the old with the new in a manner that’s never what you expect.
Our last evening in town, we ventured down to the beach. A stage had been set up on the northern end, and a variety of musicians were taking turns entertaining the gathered crowd. I bought two overpriced and undersized mixed drinks from a wooden beach bar, and my wife and I drank contentedly while listening to a British musician cover the Eagle-Eye Cherry song “Save Tonight.” It may not have been traditional Spanish guitar, but it was quintessential Tossa.
After a few more drinks, we wearily trudged back to our hotel, while the rest of the beachgoers stayed. Their night was just beginning, while ours was once again coming to a relatively early end.
Craft is a freelance writer in Arlington. He blogs at remembertheaughts.com.