CADAQUÉS, Spain — How Salvador Dalí negotiated the rocky lanes of his beloved Cadaqués in the rope-soled espadrilles he favored is a mystery. The steep, narrow streets of the old town are more fit for billy goats than humans, who would be well advised to walk purposefully to avoid ankle sprains or worse.
Yes, the paths and steps are uneven, and to ratchet up the degree of difficulty, the stones are set on their narrow sides so it feels — especially if you are wearing thin-soled shoes — like you are walking on the 7-Eleven roller grill. Somehow, old ladies in housedresses bound up and down, casting a bit of a smug eye toward the stumbling woman many years their junior. Several children catapult by, arms flailing as if they've been shot from a cannon. That's how fast gravity is pulling them toward the Mediterranean. Is that really a Vespa bumping along? Its rider must be brain-addled from the jostling.
Then in just minutes, with a few hundred tenuous steps behind us and up the hill, we set feet on smooth pavement. Before us is a lovely harbor, filled with bobbing fishing boats. Shops, restaurants, vacation accommodations and ambling tourists ring the seawall. A slight wind blows, hardly indicating what's coming in just a couple of days' time.
We duck into a beachside cafe for patatas bravas — chunks of golden potatoes with a spicy dipping sauce that are as ubiquitous here as fried cheese sticks are in the United States — and a plate of shaved Iberian ham. We sit for a time, with sangria, too, looking at the water and the sky, the scene framed by swoops of rocks on either side. The one protruding from the middle of the harbor looks like a rhinoceros horn.
The tableau couldn't be more different from the Tampa Bay landscape, and yet it seems familiar. We've seen the harbor, the church on the hill, the sandy colors mutating into sunset crimson, the rocks that take on the shapes of fantasy.
We've seen this place, in the paintings of Dalí.
The Dalí Triangle
Earlier this year, a new $36 million Dalí Museum opened on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront. In it are dozens of paintings and other works acquired by A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who had a grand friendship with the Spanish artist and were among his biggest supporters.
The Morse collection is deep and impressive, and — let's face it — wild. Dalí's masterful technique is awash in hidden messages, sexual tensions and the vestiges of a mind that worked differently than most everybody else's. For some of us, without significant explanations, the meanings are difficult to decipher.
But a sojourn to Dalí's homeland shows how ingrained the landscape is in his work. Once you see the dragon-shaped rock rising from the sea through the window of his studio in Port Lligat and revisit St. Petersburg's museum, you'll recognize the jagged shape immediately in Landscape of Port Lligat (1950) and again in The Angel of Port Lligat (1952). The bell he donated to the chapel at the cemetery in Cadaqués where his father is buried turns up in several other paintings, among them Anthropomorphic Echo (1937). And in so many works, the background to the seeming madness is a sleepy bay and the rising frame of rocky coast on either side, hallmarks of both Cadaqués and Port Lligat.
Salvador Dalí, master of the surreal, adored Cadaqués, about which nothing much is surreal, with a "fantastical fidelity." His father was born here, and as a boy, the artist revelled in its natural wonders. Eventually he bought a fisherman's cottage in nearby Port Lligat that became his refuge and studio. By the time Dalí died in 1989 at the age of 84, he had bought several cottages there, stringing them together in what is a now a fascinating web of ephemera and art history.
Dalí's Port Lligat home is one stop on the so-called Dalí Triangle of sites in Spain's Catalonia region. The others are the 11th century castle that Dalí bought for wife and muse Gala in the flat farmlands of Púbol and the magnificent Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the converted theater where he lived in his final years. Dalí died and is entombed in the museum-home, which has been called the "largest surrealistic object in the world."
Dalí Theatre-Museum does indeed make a statement in Old Town Figueres, topped with enormous eggs and golden statues that bring to mind a chorus line of Oscars. It's a wondrous place, marked with Dalí's genius everywhere, and it's more about installation art than paintings. The building is a work of art nearly as much as anything in it.
Nevertheless, we feel Dalí's spirit in his Figueres museum-home, or maybe a playful wink as we climb the stairs to look through the frame of Mae West's hair and onto a living room scene where a red couch is fashioned into seductive lips and two pictures on the wall become bedroom eyes.
While Gala's medieval castle, purchased in the 1970s and decorated with the golden plush fabrics of the time, and the Figueres museum inform both casual and studious interests, it is Cadaqués and Port Lligat that provide the deeper experience. Plus, Cadaqués and the Costa Brava are among Spain's most popular vacation destinations, where you'll find plenty of places to stay and eat.
(Keep this in mind if you make the journey to Púbol and Gala's castle: In her later years, she required Dalí, who was 11 years younger than she was, to make an appointment to see her. When she deigned to let him visit, she received him from a bright blue throne. Was that any way to treat the world's most celebrated surrealist?)
After spending four days in Cadaqués last month, I began to think that Dalí needed the picturesque wild coast more than it needed him. The light here is exquisite, and it, plus the dramatic landscape, drew other artists over time, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The natural beauty of the area happened without Dalí's paintbrush, though he did certainly bring attention to the region. His early, pre-surreal works of Cadaqués make better chamber of commerce postcards than hallucinogenic toreadors.
Granted, there are shop owners who make a living selling Dalí souvenirs, but native surrealist son or not, Europeans would still flock to the unspoiled fishing village. It is easily accessible to them by car, being closer to France than most other places in Spain. For Americans, the trip is more arduous because there is no train to Cadaqués.
Daylong bus excursions from Barcelona and bus transportation from Figueres (which has train service) can get you there, but to really get to know the area, you'll need a car. Pack a suitcase of steely nerves, too, for negotiating the winding road of Mount Pani that drops you down into the village. It's narrow and steep, and to a driver new to the road, the guardrails don't always seem sturdy enough for the switchbacks and hairpin turns. Road signs are written in Catalonian, the language with lots of x's, spoken in this region of Spain. It's similar to Spanish but just different enough to throw you off.
Then there's the e-mail from Pascual Pesudo Castillo, a trustee of St. Petersburg's Dalí Museum who lives in Figueres, rattling around in my head as I start up the mountain:
"Cadaqués is a delightful village, unique, bucolic . . . located behind a hill called 'The Pani.' But to get there, there are 120 curves on the road. I mean if you go and come twice, and stay well, you can drive safely throughout Spain."
Ominous warning at the fore, we set out. I am happy to report we came and went over "The Pani" more than twice safely, not at all unnerved by the sputtering motorbikes and Italian sports cars speeding by us.
A rental car — you're better off if you can drive a manual transmission because that's the norm on European roads and they are plentiful at rental agencies — is necessary if you want to go rockspotting in the national park, Cap de Creus. The national park, which makes up most of the bulbous peninsula that entwines Cadaqués and the other small villages on the northern Costa Brava, is the coda of the Spanish Pyrenees, where the mountain range plunges into the Mediterranean.
A drive through the part of the park nearest to Cadaqués and Port Lligat reveals rock after sandy, large rock resembling birds, alligators, and maybe even a turtle or two. It's a struggle to keep eyes on the road, because at every turn you are reminded of a Dalí painting. And you wonder: Are these the very rocks that the artist had in his head when he painted Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy (The Three Ages) in 1940? His translation of the rocks into something sexual — The Great Masturbator (1930), which hangs in a Madrid museum, for example — is more understandable once you see the formations, though I tended to see innocuous animals.
The porous rock is cut by sea and a famous weather phenomenon called the Tramontana, which, like Dalí, has a legend all its own.
Touched by the winds
The Spanish have a saying about the Tramontana winds, which blow ferociously across the mountains from the northeast through the Catalonian region. They say tocat per la Tramontana — touched by the Tramontana. The wind is so forceful, it is believed, that the pysche of the people here is affected by the constant howl. It has been called the "devil's breath" and has been known to cause headaches and other physical ailments. Or perhaps drive people mad. Dalí's paternal grandfather committed suicide and the Tramontana is sometimes blamed.
Race car driver Oriol Servia, a native son of Figueres like Dalí, credits the Tramontana for his wild side. "I wouldn't be offended if someone accused me of being crazy because I was touched by the Tramontana. It separates you from the others, sometimes in a good way," he told Road & Track magazine last year. Servia famously wears a helmet with a sprawling illustration of Dalí on one side.
Dalí was quoted many times about the Tramontana winds, which start in fall and linger through the winter. The winds can blow up to three weeks at a time.
Our first couple of days in Cadaqués are pleasantly breezy and warm, in the mid to upper 80s. A rain and wind forecast for Day Three doesn't alarm us. We're from Florida, we know rain. Waking to thunder and lightning is nothing unusual. But the whistle through the crack in the French doors of the hotel room seems altogether different. Olive trees on the patio below bend in half like the old women I'd seen on Day One hoofing up the narrow lanes of the old town.
Ah, Tramontana, someone whispers at breakfast. It's starting. Fall is coming. The wind is here. It won't last for long, this first blow, but it is steady all day. It pummels us as we walk along the seawall, marveling at the wind-caused waves moving water out of the harbor. It's coming from "the Pani," after all.
In just this brief stay, the light has changed. From summer's harshness to fall's long shadows.
The tableau is enough to make you want to reach for a paintbrush. Today, we see what Dalí saw.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.