Sipping Espresso in Dali's Shadow

The roll-call of previous enthralled visitors to the remote Spanish fishing enclave of Cadaqu?s reads like a compendium of the artistic great and the literary good of the 20th century.

The poet Garcia Lorca wandered its craggy coves in the long, hot summer of '25, tossing off verses at will and finally concluding: "My stay at Cadaqu?s was so wonderful that it now seems like a beautiful dream."

Since then, surrealist Andr? Breton has lazed on the sun-scorched beaches, the photographer Man Ray has snapped the olive-pickers in various poses, and dadaist Marcel Duchamp has done his stint propping up the various bars of local establishments and inspecting their lavatories (for aesthetic purposes). Other Cadaqu?s devotees have included Louis Bu–uel, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Paul Eluard, Ren? Magritte and Pablo Picasso, who produced some of his most important cubist works in the town.

But the patron artistic saint of Cadaqu?s, its greatest admirer and proselytizer, was Salvador Dali. His father was born in a cottage nestling the Cadaqu?s sea shore and Dali's first canvasses -- painted during his early flirtations with impressionism and cubism -- capture the majesty of the town. However, it was only when Dali and his lover, the Russian socialite Gala, settled in neighboring Port Ligat that the notoriety of Cadaqu?s began to gather along with the artist's exponentially growing fame.

"This is the spot which all my life I have adored with a fanatical fidelity," Dali wrote in his autobiography, "I know by heart each contour of the rocks and beaches, each geological anomaly of its unique landscape. I alone know the exact itinerary of the shadows as they trace their anguishing course around the bosom of the rocks. Each hill, each rocky contour could have been drawn by Leonardo da Vinci himself."

It was with this praise ringing in my ears -- and a certain, nervous sense of accompanying apprehension -- that I rounded the final bend on the treacherous, careening road that leads into Cadaqu?s, which is perched on the most easterly point of the Iberian peninsula, about two hours away from Barcelona. Could this tiny settlement, accessible only by sea until the end of the last century, withstand such attention without being transformed into an arty theme-park?

The answer came as I turned the corner to a fanfare of rolling olive groves, gleaming white clusters of buildings and the shimmering blue transparency of the Mediterranean stretching away for an eternity. The town seems to have taken hold in a crack in the rugged, slate-coloured countryside like a patch of stubborn whitewashed lichen. On the higher ground grand, turreted villas are set sternly into the rock. Lower down, a delicate, intricate necklace of tiny winding paths and shady roadways hangs gently from the crystal-blue bay.

The surrounding coastline is the town's most breathtaking feature. Pressing up against the gently breaking waves are meandering, jagged embankments, decked with cliffs and aiguilles and plummeting rock formations. In places, nature seems to be involved in such a riot of activity that it is in danger of toppling into the Mediterranean. The landscape, as Picasso commented, is "gathering force like a geological storm of unparalleled force and beauty."

The town itself -- crowned by the burly Church of St. Mary -- is still haunted by Dali's ghost. Everywhere, his moustached leer leans out from billboards -- it seems to have been de rigeur for caf? proprietors to be photographed with him -- and bendy watches are draped over each logo and mural. The town's two museums display a surprisingly respectable selection of Dalis as well as a couple of Picassos. And the sweet, dark scent of hash, available freely ? la Amsterdam in many of the bars, is also a legacy of the time when Spain's hippies came here in the 1960s in search of the holy grail of trippy surrealism.

But if you are not a Salvador Dali enthusiast, don't despair. Most of the charm of Cadaqu?s lies in its devastating natural beauty and in the air of seclusion that the town has miraculously managed to preserve in the face of the tourist onslaught. I spent most of my time exploring the cliffside pathways and discovering new, deserted, tiny shards of beaches on which to sun myself. With its steeply inclining sea-bed, the bay is a bathers' and a divers' paradise.

And even though the locals regarded me as a maniac for attempting to swim in November, the sea was warmer -- by a factor of two or three -- than the Irish resorts where I served out my childhood holiday-making apprenticeship. This late in the year, the weather too was glorious, hovering between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius with clear cobalt skies and baking sun.

In the evening, a scintillating hush descends on the town, punctuated only by the gurgling of the sea and the occasional whirr of locals on their ubiquitous motor scooters. My favorite evening haunt was a beautiful, dark, dim, mysterious tavern called the Caf? De La Habana.

Even the flamenco efforts of the proprietor Nanu -- who is pictured at the entrance playing guitar and boring the heck out of an indifferent Salvador Dali -- didn't manage to interrupt the magical candle-lit tranquillity.

Along the sea front there are many worthy seafood restaurants, but the culinary star of Cadaqu?s is Casa Anita, run by a family dynasty now headed by a stocky, bullish extrovert head-waiter named Juan.

There is no menu, so diners are at the mercy of Juan's momentary whims, but, in my experience, it doesn't really matter what he offers. The sauteed shrimp is like nothing else I've ever tasted and the baby squid comes a close second, with creme Catalan, a superior variant of creme caramel, being the only viable desert choice. The price, as Juan says himself, is "normal" -- very normal, in fact, at about $41 for two with wine. This also includes the entertainment at Casa Anita, which comes in the shape of Juan spraying jets of Porron, a sweet, sherry-like concoction, into the air from a glass spout and gulping it down in mid air with a certain Catalan panache.

The off-season is the best time to visit Cadaqu?s since it becomes overcrowded in June, July and August. However, it is hard to imagine that the Earth possesses enough tourists to fill the rocky expanse of Cap De Creus, the headland north of Cadaqu?s where I spent my final day, wandering around the filigree rock formations, diving into the sea and simply lounging around. As the sun slowly, spectacularly made its way across the pristine, cerulean sky, I could think of nowhere else in the world more suited to a magnificent day spent doing absolutely nothing at all.

Day Trips

The town of Figures, about 40 kilometers inland from Cadaqu?s, is the birthplace of Salvador Dali and now marks his life and work with the Salvador Dali Theater Museum, established by the artist himself in 1968.

A great deal of his most famous work is exhibited here, including the paintings "Atomic Leda," "Gala Looking at the Mediterranean Sea" and "Poetry of America."

There are none of the usual fusty art gallery trappings -- brochures or even the titles of the individual works -- as the museum tries to capture the theatrical essence of Dali's genius. Particularly striking is the Mae West room, Dali's portrait of the star in three dimensions, complete with wig-curtain and huge nostril-fireplace. The museum also offers a spooky night-time tour.

Roses, just 10 kilometres south along the coast, was once the Greek colony of Rhodes. The ruins of the town's moat-encircled ciutadadella contains the remains of the Roman church of Santa Maria, which dates from the 11th century. But the real attraction of the otherwise unremarkable, tourist-oriented modern town is its four kilometers of sandy beach, which is almost enough to compensate for the hordes of British and German holidaymakers.

Getting There

For American and European Community citizens, Spain is a visa-free travel destination. For Russians, an invitation from the Spanish Embassy in Moscow is necessary. (tel. 202-3210.)

Numerous airlines fly from Moscow to Barcelona, including Lufthansa, Air Iberia, Aeoflot and Malev. The cheapest options at the moment are Aeroflot (about $475) and Malev ($480).

Where to Stay

Cadaqu?s hosts a wide range of hotels, pensions and guest houses.

On the top end of the scale is the seafront three-star palace of the Hotel Playa Sol (tel. 972-258-100) which offers luxury double rooms from about $100 to $140 a night, depending on the time of year. Less financially galling is the Misty Hotel, (tel. 927-258-962) a cheerful, comfortable establishment with a swimming pool with doubles from between $45 and $77. For the ultra-low-budget traveler, there is always Cala Nuri, (tel. 972-159-023), a clean but rudimentary pension were doubles are as little as $25 a night and singles go for $16.

Practical Matters

Buses leave daily for Cadaqu?s from Barcelona (cost: $14) and take two hours, 20 minutes to reach their destination. Trains are much more frequent and leave from Placa del Gracia station for Figures every hour with a traveling time of around two hours. From there the bus leaves for Cadaqu?s three times a day.

This leisurely route allows visitors to combine day trips with their outward journey, which is probably the only practical option. Once in Cadaqu?s, it is unlikely you will be eager to leave.

John O'Mahony's flight to Barcelona was arranged by Star Travel.