Onboard our sailboat, we let our bodies sway to the movement of the waves and the sound of the gentle breeze. Watching the port of Palamós slowly disappear before us, we listen intently as Captain Joan shares stories from the past, “This boat was built in the colonial days. It’s since been used by many people, including pirates.” Our eyes light up at the mention of the word ‘pirates’ – it is after all every child’s fantasy to be on a pirate ship.
We are onboard el Rafael, a traditional catboat built in 1915. Now owned by Tela Marinera, el Rafael serves as a reminder of Costa Brava’s maritime heritage. Captain Joan brings visitors out on day trips and organizes pirate-themed boat trips for children.
Cruising along the rugged coastline of Eastern Spain, also known as Costa Brava, we catch glimpses of secluded coves, craggy cliffs and isolated lighthouses – many of which are only accessible by boat.
Captain Joan tells us that it’s common to see dolphins and even whales (during season) in the area. But instead, we spot a curious moonfish swimming alongside our boat, waving its fins as though to say hello.
“Most parts of the rugged coastline are nature reserves, protected by the government from commercial development,” says Captain Joan. It’s no wonder the shoreline manages to retain a tinge of raw wilderness that is lost in other coastal areas of Spain.
After sailing past a myriad of landscapes, we reach our destination for the day: Cala dels Lliris. The tranquil bay spots turquoise waters, white powdery sand charming little white houses perched on the seafront. There must be less than twenty people on the beach – a rarity considering it’s nearing summer here in Spain.
Lunch on Cala dels Lliris is a serious affair: an enormous feast prepared by the chefs of La Cuina de L’Empordanet in a 100-year-old fishermen’s hut. Our lunch table is laid out with colorful local cuisine - platters of butifarra (Catalonian sausages), pan con tomate (tomato toasts) and escalibada (cold dish made up of capsicum, aubergine and pepper).
But the main star of the meal is yet to make an appearance. In the makeshift kitchen before us, the two master chefs, Kim Farraron and Toni Izquierda, prepare to make a sizzling entrance with some gambas de Palamós. The local speciality – prawns from Palamós – is prepared within seconds as Kim gives the red wriggly prawns a quick fry in the hot pan and Voila!
Toni then proceeds to show us how to eat the prawns – first, peel the shells, then suck the head – the head??! “ It’s the best part of the prawn – nutritious and really savory,” Toni tells us. I cringe a little before sticking my tongue down the prawn’s head and surprisingly, Toni’s right. I might just start eating prawns this way from now on…
Kim and Toni belong to a group of professional caterers called La Cuina de L’Empordanet who have been working for years to promote the cuisine of this small county called Baix Empordà. The Empordà is the centre of Catalan cuisine and has a wide, important gastronomic offer, with restaurants of great prestige in the area. It was formed in 1995, with collaboration from sixteen restaurants in the Baix Empordà region.
Traditional Havanera Music
By the end of our meal, it’s time for the local group of Havaneres to make an appearance. The L’Empordanet havaneres group croons us with a collection of traditional music – from light-hearted songs of the past to sentimental romantic ballads.
The lead singer tells me the origins of the havanera music, “The havanera music was created when the Spanish conquerors came back from Cuba, thus bringing back a tinge of Cuban musical influence with them. The cork industry was thriving then, so it was common for workers to relax, sing and drink a bit of cremat liquor.”
We end the day with a Catalan song, swaying our bodies to the infectious tune. When we boarded the sailboat earlier that day, I had no idea our day would turn out like this – another pleasant surprise that Costa Brava has sprung on me.