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Calella: Spain’s re-born Costa gem

By Roger St Pierre

Sea, sand, sun: the lively Catalan resort of Calella, an easy and comfortable one-hour train ride up the coast from bustling Barcelona, has all the requisite ingredients for the time-honoured annual Mediterranean summer holiday break. But now it’s become much more than that.

Back in the 1960s, when mass package tourism to Spain supplanted the traditional home-based seaside holiday, Calella was one of the first former fishing villages on the Spanish Costas to get in on the act. Guaranteed good weather – not just in summer but through the shoulder months too – plus highly competitive pricing and the new-found thrill of going abroad, attracted the low-budget bucket and spade brigade in hordes, with many spending their fortnight under canvas at one of the numerous camp sites that sprang up like a rash across the region.

But time moves on and as competitive, more exotic destinations have opened for business across the globe, Calella, like other holiday towns the length of the Spanish coast, has had to reinvent itself.

First off, the name of the place has been tweaked to Calella-Barcelona Maresme to avoid confusion with a competitor resort called Calella de Palafrugell, further up on the Costa Brava coast 

More importantly, the focus of things has switched. While still financially competitive, the local tourism industry has reached out for a wider, more affluent audience and now has quality hotels to match. 

Of course, the three Blue Flag rated beaches – including one of Spain’s longest, broadest and best kept, hosting a wealth of organised activities for children and adults alike, many of them free, courtesy of the members of the local hotel association – are still important. However, the focus is now very much on the town itself, with its picturesque historic centre, its year-round plethora of cultural and sporting events, its family attractions and its mouth-watering gastronomic offering. 

Even if you spent a month eating-out every lunch and dinnertime you would not run out of different restaurants to try in this town. These range from simple tapas bars and fast-food places right the way up to the literally exclusive Sant Pau (www.ruscalleda.com), located in the tiny village of Sant Pol de Mar, just a couple of kilometres down the coast and rated among the finest and most innovative restaurants in the whole world, thanks to the highly creative lady chef Carme Ruscalleda’s inspired cuisine, boasting a three-star Michelin rating. But I’d advise you to book now if you want to get a table anytime before Christmas 2015 – and remortgage the house while you are at it! Food this fabulous does not come cheap.

In Calella itself, the atmosphere is decidedly rustic at La Roda (which means ‘The Wheel’, www.larodacalellas.com), where you sit on benches at a table groaning with delicious Catalan specialities, like the traditional botifarra spicy sausage with white beans, in an atmosphere-laden, dimly lit and cavernous room that has been trading as a hostelry since 1962, developing a hugely loyal following.

Here you are encouraged to become part of La Roda’s history yourself by scrawling on the roughcast walls – if you can find a space amid the already crammed signatures and sketches.

Open your robust feast here with a generous selection of speciality cured meats and cheeses and follow with spit-roasted chicken accompanied by garden fresh salad and roughly torn huge chunks of crusty country bread, still warm from the oven, to soak up the accompanying dipping sauce – and you can still leave with a bill of €15 or so per person.

Very different but equally outstanding is the sophisticated El Hogar Gallego (www.elhogargallego.com) restaurant, presided over by the welcoming Gordillo family. Yes, it’s not cheap but a similar gastronomic feast from a high-class fish restaurant in Belfast – if you found one – would cost double, and then some. The fabulous displays of fish and seafood that hit your eyes when you enter here make Harrod’s fabled fish counter look like a village market stall in comparison. They are then cooked to perfection.

Here I sampled the rare local espardenyes clams as just one item on a glorious parrillada platter of simply grilled harvest from the ocean, exquisitely presented and then washed down with a crisp, dry local wine.

Another good dining-out choice is Can Miquel (www.canmiquelcalella.com), whose specialities include a Catalan version of paella, using both meat and fish to anchor the fluffy rice. Equally brimming with flavour was an unctuous fricandó beef stew and I’d also recommend the various coca dishes, including the one with escalivada (roasted red peppers and aubergine) and goat’s cheese.

If you should choose the self-catering option, pay a visit to any one of the three Los Extremenõs (www.losextremenos.com) emporiums, acclaimed as the second best bodegas in all Spain, with their mind-boggling array of hams, chorizo, salamis and cheeses, including the achingly expensive but truly melt in the mouth acorn-fed black pig Iberico hams. 

To the town’s 70 restaurants can be added 800 shops and boutiques and bed space for 14,000 visitors (the town has an 18,000 resident population). With most of the top-end hotels staying open right across the festive period, it’s a great place to spend Christmas.

The colourful Parade of the Three Kings, at the beginning of January, kicks off the town’s annual calendar, other highlights including the Festimatge festival of photography and short films (April), the Ironman Barcelona (May), the 88th Sardana meeting, celebrating Catalonia’s national dance (June), the Saint Quirze and Saint Julita celebrations (June), the International Folklore and Dance Band Festival (July), the NEC (Nits Estiu Calella Music Festival) (July through Aug), the 34th Calella and the Maresme Fair (Sept), the International Choir Festival (Oct) and the Special Olympics (Oct through Nov). A lively collectors market is staged in town on the first Sunday of every month. 

Recently opened as a fascinating interpretive centre, the historic and graceful lighthouse, set on a bluff just south of the town, and dating from 1859, is today Calella’s most iconic symbol but there are other fine buildings to discover too, starting with the ornate market square, dating from 1338, the 16th Century parish church and the glorious chapel of the town’s two patron saints, Quirze and Julita, built in 1476 and containing the saints’ relics. Other standouts include the ancient city hall, the municipal archive museum and the park’s massive air raid shelter, a haunting reminder of Spain’s terrible and tragic civil war.

Built on a Roman-styled grid system and featuring a pedestrianised main street, Calella is easy to navigate and its compact size makes it highly walkable.

We stayed in a comfortable suite at the quirky H.Top Amaika Hotel (www.htophotels.com), close to the town centre, which is themed around the Titanic, with porthole-shaped windows, lots of brass fittings and historic photos, documents and memorabilia of the ill-fated liner, even down to the staff wearing naval-styled uniforms. It seems the hotel’s owner saw the movie and became its biggest fan, leading to a massive themed re-fit.

If you still hanker after a campsite holiday, with its unmatchable communal family ambience, then Camping el Far (www.campingelfar.com), with its comfortable and attractive chalets set below the lighthouse hill is still very much open for business.

With the last train back setting off from Barcelona at around 11 pm, a hassle-free day trip to see Gaudi’s iconic Sacra Familia cathedral, the Ramblas (or Rambles in Catalan) and its markets, the Olympic Park and the other attractions of the big city is a must while near Calella is the Montnegre nature park and the whole region is criss-crossed with outstanding hiking trails and cycling routes.

With gently sloping sands and little tidal rise and fall, the beaches are safe for swimmers and those who just want to dip their toes in the warm Mediterranean waters. Parasailing, banana boat rides, windsurfing and boat trips are among the multitude of activities available at the beachfront watersports centre while such supervised activities as foam parties, bouncy castles, aerobics, volleyball, beach football and a range of games provide something for all the family. There’s even a giant floating pier to add to the fun potential while the beaches are big enough to allow you to get away from the crowds, if that’s what you are seeking.

The clean and modern carriages of the railway run on tracks laid right alongside the seafront promenade on their way to the final destination of history-laden Girona which, like Barcelona, is only just over 50 miles away, giving a second airport option for direct flights from Belfast International.

We chose to fly low cost with easyJet, which meant packing light to avoid those notorious catch you out additional baggage charges.

This gave me the chance to try out the stylish Vaude Tobago 35 litre, £129 travel bag I had been sent for me to test. The bag’s tough soft material provided a bright easyJet corporate orange colour match and, with is tough, flexible material was perfect for those notoriously anything but generous easyJet overhead bins, into which it fitted snugly.

Strong frames, smooth gliding wheels and strong handles are all Vaude features.  Also available is the 65 litre version, a £149 winner that can be opened in half, has side, top and pull-out handles, as well as a reinforced bottom, edge protection and fuss-free swappable wheels, and the £169 full-sized 90 litre model, which is perfect for long-haul trips. 

For further information, go to: www.calella.com

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