Tossa de Mar: Spain’s charming little coastal secret

The streets are curiously empty for this time of night. After all, this is Spain, land of the 10:30pm appetizer and bordering-on-midnight entree. Though only 9:45, I realize I’m the lone pedestrian wandering these ancient streets. With a cobbled staircase beneath me and imposing stone walls rising on each side, the swath of stars overhead reminds me that I’m not in Roses, or Lloret de Mar. Though not far from here, their festive downtown lights have extinguished the likelihood of strolling beneath any stars.

Instead, I find myself in a deserted corner of a Catalunyan fishing village that has avoided the golf courses, high-rises, and thumping seaside discotecas — one of the few towns that still deserves to sit along a stretch of coastline locally known as “The Wild Coast”. As I continue my solo stroll amongst the streets of the Roman fortress — the last of its kind along the Catalan coast — the dark, empty one-room homes remind me that after 800 years of being in existence, the novelty of wandering these medieval streets has most likely started to fade.

While much of Spain’s Costa Brava — the rocky stretch of coastline that extends from Barcelona to the French border — has fallen prey to over development, somehow the little fishing village of Tossa de Mar has managed to cling to its humble roots and old world charm.

Cozying up to a table for two after my late-night stroll of the fortress, the photographs adorning the walls of the tucked-away cafe point towards the pride Tossa residents hold for the town’s past: black and white images of salty Spanish fisherman showing off oversized tuna that barely fit in their wooden rowboats, women and children gathered on the beach to gawk in excitement at the record-setting catch. In this eight table cafe that’s squeezed into the narrow alleyway of the village’s Old Town-the Vila Vella-the steaming mound of fish-laden paella that appears next to my jarra of sangria is proof enough that there are still a few fish left in the sea.

While the seafood dish and the night time stroll contribute to the town’s charm, there’s much more to Tossa de Mar than simply fish and forts. Within the town itself are three different sandy beaches, their pebbly shores home to far more Speedos and far less bikini tops than some of us may be used to. Gratuitous public nudity aside, the beaches of Tossa de Mar back directly up to the azure Mediterranean waters where children bathe and spearfishermen still hunt in protected, rocky coves. For those wanting to explore the bottom half of the Mediterranean seascape, Tossa de Mar offers some of the best scuba diving found anywhere along the Iberian coast, with various PADI dive shops scattered across the shimmering waterfront.

Back on the rooftop of my $40/night villa, I pour myself a glass of local Crianza wine and again turn my attention to the lights shining on the seven towers of the stoic Roman fort. From this perch, I can also see the top of the pinnacles that form the town’s best dive spot–Sa Banyera–bathed in the gentle moonlight; my one-room accommodation conveniently wedged between the fortress and the beach.

While Tossa still sees its fair amount of leisurely, family-minded tourists in the warmer summer months, in the shoulder months of April and September incredible budget deals can be found at local pensiones that sit silently in the recesses of the old town. I was drawn into this particular establishment by an aging Catalan grandmother standing in the mid-morning shade sweeping her front doorstep with a broom that rivaled her in age. Though the selling point was the location, what sealed the deal was her spirited laugh and genuine smile.

The next morning I would encounter the woman again, this time on the white-washed rooftop as she hung the sheets out to dry in the sun, all the while shooshing away a pair of pesky seagulls. In a combination of Catalan and broken English, she asks if we are enjoying our stay in Tossa de Mar.

“Claro” I reply, my Castillian Spanish reflecting my poor grasp of the regional Catalonia dialect.

“Me too” comes her simple reply. “Me too”.

Jellyfish to plague Spain this summer

Of all the various creatures invading the coast of Spain (including pensioners from Northern Europe), jellyfish are perhaps the least welcome. For a bunch of brainless little, made-up-mostly-of-water suckers, they could be a real pain (the jellyfish, not the pensioners).

The Guardian reports that in November, scientists at the Barcelona-based Institute of Marine Sciences began studying the life cycles of jellyfish off the Costa Brava, and detected large numbers of the Pelagia noctiluca, also known as the “mauve stinger”, growing in the winter, ready for an assault on Spain’s beaches in the summer.

Back in 2006, 21,000 people had been stung on the beaches of Catalonia, while on a single day in August, 400 bathers were treated at a beach in Málaga. The causes of the jellyfish problem are apparently over-fishing and global warming. Here we go again.