TRAVEL

Just north of Barcelona, Costa Maresme is of­ten over­looked by vis­i­tors. But with miles of sandy beach, great restau­rants and a coast-hug­ging train, it’s a per­fect es­cape, says Richard Eil­ers

Friday - - Contents -

With se­cluded beaches and quiet coun­try life, Spain’s Costa Maresme is a se­cret es­cape from Barcelona.

Ilove Barcelona but some­times you have got to get out of town. Sit­ges? Lovely, but it can be as rammed as the Ram­blas. The Pyre­nees? Yes, but in sum­mer I need a beach! OK then, the Costa Brava. But have you seen the queue of cars down to the “se­cret” beach that only grandma Lola knows about? Hmm, per­haps the city’s not so bad. Barceloneta beach is just 10 min­utes from the cen­tre and there’s at least 10 square cen­time­tres of sand per per­son.

Or you could do what the Barcelo­ni­ans, but few for­eign tourists, do and head to the Costa Maresme, which stretches north-east for 30 miles or so from just out­side the city to the start of the Costa Brava at Blanes.

My favourite sec­tion is the seven miles be­tween Caldes d’Es­trac and Sant Pol de Mar.

Take the train; the jour­ney is less than an hour from Placa Catalunya, costs just over €3 (Dh12; see trans­port de­tails over­leaf), and is a great bit of time travel.

The line, opened from 1848, was the first rail­way on the Ibe­rian peninsula and was the mak­ing of the Maresme as wealthy folk from Barcelona built fancy sum­mer homes. The track hugs the coast – on a stormy win­ter’s day it feels like a large wave and a star­tled oc­to­pus could land in your lap – and de­fines the lit­tle towns along here be­cause it cuts right through them, of­ten run­ning be­tween homes and the beach.

The ride gives an un­ri­valled view of one of the costa’s big sell­ing points, its miles of wide, golden, sandy beaches. No winc­ingly painful peb­bles of the Costa Brava here; or play­ing sar­di­nas – the Maresme also has a lot more space. The beaches are fam­ily-friendly, with many play ar­eas and ac­tiv­i­ties. There are rail­way sta­tions ev­ery few kilo­me­tres and you can hop up and down the coast for a few euros.

Caldes d’Es­trac (also known as Calderetes) is a gem of a place. This spa town (the clue’s in the name) couldn’t be less of a show-off if it tried. Its main road winds up from the beach (ig­nore that thun­der­ing 1960s road fly­over) past restau­rants and delis to the jewel in the crown, Fun­da­cio Palau (€5), which is ded­i­cated to one man’s long friend­ship with Pablo Pi­casso.

Josep Palau i Fabre hoarded ev­i­dence of their re­la­tion­ship and the col­lec­tion in­cludes notes be­tween the two men and dozens of scrib­bles, draw­ings and paint­ings by the artist. The 19th-cen­tury coun­cil-

owned Bal­n­eari Caldes d’Es­trac has a range of spa treat­ments from EUR11.

The un­miss­able place to eat in town, El Jardi del Vel­lard, used to be in a tiny place right in the cen­tre, but it was im­mensely pop­u­lar and burst out of its seams ear­lier this year. Its new larger home is a 10-minute walk gen­tly up­hill. Chef Ruben Calvo used to work at three-Miche­lin-starred Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mar and he brings some of that restau­rant’s flair and imag­i­na­tion here – while be­ing care­ful not to chal­lenge his cus­tomers’ palates and bud­gets too far. Set lunch dur­ing the week is €14. Ap­peal­ing small ho­tels and guest­houses are thin on the ground in the Maresme as most hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion is in apart­ments. That’s what makes Caldes­cans (dou­bles from €95 B&B) such a find. It’s right next to the Fun­da­cio in a charm­ing 19th­cen­tury build­ing that used to be the Dan­ish con­sulate when diplo­mats moved from Barcelona to Caldes dur­ing the civil war. There are just four rooms, each given a 1960s de­sign spin.

Arenys de Mar is what passes for the big smoke in th­ese parts – and not just be­cause it’s the birth­place of Chelsea mid­fielder Cesc Fabre­gas. It’s a bustling place, es­pe­cially on Satur­days when mar­ket stalls line the main drag.

The splen­did mod­ernista mar­ket build­ing is open the rest of the week. A big fish­ing fleet is based here and sim­ple Restau­rant Els Pescadors “La Llotja” is next to the fish mar­ket, just me­tres from where the daily catch is landed. I had prob­a­bly my best ever fideua (seafood noo­dles) here, sur­rounded by lo­cals gorg­ing on the fresh­est fish and shell­fish. Ex­pect to pay around €60 for two.

Arenys makes a good place to stay for a few days on the Maresme, par­tic­u­larly now that the town’s first ho­tel has just opened. El­e­gantly de­signed Vila Arenys Ho­tel has dou­bles from €80 B&B, but I’d be tempted to pay a bit more for one of the two rooms with its own ter­race and hot tub.

At Canet de Mar you can re­ally see how the newly rich of boom­ing 19th-cen­tury Barcelona fell in love with the Maresme and made it their sec­ond home. The town has an ex­tra­or­di­nary set of mod­ernista build­ings, in­clud­ing the sum­mer res­i­dence of Lluis Domenech i Mon­taner, ar­chi­tect of the Palau de la Mu­sica in Barcelona. It is now a mu­seum (€3) which or­gan­ises guided walks tak­ing in Canet’s mod­ernista her­itage. An hour’s walk to the top of Pe­dra­castell hill above the town not only has amaz­ing views but also takes you past Domenech i Mon­taner’s fan­tas­ti­cal cas­tle of Santa Florentina (castellde­santaflo­rentina.com), which fea­tures in Game of Thrones. Fi­nally, pretty, sleepy Sant Pol de Mar. Wan­der its wind­ing lanes, or spend time on the beach.

So that’s the Maresme. Per­fect as a base for a beach hol­i­day, with quick trips into Barcelona, or as a place to un­wind for a few days af­ter a city break. I’m sure the Barcelo­ni­ans won’t mind you be­ing let into their lit­tle se­cret.

The Costa Maresme lies on the R1 line from cen­tral Barcelona. A four-zone T10 ticket, which is for 10 jour­neys and cov­ers the stretch from Barcelona to Sant Pol de Mar, costs €34.45. A one-zone T10, valid for just the Costa Maresme, costs €9.95

Caldes d’Es­trac and Arenys de Mar of­fer get­aways to those want­ing to es­cape Barcelona’s ur­ban buzz

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The rail­way winds around the coast’s small towns and vil­lages, such as sleepy Sant Pol de Mar

Game of Thrones-philes will recog­nise this cas­tle of Santa Florentina. But Costa Maresme of­fers more – fresh food and a stun­ning rail jour­ney in­cluded

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