Dispatches from Abroad: Dilly Dali-ing in Cadaques

Jay Stone ventures into the Spanish mountains to visit the very real birthplace of the seminal surrealist

By Jay Stone

CADAQUES, Spain — This pretty-as-a-postcard town lies at the end of a long twisty road up and down a mountain a couple of hours southeast of Barcelona. You wouldn’t get here by accident, but it’s worth the drive: whitewashed buildings on gently rising hills, tucked around a small harbour with cafes and restaurants that crowd against tiny beaches. Everything is white and blue, cobbled and ancient. You could stay here forever.

To get here, you pass through Figueres, where Salvador Dali was born and lived for a while, and home to a museum dedicated to his honour. Its thin curved corridors are lined with his bizarre constructions — headless dolls, outlandish jewelry — and even more bizarre tourists, who arrive in groups to press their noses against glass cases and to take photos of everything that doesn’t move. Dali once said that the only difference between him and a madman was that he wasn’t mad; I like to think that the only difference between myself and a tourist is that . . . what? That I’m not mad, I guess. Angry, but not mad.

In any event, thanks anyway Salvador. It’s been surreal, but I’m claustrophobic.

Cadaques is home to more Dali history — he built a house for his love Gala just down the road — but after a while one realizes that Dali and Pablo Picasso, his co-conspirator in outrage, did something memorable in every city in Southern Europe. They were the bad boys of early 20th Century art, pissing on lamp posts across the Riviera and leaving a legacy of museums, homes, artworks and various other excuses to sell T-shirts.

Oops. I Hope I don’t sound bitter. I may be museumed out. It’s hard not to be, especially in Barcelona, and especially when it comes to Antoni Gaudi, the architect whose works dominate the city. You troop from one work of genius to the next, wondering when it will be time to call it quits and have a drink. Bearing witness to revolutionary thought is thirsty work.

Withal, it’s an extraordinary legacy. In the past few days we’ve managed to see:

La Sagrada Familla — Gaudi’s amazing cathedral that is being built in the centre of Barcelona for the past 130 years, with decades more work to come. Part of it is done, and it’s a soaring tribute to Gaudi’s faith, with soaring roofs, breathtaking lights pouring in through the stained glass windows and twisty pillars, inspired by nature rising from the floor in geometric majesty.

Later, at Park Guell — where Gaudi lived for a while and a place that has become a sort of Gaudi Disneyland where they charge money to sit on his curved mosaic benches — there’s a tribute from a friend: “The sweetest smile was every on his lips, but before presumptuous fools it became wounding like a dart.” This, of course, will remind you of me, and I have come to think of myself as Gaudi’s spiritual heir: I imagine him, after a tough day at the Basilica, saying, “Well, I got a column out of it.”

The next day, we took a tour of La Pedrera, the apartment building Gaudi designed (four families still live there) that continues his philosophy of twisting shapes replicating trees, seashells and so on. From the amazing roof — a series of steps going up and down and circling chimneys that pop up like tall, hollow soldiers — you can see La Sagrada Familia in the distance, covered in scaffolding, a tribute to a man’s dedication, genius and (if his friends are to be believed) crabbiness.

Cadaques, then is a refreshing change: the sea breeze, the cafe seats where you can watch the sun setting over the mountains, , the little hotel that has a balcony overlooking a small bar and swimming pool. The museums are finished. The education begins.


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