Travel: A place to see and be seen 

Once a backwater home to artists, Tossa de Mar was ‘discovered’ by Ava Gardner


Amazing what even a dud of a movie can do for a place. Until 1950, when "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" was filmed in Tossa de Mar on Spain's Costa Brava, the coastal village had long been a quiet backwater favoured by artists.

The arrival of film star Ava Gardner (her "breathtaking beauty" was the movie's sole attribute, says a critic) changed all that. Much taken with Tossa, Gardner introduced it to then-husband Frank Sinatra and other Hollywood friends, and this became a place to see and be seen.

More than a half a century later Tossa de Mar remains a town of artists, as well as a year-round destination for a legion of visitors attracted to its historic ambiance, fine beaches, bar-filled byways and waterfront restaurants.

The Costa Brava begins just south of Tossa at Blanes, an hour's drive north of Barcelona, and continues all the way north to France. While some of its several dozen seaside villages are touristy, this rugged coast remains one of dense forest, rocky headlands and sweeping coves, some with beaches and deep blue Mediterranean waters.

You can drive, hike and cycle the length of the Costa Brava, or follow an inland highway from Barcelona to the central city of Girona and town of Figueres, where a museum devoted to Salvador Dali is a major attraction. Travelling by train or bus to Girona or Figueres, you can connect local services to the coastal towns and resorts.

The original Tossa de Mar, founded by the Romans and now called Vila Vella (old town), rises from the sea like an encrusted barnacle - still walled and turreted, and with cobblestone lanes. Climb up its ramparts and you're rewarded with exceptional views along this seemingly uninhabited coast, back toward the main beach and new town, and down into a secluded beach called Es Codolar, reachable at the edge of town.

Vila Vella features several machicolated and crenellated towers, the remains of a 15 th -century Gothic church, an old clock tower (for decades the only public time-piece in Tossa) - and, importantly, a bronze statue of Ava Gardner.

"She's done a lot for this village," said our tour guide, as she led us down a narrow lane of centuries-old cottages to the Castell Vell (old castle) restaurant. Owned by an outgoing Catalonian couple and their son, who did the serving, the restaurant is part of a trend to revive the traditional fisherman's kitchen and older Costa Bravan cuisines.

Sitting on a vine-draped veranda, we ate our way through a parade of plates of local tapas - including local sausages, anchovies and shellfish - then delved into a signature noodle paella with aioli (garlic mayonnaise).


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