We came down for breakfast any time after 7:00 and were all assembled in the lobby by 9:00 so that we could load the bus for departure with driver Ernesto only 3-4 minutes late. We headed through the city, stopping frequently for red lights in moderate traffic, to head north to the Costa Brava under partly cloudy skies. We drove on the three-lane C-32 along the coast, with sparkling water visible at times and a succession of developed areas with red tile roofed houses stacked up on the hillsides and introduced agaves, opuntia and yuccas mixed in with the native vegetation between. The traffic lightened as we left Barcelona and drove past the cities and towns of Mataró, St. Vicenç de Montalt, and Arenys, through a toll plaza, and on past more small communities, many named for saints, under a thick blanket of clouds along the coast with brighter skies inland. We started seeing a few small terraced fields with a diversity of vegetables, some on plastic or under shade cloth on the hillsides between the developed areas, but much of the undeveloped land was covered with low, very globular stone pines (Pinus pinea), a few other taller trees and gray-green shrubs. There were some large industrial buildings just before we took exit 134 to head toward Blanes on the GI-600. We slowed on the two-land road with a steady stream of vehicles as we drove into town and wound through the narrow, crowded one or two lane streets and numerous roundabouts. We took twisting, turning roads up and around a steep hillside, with stunning views of the harbor below.
We arrived at the Jardí Botànic Marimurtra about 10:05. This garden in the province of Girona, set on the slope of Mount Saint Joan, was designed in 1928 by the German scientist Karl Faust. It combines native Mediterranean and sub-tropical flora with collections of cacti and other plants from arid regions of southern Africa and Central America, as well as plants endemic to Catalonia. The 10 acre garden is at the top of a very steep hill above the port at the north end of Blanes, offering stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea below. In addition to the plants from all over the world – which are divided into 3 main sections (tropical, temperate and Mediterranean) – there is a small pond, as well a long flight of steps leading to the Linnaeus temple set right on the cliffs overlooking the Sea. We had two hours to explore on our own, following the map from the entry exhibits that showed plants of the Canary Islands (Aeoniums, small dragon trees, short echiums), then South African succulents, and along smooth gravel paths to the various parts of the garden. There was a small vegetable garden (not too much in it at the time, since it was between growing seasons here), an “ethonobotanical” section (mostly herbs), and lots of groupings of plants such as palms, cycads, Australian plants, and so on. The garden would really be spectacular in spring when large blocks of trailing mesembs would be covered in bright pink-purple flowers but were just dull grey-green at this time. Several spots offered dramatic views of the craggy coastline and vast Mediterranean Sea to the east.
Everyone had gathered back at the entrance near the gift shop 5-10 minutes before the appointed departure time, so we were ready to board the bus as soon as Ernesto drove up at 12:10 as planned. We returned down the hill by the same route and made our way through Blanes and took the sinuous coastal road north to the smaller town of Tossa de Mar, passing many other small communities perched on the cliffs by the Sea and native pines and other vegetation on the slopes between inhabited areas, still under mostly cloudy, but fairly bright, skies. Ernesto dropped us off on the edge of the old quarter in Tossa de Mar (the streets are not accessible by vehicles) about 12:40 and we walked the 300 meters down the narrow street to get to where we were having lunch.
The restaurant Can Pini was near the old walled part of town in a small space with an outdoor patio, but we were seated at a long table inside. Our set menu included shared starters of little toasts with a slice of anchovy topped with a black olive, a salad of pears and pumpkin with nuts and parmesan cheese, steamed mussels, and homemade chicken croquettes; a choice between scalloped cod with garlic, tomato and potatoes or mixed paella with meat and seafood for the main course; and a choice of Catalan crème brulee or creamy yogurt with fruit marmalade for dessert. After lunch we had free time to wander the quaint streets and poke in the numerous shops or walk up on the ramparts of the old battlemented stone walls of the historic Vila Vella – which is the only surviving fortified medieval town still standing on the Catalan coast – for dramatic views over the town and beaches below and to look at the four turrets and three cylindrical towers crowned with parapets.
We were back to our meeting point by 3:30 to walk the short distance back to the car park where Ernesto was waiting for us. We loaded up and were on our way well before the appointed time of 3:45. Once again we drove the twisting, winding roads along the coast, past houses, a few small orchards, and forested slopes, heading south toward Lloret de Mar.
About 15 minutes later we arrived at Jardins de Santa Clotilde, another garden set on the cliffs of the Costa Brava. The gardens were designed in 1919 by architect and urban planner Nicolás María Rubió i Tudurí for Dr. Raúl Roviralta, the Marquis of Roviralta. This garden is an example of Noucentisme – a Catalan cultural movement of the early 20th century that was a reaction against Modernisme, both in art and ideology – designed like an Italian Renaissance garden, but with Mediterranean plants (including oleander, mock orange (Pittosporum undulatum) and cypress) for the perfectly sheared hedges. The entrance is through the Paisseig dels Tillers, an allée of Tilliatrees (which we call linden but the British call lime trees, whose leaves were scorched brown after the summer) between low green hedges.
The property has three strongly defined main visual axes emanating from the central Plaça de les Sirenes. The most important of these is Escala de les Sirenes, a large green staircase (the risers are lined with English ivy) with bronze mermaids by the sculptress María Llimona. Elsewhere there are neoclassical style marble statues set on ivy-covered pedestals, and fountains and ponds amid formal clipped hedges in architectural shapes. Cypress hedges form walls to channel or highlight views or other elements. There are intersecting gravel paths, ramps with herringbone pattern bricks set in the gravel paths, steps with brick risers connecting the various terraces, and water features throughout, including a grotto pond, fountains and springs. At the far end of the garden, from theMirador de La Boadella up the Escalinata del Mar to the Plaça de la Mediterrania there are more dramatic views of the sea, but the water is visible from many other areas of the garden, too. In the very formal upper area of this natural amphitheater, with its huge columns and high walls of pruned cypress trees, the intent is to create an exaggerated landscape of tamed nature theatrically focused on blue sky, green vegetation and white ground, sculptures and poplars. Other areas have a more relaxed appearance, with trees dotting soft slopes of lawn to help merge the garden with the surrounding landscape.
We had an hour to explore the gardens on our own, meeting back at the base of the hill at 5:00. Ernesto arrived at the appointed hour with the bus to chauffer us back to Barcelona, first going on the same route we came in on before taking the more direct C-31 into the city. People dozed or chatted quietly as we drove along under mostly cloudy skies. We were back in the city a little before 6:00, and it only took another 5 minutes or so to make it to the city center. We had the rest of the evening free to relax and have dinner on your own. Several people met up on the rooftop Atik Terrace about 7:00 for drinks and tapas instead of a formal dinner, wrapping themselves in blankets to keep warm in the chilly evening air.