In Spain’s Dali triangle, figure out where the crowds go, then head the other way, writes Katrina Lobley.
The Dali triangle, a trio of institutions celebrating Catalonia's famous zany son, dangles under the French-Spanish border. Fittingly, given that Salvador Dali liked turning things on their head, the triangle hangs upside down.
Its busiest point is Figueres, home to the Dali Theatre-Museum. Almost a million visitors traipsed through its maze-like innards last year. Draw a line from Figueres to the craggy Costa Brava coastline and you hit Portlligat, where Dali's house-museum has been conjured from a series of fishermen's huts. About 60 kilometres south, in a village so tiny it's often not on maps, is another house-museum: the Gala Dali Castle in Pubol.
Dali bought the run-down 11th-century castle in 1969 for his Russian wife, Gala. They restored its collapsed ceilings, ominous cracks and neglected garden, and she lived in it until her death in 1982. Dali then moved in, using the castle as his final studio until 1984, when he shifted into an apartment within his Figueres fantasia. As the two homes suggest, the couple's union was unconventional. The arrangement was that Dali could visit his wife in Pubol only if he was issued with a written invitation. These invitations were said to be infrequent. The voracious Gala had a taste for younger men and she entertained them there.
We are staying eight kilometres away in another castle. Before acquiring the Pubol pile, Dali tried to snaffle the Castell d'Emporda in exchange for art work. He was thwarted by an owner who preferred cold, hard cash. His loss is our gain. We take to castle life as if born to it. Our castle crowns a low rise overlooking La Bisbal d'Emporda, the commercial centre of the lush Lower Emporda plain. Although we could take a bus to the Pubol turnoff and walk to the village, we organise for a taxi to drop us off and pick us up 90 minutes later.
Gala's three-storey mediaeval castle captivates from the start. Each time we turn our heads, we discover a new thrill: a grand golden throne, stairs leading to nowhere and a trompe l'oeil giving the illusion of a doorway leading to somewhere. I'm besotted with the bathroom, where a tub is tucked behind a sensuously curved wall and gold-plated taps look like exotic flowers. As I stroll past a coffee table edged with seashells and giant bird claws, a security guard motions for me to peer into it. Through the glass-topped cover, I spy a stuffed white horse standing in the room below. The horse isn't the only body in the building. We creep down a dim stairway into the crypt to view Gala's tomb and the empty one meant for her husband (instead, Dali is buried at the Theatre-Museum in Figueres).
Dali could visit his wife in Pubol only if he was issued with a written invitation.
Out into the sunshine, we check out the orange Datsun 180B station wagon parked in the drive and the Cadillac with Monaco plates sitting in the garage. In the formal gardens, a herd of elongated elephants hides behind tall hedges. Yet the biggest surprise is what isn't here: hordes of people. During our visit at the height of summer, we encounter only two others nosing around. Figures show that last year Gala's castle drew only 136,000 visitors, while the Portlligat house attracted even fewer (110,000).
We have no idea how good we had it in Pubol until we arrive in Figueres. (Our taxi drops us at Flaca train station, where we connect to Figueres.) A heartbreakingly long queue snakes through the plaza. We shuffle along, admiring the statues balancing gilded baguettes on their heads that populate the facade. Forty minutes later, we escape from the blazing sunshine and are immersed in Dali's wonderland.
Dali always had a soft spot for this building: this is where, as a precocious teen, he held his first exhibition. The theatre was later damaged during the Spanish Civil War. Dali promised that his museum, which showcases 4000 of his art works, would be "a labyrinth, a great surrealist object".
He succeeded on that count. It's easy to while away hours here absorbing everything from the Rainy Taxi in the courtyard to the puzzle picture that becomes a portrait of Abraham Lincoln when you squint. The queue in the Mae West Room, where a ruby-red sofa and a pair of paintings help form a 3D image of the actress's face, inches forwards as slowly as the queue outside. Visitors climb a narrow set of stairs to view the scene from the perfect angle.
While Dali day trips are possible from Barcelona, it's easier to use pretty Girona, 100 kilometres to the north-east, as a base. The compact city is worth exploring: head to the old quarter to climb fortifications that once protected it from invaders and walk along the tops of the walls. Traipse down cobblestone laneways to the Onyar River, squeezed between narrow, pastel-coloured apartments and crisscrossed by bridges, including one by Gustave Eiffel.
Finally, don't miss the corner where a lioness is clambering up a Romanesque column. It's tradition to kiss the tiny statue's backside – just another surreal moment in Catalonia.
The writer travelled as a guest of Adventure World and Accor.
SEE + DO
Gala Dali Castle is in Pubol, a 10-minute drive from La Bisbal d'Emporda. Buses travelling between Girona and Palafrugell also stop at the Pubol turnoff. Castle entry: $11.40. The Dali Theatre-Museum is in central Figueres. Travel via train from Barcelona or Girona. Entry: $17.10.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Barcelona via Singapore. Return economy fares start from $2200 from Sydney and $2000 from Melbourne. singaporeair.com.
In Barcelona, the 80-room Ibis Barcelona Centro (Sagrada Familia) is two blocks from Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece. Rooms start from $157 a night. ibis.com
In Girona, the art-filled Bellmirall bed and breakfast is a block from the imposing cathedral built over the course of 500 years. Double rooms start from $93. bellmirall.eu
In La Bisbal d'Emporda, double rooms at Castell d'Emporda start from $243 a night. hotelcastellemporda.com