Living close to a border gives you two cultures for the price of one. Take Spain’s Costa Brava. Steeped in Catalan culture with some of the Mediterranean’s prettiest bays and beaches, its proximity to France provides interesting weekend opportunities, even more so now the high-speed Madrid to Figuères train has arrived.
If you buy here, Barcelona to Figuères, closer to the border, now takes 53 minutes, allowing for lunch in France and back home to Spain for dinner. Spain claims to have Europe’s largest high-speed rail network — second only to China worldwide. And in April, when the link to Paris is complete, getting to the Costa Brava from London by train will be even easier.
Girona is just 37 minutes from Barcelona on this new line, a cultured city largely ignored by foreign tourists. “Even the Spanish scarcely know it,” says city guide Marguerita Alburná.
“The city is compact with a 600-year old Jewish quarter and a beautiful baroque cathedral. In the Eighties, residents were encouraged to renovate their properties and now it is a model for regeneration of a medieval city.”
Accessibility was behind Maria Schlee’s decision to buy a house at PGA Catalunya 20 minutes from Girona. With her husband Robin she bought a plot at the 226-acre resort and earlier this year moved into a newly built four-bedroom house of their own design.
“The golf courses were important to us but this area of Spain is about so much more than just golf,” says Maria. “It’s easy to reach from London by train or plane and just 45 minutes from Barcelona airport. Once here you have beaches, mountains and fabulous cultured cities all within 90 minutes.”
PGA Catalunya has defied the Spanish downturn to sell 25 homes last year helped by a golf course rated as one of Europe’s finest. Contemporary homes made of Catalan stone and expanses of glass feature hi-tech interiors, and are set in attractively landscaped grounds. Property for sale ranges from one- and two-bedroom apartments by the illustrious Stadium course for £220,000, to sprawling five-bedroom villas for £825,000 upwards. Semi-detached four-bedroom homes with pools built in small clusters around the golf course look particularly good value at £610,000. In total there will be 369 homes when the resort is completed.
“We have mature golf courses but 30 per cent of clients don’t play golf,” says Julio Delgado, chief executive of PGA Catalunya. “They are attracted by the resort’s architecture and location.”
The Costa Brava might be where package tourism began but it remains one of Spain’s most blissful coasts. Small bays and sandy coves, low-level umbrella pine trees overhanging the rocky coastline and an overwhelming Spanish flavour make it a delight.
The coast does have its British areas. High summer in Lloret del Mar brings the hordes, many in search of all-day English breakfasts, but elsewhere there are French and Spanish families who know this is the place for multi-generation holidays with Michelin-starred restaurants and simple beach cafés.
“The Costa Brava is overlooked by Brits heading south to Marbella,” says Mark Stucklin of the Spanish Property Insight website. “It is an upmarket area with historic houses. The south has been overbuilt but above Palamos has been preserved thanks to its hills.”
The Spanish have their secret areas. Stucklin tells of amazing bargains as the recession bites. He suggests looking at Llafranca and hilltop Begur, the “best of the best”. Prices are down as much as 40 per cent on the coast. A 150sq m house that would have cost £970,000 pre-crisis is closer to £525,000 and estates once worth £2.6 million to £3.5 million are less than £1.75 million, says François Pastor of Coldwell Banker Spain. It has a three-bedroom semi with private pool and sea views in Begur for £375,000 and a nearby four-bedroom house for £590,000.
PGA Catalunya: pgacatalunya.com (00 34 972 472 957).
Spanish Property Insight: spanishpropertyinsight.com
Coldwell Banker: prestige-spain.com (00 34 972 307 827).
Empordà: the Spanish Cotswolds
Want to know where the Spanish head on the Costa Brava? Look to Empordà, a region of mountains, beaches, traditional crafts, vineyards and medieval hamlets between Girona and the Pyrenees. Charming small villages, intimate hotels and standout restaurants are the main appeal of this Spanish “Cotswolds”, along with markets and quirky, shabby-chic furniture shops. For Barcelona residents it’s the perfect weekend bolthole.
Hunt for bargains — both property and antiques — in villages such as Madremanya and Ullastret, eat in Massana or El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and dig out decorative treats in Culdesac and L’Ultima Parada in Corçà. Engel & Völkers have property for sale in Empordà from £120,000 for one-bedroom flats in Cadaqués. A four-bedroom apartment in Palmos is £385,000 and a five-bedroom villa in beautiful countryside five minutes from Tamariu is £550,000.
Engel & Völkers: engelvoelkers.com