History, Wine, and Music on Spain’s Affordable Costa Brava

In Palafrugell, Sue Ellery rents within a 30-minute bike ride of the beach for $880 a month. ©iStock.com/IMV

The smell of baking bread greets me as I walk along the narrow medieval streets in the early morning. The church bell is chiming. It’s September and there are no clouds to obscure the vivid cobalt-blue, Mediterranean sky. It’s just another day in the small Spanish town we call home.

In 2015, my partner William and I began to consider moving to Catalonia, in northern Spain. We had spent most of the year getting to know Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, with its Roman history and charming neighborhoods. We wanted to escape the spiraling costs back home in Southern California, and we sensed that we could have a lifestyle in Spain that allowed us to indulge our passions for a lot less money.

In April 2016 we left the U.S. and headed back to Barcelona before settling in Palafrugell. It’s a town of 20,000 people along Catalonia’s Costa Brava, about an hour south of the French border. We love Barcelona, with its Gaudí architecture, food, wine, art, music, people, and weather. But we wanted a quieter, yet still vibrant environment close to the Mediterranean, with a more laidback lifestyle. Palafrugell fit the bill. Normal summertime temperatures are in the 80s F. In winter, temperatures can dip into the low 40s F, with some rain but no snow. It’s our kind of weather, after Southern California’s constant heat.

To say our lives are more enjoyable is an understatement. We are both in our 60s, and here we are free to pursue our interests without having to worry about the escalating cost of retiring in the States.

Palafrugell is about two-and-a-half miles from the sea. It has its own Catalan art and music scene. The Habanera Festival takes place the first Saturday in July, when singing Mediterranean sea shanties is laced with the joyous drinking of cremat (burnt rum). During the summer, guitarists play traditional Catalan and flamenco music at the beachfront restaurants, lending a romantic atmosphere to the beautiful surroundings as the sun sets over the Mediterranean.

Our local mercat (“market” in Catalan) is open six days a week, all year. On Sundays it expands to include clothing, shoes, handbags, and household goods, in addition to the normal colorful vegetable stalls. The big fish market and the meat and sausage vendors next door have their own covered space. We spend about $82 a week, including items like salmon and prawns. For two pieces of salmon, cut straight off the fish, we pay around $6.60. Locally grown tomatoes are $1.65 a kilo (2.2 pounds). All the food we buy is locally produced in the Baix Empordà region, the local agricultural heartland. We can eat out for as little as $13.20 for two chicken salad baguettes, patatas bravas (pan-fried potatoes with pepper sauce and light mayonnaise), and a decent Rioja wine. Or we can splurge and spend $55 for a gourmet tapas feast, a great bottle of local cava (Spanish champagne), topped off by prunes in brandy with slivered oranges.

Our rental house in Palafrugell costs $880 a month. It has four bedrooms and two full bathrooms. We have a deck with a gorgeous view over the town and beyond to the mountains, and an enormous tiled basement. Our overall cost of living is just $1,800 a month, and this includes eating out most mornings for breakfast and twice a week for dinner. In California, our rental house alone was $500 a month more than our total expenses here.

We liked the idea of not buying a car here. We use local buses and trains to get to Barcelona, about an hour and a half away. We ride our bikes down to the beach, which takes about 30 minutes. Both of us feel much healthier here; we walk everywhere and have a push cart that makes local shopping easy.

We’re also both learning the local Catalan language. You don’t need to learn Catalan to enjoy life here, and if you have a little Spanish, that helps, too. Our neighbors have been wonderful, and even though our Catalan is still stumbling along, they encourage us.

We enjoy visiting all the Salvador Dalí museums, including Figueres, where he is buried under the floor, his house at Port Lligat (Cadeques), and his wife Gala’s castle in Pubol, about 15 minutes by bus from Palafrugell. If you like history and visiting pre-Roman and Roman ruins, this area is like Aladdin’s cave. There is also a “pottery town” close by named La Bisbal, with incredible pottery at low prices. We now have a set of fired-clay dishes ($16 for eight).

Without a doubt, Catalonia has the best healthcare either of us has ever had. Many doctors speak English, and there is a hotline for English-speaking people. It’s really amazing value. In California, a prescribed, medicated skin ointment is $100; here it’s $25. If we need a prescription, we go to Farmacia Carlota Torres, which gift-wraps your medicine in a thin, parchment-colored paper stamped with a red picture of an alchemist blending his potions. You can’t get that at CVS in California.