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By Dan Moore
Published September 21, 2007

Eighteen years may have passed since his death, but Salvador Dali's magnetic presence is still felt throughout Spanish Catalonia. Billboards featuring floppy clocks or herds of spindly-legged elephants somehow complement the olive tree groves and quaint whitewashed villages, making this place as beautiful and surreal as any of his paintings.

As I sat on a bench looking out at the yachts bobbing on the Mediterranean, an elderly man eased himself down alongside me. Without any pause or introduction, he launched into a long but lively monologue about how he used to fetch food from the town for Salvador Dalí, who looked on him as a favorite. I’d like to say that I was awestruck at the chance meeting with someone who actually knew the great artist, and eager to learn more from this grizzled Catalonian, but I wasn’t. All I wanted to do was take in the beauty of this small, white walled seaside village.

The truth of the matter is, it’s almost impossible to throw an easel anywhere in Spanish Catalonia without hitting someone who claims to have known Salvador Dalí or to have some connection with the late surrealist. I’ve encountered this phenomenon before, in Carmarthen, Wales, where every old rummy I rubbed elbows with in the town’s pubs claimed to have been a drinking partner of the much lauded poet Dylan Thomas.

The difference between then and now is that the inn-loads of elderly Carmarthen tipplers probably did drink with Thomas, who’d share a pint or three with anyone. The eccentric, yet reclusive Dalí was a different case altogether, being far more likely to keep his own counsel. An example of what Dalí was like was revealed to us at his magnificent bayside home at Port Lligat, just outside of Cadaqués, where he lived for most of his adult life. Maria, our guide, pointed out that although poolside parties were frequent and fairly raucous, no one ever got to set foot inside casa Dalí. All were ushered in and out of the garden banquet area and pool a via a back yard gate.

Indeed, the odds of seeing Salvador sitting outside one of the lazy, character-laden bistros drinking sangria would have been very long. Still, even if Dalí the man remained elusive, his presence is felt all through the Catalonian region.

As you travel around northeast Spain, there are countless billboards featuring thin dark handlebar moustaches, melted clocks and elephants with spindly legs. Stop at a small sleepy village for lunch and chances are the shop next to your café will be selling mugs and postcards with Dalí’s haughty face embossed on them. If this all sounds a little oppressive, it isn’t, as the striking, stark landscape and magnificent backdrop of the Pyrenees keeps everything in perspective. That said, it is easy to get caught up in the hunt for Dalí.

Before heading to the coast to find out what was so special about Cadaqués, I had driven into Figueres, a small, compact city just under 100 miles northeast of Barcelona. This was where Dalí was born, in 1904, and his attachment to the town remained strong throughout his life. Indeed, anyone visiting the city should head for the Theatre-Museu Dalí, a cultural extravaganza that was inaugurated by the artist himself in 1974, and where he died in 1989. Unlike many cultural Meccas this one is not housed in a sober looking building. Dalí remodeled what was once a theatre into what now looks like a child’s birthday cake, albeit one designed for a youngster with a particular fondness for giant eggs.

The museum contains a broad spectrum of works from early sketches to later surrealist sculptures, such as Rainy Cadillac, which is located just inside the entrance and is eye-catching, not just because the car looks stunning, but also because of what Dalí has done to it, such as adding a palm tree and plumbing in a source of near constant rain.

The Theatre-Museu Dalí is full of unexpected pleasures, not least among which are the small terraced gardens dotted about the place. These offer welcome respite from the bustling crowds of art lovers, and a chance to take stock of the range of works on display, which range from the Mae West room, with its garish pink lips sofa and putty nose fireplace, to small, delicately wrought pencil sketches of the love of his life, Gala, Mrs. Dalí.<

  Travel notes
All prices are in US$. No visa is required to visit Spain for tourist purposes. The best time to travel is between June and September.

Hostal El Rancho, Av. Caridad Serinyana 13 – 17488
double rooms from $50
0034 972 258 005

Hotel Llane Petit, Doctor Bartomeus 37 – 17488
doubles high season with sea view $145

Hotel Bon Retorn, Ctra National II
doubles from $90

Hostal San Mar, Ctra Rec Arnau 31
doubles from $40
0034 972 501 566

See for hotels in Barcelona (for day
trip to Púbol): look for hotels on and around the atmospheric La

Gala Dalí Castle: Gala Dalí Square, E-17120 Púbol-la Pera, Púbol, $8
Dalí Theatre-Museum, Placa Gala y Salvador Dalí 5, Figueres, $14
Port Lligat House-Museum, Calle Port Lligat 17488, Cadaques, $11 (Note: advanced reservations are required, Tel. 0034 972 251 015)
Further information: and