Arts Travelogue: Finding Dali in Cadaqués

A trip to Cadaqués in Catalonia is a journey every lover of the surreal should make.

I recently went for a long walk, over several weeks, down the Costa Brava from Banyuls, France to Sitges in Spain. I walked with no particular destination and on no schedule, so when I ended up in Cadaqués, I stayed a while. I was drawn to this once-isolated, steep-sided harbor village where Salvador Dali spent much of his adult life, but it was more than this that attracted me.

Cadaques. Costa Brava. Catalonia. Spain. Europe
Cadaqués at night, with the church of Santa Maria de Cadaqués on full display. Photo by: Paolo Picciotto/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cadaqués has long been known as a stronghold of Catalan independence, and a safe harbor for smugglers and refugees from all over the world. The town is isolated in a craggy harbor and difficult to access even today with only one road in and one out. Most of the tourism is driven here by Dali’s house and some adjacent arts-related attractions, but as famous as Dali is, his name and his influence don’t overbear the small town.

I walked in from the north through the arid Paratge de Tudela where the light is flat and intense. It has the effect of making the Mediterranean in the distance seem deeply, refreshingly blue as it shimmers off the morphic rock formations all around. A visitor with the right set of eyes could see elephants with skeletal legs, and camels with five humps within the play of light and shadow the rocks cast. Dali used this light and this landscape as the setting for many of his dramatic absurdities.

Salvador Dali statue
The Salvador Dali statue in Cadaqués. Photo by: Mikel Bilbao/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you draw a line between the towns of Figueres, Púbol and Cadaqués, you have a triangle across the Emporda. This is known to some as the Dali Pyramid, as it connects the three towns most important to him. He was born in Figueres and bought a castle for his wife in Púbol, but it was to Cadaqués that he was indelibly drawn. The stark landscape, its cluster of buildings and the stoic residents of the town begin to show up in his paintings as early as 1916.

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Dali lived in Cadaqués throughout his adult life in a twisted dream house of his own design, filled with his surrealistic fantasy furniture and fixtures. Being obsessed with Dali’s paintings in my youth, hiking the coastal trail around the finger of rock, up the hills and then down to the cove at Port Lligat was like walking through a dreamscape. A place I’d never been but knew so well.

Museum-House of painter Salvador Dali
The strange Museum-House of painter Salvador Dali. Photo by: Betend A/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The first time I visited the house, there was a high school field trip scrambling through the place. The second time, I ended up giving my spot to a teacher from Taiwan who had ridden his bicycle halfway around the world and made the famous house one of his prime stops but came too late in the day to get a ticket.

I didn’t need to tour the famous house; I know what’s in there. But to stand on the dock and face the entrance to the cove was like stepping into one of Dali’s seascapes, and I nearly expected a great Madonna to rise up out of the sea.

‘Punta Es Baluard de la Riba d’en Pichot, Cadaqués,’ (1918). © Salvador Dalí Museum Inc., St. Petersburg, FL

The house isn’t sectioned off in any way. The dock, which seems unchanged since Dali painted it, is lined with small boats. It’s still a working area. Lobster baskets hang from a pole and the boats come in and out with netted fish. Is that Dali’s own skiff painted a bright yellow still moored, as it was in his Punta Es Baluard de la Riba d’en Pichot, Cadaqués.

Spotting a homemade black-and-white label on the bright blue door of a private house adjacent to Dali’s Maisonette that reads ‘This is not Dali’s house’ seemed to me an exceptionally surreal happenstance—c’est no es pip. The whole place could be examined through Dali’s to reveal some hidden truth.

A white doorknob in a blue door
A door in Cadaqués. J. McMahon

The church of Santa Maria de Cadaqués was just a few steps up above my hotel so I thought I would stick my head in quickly and see what was drawing the loose string of tourists milling about its courtyard.

The church was originally erected in the 13th Century and then rebuilt in the 16th. It overlooks the bay and its wealth betrays the dedication of the townspeople to its upkeep. The 18th-century titular altarpiece, baroque to the point of monstrousness, minutely detailed and masterfully crafted, was almost too much to take in a church of its size.

The Madonna looms over the nave at 22 meters high. The figure was immediately familiar—the open-armed Madonna inhabited Dali’s works in various forms for thirty years. Around her, the detail of the baroque altarpiece nearly overwhelmed me. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of majesty in a church with a congregation of just 400 or 500 people.

At night, I had taken to hanging around at Netico’s House where a cosmopolitan group of renegades sat eating and drinking inside and out. My first night I took the sole table for one in the alley on which sat a placard featuring a sepia-toned photograph of an old man in olden times. I read the quote in Spanish and understood it to mean something like ‘Man is nature that has become aware of itself.’ This was a beer ad?

I searched the quote and found it was from the manifesto of the French anarchist Elisee Recluse from sometime in the 1880s, so I ordered one.

The narrow streets and alleys of Cadaqués were paved generations past with pieces of slate on edge so that both humans and donkeys alike could get a good grip when the weather played hell, in the meantime, it was playing hell on my already sore feet. Just sitting and listening to multi-lingual murmurings was a pleasure not only to the ear but to the rest of the body as well.

When my beer came the label revealed it was made by an anarchist, nano brewer and the label depicted Angel Rock, a symbol of the city being squeezed into a fist until blood ran down the arm, not unlike Hunter Thompson’s gonzo symbol, and of course, it was because this was Cadaqués.

The chain-smoking sisters who ran my hotel gave me some historical pamphlets about the town to read. It was an odd selection of history and quotes, but some of it gave real insight into the place. “The fates have not been kind to the people of Cadaqués… when disaster strikes, the only person you can rely on is a fellow Cadaquésenc, which has given rise to the town’s motto, Nos amb nos (Us with us).

Place To Visit: Salvador Dali's Places - Figueras and Cadaques
Sculptures in the garden of the Casa-Museu (House-Museum) of Salvador Dali. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

On a rainy afternoon, I ducked into the Expo Dali—one of the few places in town that seemed to be shamelessly profiting from using his name. The museum is full of photos of Dali and his entourage taken by the owner. It didn’t add up to much until I went up to the third-floor gallery. The room was hung with a hundred portraits of townspeople. Each sat in the same chair, in the same corner of a room in what could have been in any house in town.

All the photos were taken in the 1950s. The people, men, women, youth and elders alike share an unmistakable profile, and each sits with a defiant expression and rigid air that personifies the people’s stoic attitude and the harsh realities of living on a rocky outcropping above a wind-buffeted harbor. They were the same people Dali had used in his paintings going back a century. Fishermen, market women and sailors all hunched over against the wind, climbing the tortuous streets or perched precariously on the sea-worn rocks.

A painting of a seaside landscape with people in the foreground
‘Cadaqués,’ (1923). Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL (USA); Gift of A. Reynolds & Eleanor Morse

Was there ever a painter so attached to a specific landscape, one town, one single rock? Again and again, we see the shallow bay, the white-washed cluster of buildings huddled against the bare cliffs and the point of Angel Rock in the distance. Often when the coast isn’t the setting of Dali’s paintings then the arid planes and wind sculpted rocks of the Paratge de Tudela are. Whether it’s stilt-legged tigers eating like-legged elephants or Christopher Columbus discovering the new world, it’s all happening in Cadaqués.

I was left with a chicken and egg question. Is it Dali’s legacy of being an outcast, unique and stand-alone, that influences the attitude of the town, or was it the individualism, stoicism and rebellious spirit of the town that made Dali what he was? Or was it just kismet—did Dali find just the right place on earth to unleash his particular kind of genius as seems the case with so many others over time? He wasn’t a fisherman or a sailor but he was a proud Catalan and seemingly a natural Cadaquésenc who lived their motto. Us with us, indeed.

A rocky outcropping on the sea
Inspiration for ‘The Great Masturbator,'(1929)? J. McMahon

Arts Travelogue: Finding Dali in Cadaqués