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Glass-bottomed boats visit the Medes Islands, to view the rich bird and marine lifeReg Butler discovers that within easy reach of the lager-happy resorts of the Costa Brava, other sides of the Catalonia region can appeal to culture-vultures, gourmets and eco-warriors.

Let's consider the ever-popular resort of Estartit, featured in all the big-time brochures. There are lines of hotels,  apartments and beachfront restaurants that face three miles of sandy beaches.

It's a great place for families, and for 'teens and 'twenties who want to live it up in discos till dawn. 

But there's a major ecology side to the resort - particularly the marine reserve around the offshore Medes Island. Birdlife, coral and fish make a wonderland for scuba-divers, snorkelers and boat-tourists alike.

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Getting there: fly Iberia, BA or EasyJet to Barcelona. More convenient is by charter flight to Girona, which gives easier access to the coastal resorts.

Driving your own car, go by French motorway to Perpignan and thence to Figueres and Girona, radiating to your target stretch of coastline. 

There is great choice of campsites and self-catering apartments. 

To track down local fairs and traditional events, make it a priority to enquire at the local Information Bureau.

More information: Spanish National Tourist Office.

Further information on Girona from the Girona Tourist Office 

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The zone was formerly over-exploited by fishermen and coral gatherers until strict conservation laws were passed in 1985 and 1990. Thanks to the protection, the area around the Medes Islands has been totally restored as a very rich fish-breeding ground. 

Glass-bottomed boats offer 90-minute trips for great viewing. Described as floating submarines, the catamarans feature glassed-in twin hulls. Powerful lights illuminate the sea-bed and the walls of coral, with myriads of fish enjoying a close-up view of harmless human beings.

On the seven limestone islands, Nature has total control. Cone-shaped rocks are thick with birdlife. Peak season is from March to May, when 8,000 breeding pairs of yellow-legged gulls are attracted by the rich food resources. The marine life is so prolific that much can be seen just by looking down from the deck rail, into the sparkling water. 

Ashore at L'Estartit, naturelovers can take a bicycle tour of the surrounding countryside. The neighbouring Nature Reserve of Aiguamolls is an intercontinental stopover for migrating birdlife. The medieval village of Torroella holds an annual summertime International Music Festival. 

Musicians parade through the medieval streets of PeratalladaFurther inland, I visited Peratallada when a medieval fair was in progress. This perfectly preserved ancient town has kept its fortified walls and a splendid central castle, built in the 11th to 14th centuries - home of the powerful Peratallada family. 

Houses were built to last a millennium or two. The narrow streets have remained quite unchanged since the cobbles were first laid. 

Special for the fair, alleyways were lined with stalls that sold local food products like bread, cheese and sausages; or honey and wax candles. Stallholders were dressed in what passed for medieval costume. 

Craft workers showed their skills: weaving, spinning, or making wicker chairs. Musicians, jesters, stilt-walkers and flag-wavers performed, while dressed-up medieval characters wandered around - including a blind beggar and his helper, a sword swallower and a snake-charmer.

Several other medieval sites are equally well preserved - the hilltop city of Pals, for instance, or the sleepy fortified village of Monells. There are several castles in the neighbourhood, and a feudal bishop's palace. 

Even more ancient is Girona, the lively provincial capital which doubles as a university town. It was fortified several centuries before the Romans took over. The strategic location along the main route from France ensured a history packed with battles and sieges.

The hard-boiled egg topping to the Dali Museum at Figueras Today, Girona is rated as the city offering the best quality of life in Spain. Colourful houses line the River Onyar. The sparkling water swirls with big fish. 

Another inland town - Figueres - rates high for the astonishing theatre-art museum created by the surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí. 

As a great self-publicist, the artist wanted to show that he worked in all media - painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture, theatre, literature, music. The museum is a joyous work of art in itself - the most-visited museum in Spain, after the Prado in Madrid. 

Dalí is embalmed in the basement, surrounded by displays of his fantastic golden jewellery work. 

Enjoyment of this museum sets many visitors off on the so-called Salvador Dalí Triangle. Two other widely-spaced sites are closely linked to the artist, and are open to the public.

A twisting mountain road leads past terraced olive trees to the off-trail resort and fishing village of Cadaqués. At the waterfront there's a cluster of small-scale tourist facilities - bars, restaurants and even a trolley train to keep children happy.

Otherwise there's no local eagerness to open up to mass tourism. Cadaqués has been settled by people who like their tranquillity. Up-grading the mountain road was opposed, for fear of disturbance to this residential haven

Dalí's father was born in Cadaqués, and Salvador Dalí himself spent much of his childhood and youth at this remote location. The artist returned in 1930 with Gala, his wife-to-be, and bought a simple fisherman's cottage just north of Cadaqués, at a tiny fishing settlement called Port Lligat.

An adjoining cottage was bought in 1932, and a process of remodelling and expansion started. Between 1936 and 1948 Dalí was away in America. But on his return he made Port Lligat his permanent home. More and more of the neighbouring stone cottages were acquired, and joined up in a labyrinth of domestic and working rooms. 
Cactus displays along the age-old streets of Pals
Entirely designed, furnished and decorated by Dalí, this incredible building has been open to the public since 1997.

Equally worth visiting is the Gala Dalí Castle museum in Pubol, 25 miles south of Figueres. Dalí bought the derelict fortress in 1970, to fulfil a promise made to Gala in the 1930s that he would present her with a palace. 

The restoration and furnishing was another triumph of his creative genius. Don't miss all three points of the Triangle. But choose the theatre-museum if you don't have the time or transport facility for the full circuit. 

Consider these alternative Spanish destinations:

COSTA BRAVA - finding peace along the coast

MADRID - why you should go off-season

MALLORCA - Breakaway to the Spanish grandee rural life

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Dali: The Paintings - Gives a dedicated overview of the artist's widely-scattered works from his entire career.

The Essential Salvador Dalí  by Robert Goff - A more down-to-basics approach to Dalí, and the reasons for his popular appeal.

Costa Brava Insight Pocket Guide - Features 18 recommended itineraries, along the coast and inland, with a pull-out map.

Lonely Planet: Catalunya and the Costa Brava  by Damien Simonis - An in-depth guide that looks deeper into the culture and background of the entire province of Catalonia, including good coverage of the capital, Barcelona. 

Detail Map: Costa Brava - an essential road map for the self-drive visitor, helping you reach the more peaceful off-trail locations. 

The Rough Guide to Costa Brava (Miniguides Series) - An excellent guide which shows that there's much more to the famous coastline than the lager-lout image of mass tourism.

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