There are two ways of looking at the Costa Brava: through British eyes, you confront the tired, overrun and overdeveloped resort of Tossa de Mar and her kin. But try through the eyes of the local Catalans, and a very different picture forms.
The countryside and coastline that run north of Barcelona to the French border historically known as the Alt (high) and Baix (low) Empordà have traditionally been where wealthy Barceloneses have had their family and holiday homes. Not for nothing is Spain’s most famous restaurant, El Bulli, based here: Catalans work hard and earn more than many of their compatriots and where they go, sophisticated tastes follow.
The walled city of Gerona is the capital of the region. Until recently, it attracted only 500,000 foreign visitors a year, on the occasional days that it rained on the Costa. It’s since undergone the ‘Ryanair effect’ and visitor numbers are expected to reach six million this year.
At the coast, the smartest have homes dug into the steep, pine-covered cliffs overlooking the fishing villages near Begur. Meanwhile, the countryside between the city and the coast is green, hilly and scattered with pretty medieval stone villages with wide squares and restaurants serving excellent Catalan homecooking. It’s this countryside that Dennis O’Brien, the Irish billionaire who turned the Portuguese resort of Quinta do Lago into one of the most fashionable in Europe, has invested in his next project.
PGA Golf de Catalunya, the course that was built to host the Ryder Cup in 1997 but lost out to Valderrama in the south due to delays, is being developed into a residential country club. Contemporary homes will be built in prime positions around the fairways of this 36-hole course, which sits in a basin surrounded by 360˚ views of mountains, and yet is a 25-minute drive from the beach.
‘Dennis has a great taste for property and location [it’s a five-minute drive from Gerona Airport and 45 minutes from Barcelona] and the objective here is to create something that’s very Spanish in a location that already has cultural and gastronomic value,’ explains investment director Richard Strappe.
Although part of the very public collapse in the Spanish property market can be attributed to ill-advised, over-ambitious golf developments, Catalunya Resort has the much-needed gravitas not only of solid financial backing, but of being nominated as the second-best course in Europe. ‘We don’t want to spoil the course, so the houses will be carefully designed around the fairways, with a focus on low density,’ says the resort’s chief executive, Juan del Rio.
Buyers are invited to choose between building their own design (which has to be approved by the onsite team), using the team to project-manage their own build or a turn-key purchase. Prices, which start at about €850,000 for both the plot and build, rising to more than €2 million, are lower than in Sotogrande in the south, ‘but we make no apology for the fact that this is not a cut-price product,’ says James Price of sales agents Knight Frank (020–7629 8171).
Spain has tightened up regulations regarding developments around golf courses, which makes opportunities at the Catalunya Resort unique. ‘It would be very difficult to repeat this project anywhere nowadays and impossible in Catalonia,’ observes marketing director Jaume Marin.
Locally, the stock of country houses is largely made up of stone-built masias (farm-houses). Although prices generally in Catalonia have fallen by 20%–25% since the height of the boom, prices for these particularly in the popular areas around the villages Pals and Palafrugell will start at more than €1 million, says local agent Rik de Ridder. He is selling an eight-bedroom masia with 120 acres and lovely views over a valley that belongs to an English lady and her Catalan husband for €1.5 million (00 34 9 72 48 64 65; www.engelvoelkers.es/girona).