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Best for beaches: Costa Brava
North of Barcelona, beyond the concrete sprawl that bespoils the city’s outskirts, nature suddenly takes over. The Costa Brava’s rocky headlands force the main highway inland and a quiet road, narrow and sinuous, traverses the coast’s steep contours. Soon it reaches the village of Tossa de Mar, where a crescent of sand arcs towards a pine-clad headland fenced by 14th-century walls and turreted towers. Offshore, fishing boats and pleasure craft bob gently in the sheltered bay. It’s easy to see why, in the 1930s, painter Marc Chagall described Tossa as ‘blue paradise’. Tossa’s main beach, Platja Gran, is made up of a golden, almost luminous Mediterranean mix of sand and fine pebbles that sparkle in the sun. In high summer, the beach can be overwhelmed by a sea of bodies, but north along the same bay, Platja del Reig and Platja Mar Menuda remain quieter and more intimate. Further along the coast is another candidate for the title of the Costa Brava’s prettiest village beach, Calella de Palafrugell. In this secluded hamlet, fish restaurants in gleaming white cottages overlook the sand. The signature Costa Brava beach, however, is a concealed cove – a U-shaped inlet occupied in equal measure by sea and sand, and surrounded by pine forests climbing steep hillsides. All of these elements are present at the bay of Aiguablava. Even in the height of summer, its rocky outcrops keep overcrowding at bay, and climbing down through the trees to its quiet sands feels like stumbling upon a well-kept local secret. ‘Look around you and listen,’ says Noemí García, a young lifeguard. ‘What languages do you hear most? Spanish and Catalan. That’s because whether we’re here for work or just to go for a swim, we’re all from around here. We’re all from the Costa Brava.’

Where to eat
On a slight rise above the beach at Aiguablava, the open-air restaurant Toc al Mar feels like an extension of the beach. Order grilled fish, caught by Ramón Deulofeu and cooked over an oakwood fire (00 34 972 113 232; from £10).

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