Figueres in Girona, Catalonia, is well known for its most famous resident, the artist Salvador Dali … and equally popular for its shopping malls. It is one of the first towns across the border from France. The town attracts a lot of shoppers keen to pay Spanish prices for products that cost more on the French side of the border.
The town is worth a visit – and not just for the bargains. There is an attractive tree-lined Ramblas square in the centre, a toy museum, and the spectacular and slightly bewildering museum that Salvador Dali put together himself, and lived in for some years.
The museum started out in an abandoned theatre that had been badly burned during the Spanish Civil War, and later expanded into other buildings and courtyards. The exterior, decorated with giant white eggs on its roof, has a pattern of knotted loafs studding bright red walls behind a dramatic line of Cyprus trees.
It stops you in your tracks to see such an outlandish building in what is otherwise a quaint little Spanish town.
Inside, all you can do is wander and stare, impressed, amused and perhaps perplexed by the art and the building itself. Dali was insistent that there should be no signs or explanations, but that visitors should find their own meanings in the work.
Highlights include Dali’s jewelled sculptures, the Mae West lips sofa and many optical illusions.
The paintings also give an insight into how Dali’s work developed over the years.
The museum is great for children as well as adults, with odd walkways and unexpected things to see at every turn. A Cadillac taxi in the entrance courtyard, for example, has a mannequin driver with a shark’s head, two mannequin passengers, and a lot of live snails inside. Put €1 in a machine and it begins to ‘rain’ inside the taxi.
It costs €14 for adults, and €10 for children and seniors, with an extra €7 / €5 to see the jewels.
The large toy museum on Figueres’ main Ramblas square will also keep children amused, although they are likely to be slightly horrified by what young people used to have to play with in ‘the olden days’. That costs €7, and €5.60 for concessions.
Do visit the Hotel Duran, where Dali used to spend much of his time when he came into Figueres from his house in Cadaqués.
You can also see the outside of the house where he grew up, then eat in one of the many restaurants around the town. The food is good, and considerably cheaper than in France.
Beware of late Spanish lunchtimes, though, and make sure you have a good breakfast to keep you going until it’s time to eat, usually 2 or 3pm.
It is worth getting out into the local countryside, too, if you can – there are good vineyards in the region and there is plenty of shopping to be done, both in the town and outside.
The Gran Jonquera mall, for example, is 20km from Figueres station but can be reached by bus.
Getting to Figueres is easy from France if you use the TGV ‘en coopération’ service run by Spanish rail firm Renfe and SNCF.
The service was set up five years ago, allowing fast train travel from Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and Marseille, as well as many towns in between, to Barcelona and Madrid.
There are four services a day between France and Spain in winter, rising to seven in summer. Paris to Barcelona takes six hours and 19 minutes, and costs “from €39”, if booked ahead.
At the time of writing, to book a trip for the following week would cost €153 in second class and €184 in first.
The rail companies have each given over 10 trains to the service – double- decked Euroduplex units than can travel at up to 320kph on the Barcelona to Paris and Toulouse routes, and single deck Renfe models that can reach 300kph. The project also involved working with infrastructure companies Adif, RFF and TP Ferro to make sure the high-speed service could operate smoothly.
To date, more than 2.5million people have caught the train to and from Spain, and SNCF reports than 39% of those were French, 18% Spanish and 43% from elsewhere.
The trains are clean and smart and the journey passes quickly.
There’s a ‘cinema’ showing on each trip, with films shown on overhead screens and headset jacks in the seat, as on a plane. The films tend to be in Spanish or French, with subtitles in the other language. Likewise, train companies make a point of their ‘bilingual’ staff, but it’s worth being aware that this means they speak French and Spanish. Some will speak English, and everyone is very friendly.
Power points at each seat are a help on a long journey, there’s plenty of luggage storage, and the buffet car has a decent selection of food and drinks.
There’s dedicated space for wheelchairs in both the trains and in the stations, and a service called Atendo in Spain and Acces Plus in France offers extra care, for no charge, for people with limited mobility whether permanent or temporary.
Travelling by train might be slower than flying, but there’s no lengthy check-in period or wait for your luggage – and you can take three bags.
The views of the French and Spanish countryside are spectacular and, of course, you arrive in the very heart of each city.
Whether you go to Figueres, carry on to Barcelona or Madrid, or branch out and head into the countryside once you get there, high speed train is a great way to travel to and experience Spain. My train did, admittedly, stop for a while due to ‘technical difficulties’ on the way back to Marseille, but limped home in the end!
Gillian Law travelled to Figueres courtesy of Renfe and SNCF
Five more ‘worth-a-visit’ venues that are just outside France
BASEL: The Swiss city of Basel is so close to France that some of its suburbs are inside French borders. It is home to a range of museums, including the first publicly accessible art collection in Europe and one dedicated to 500 years of musical history
BADEN BADEN: The German spa town dates to Roman times, and visitors have sought out the healing properties of the waters for centuries. It is home to Germany’s largest opera house, Festspielhaus.
MONACO: See how the other half live in less than two square kilometres of glamorous principality on the Med coast – that, despite its small size, has room for a casino, a palace, an oceanography museum, and an F1 race, among other attractions.
MONS: The site of the first battle fought by the British Army in World War I – and City Hall has a poignant plaque, but there’s more to the Belgian city than tragedy. The belfry at Saint Waltrude Collegiate Church is a World Heritage Site.
VENTIMIGLIA: Three miles across into Italy, this pretty Riviera town with a river running through it was once the home of a tribe that resisted Roman rule. It has several Roman remains including a theatre.