Since 2011, the Bay of Roses has been included in the Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club, a distinction which carries with it the endorsement of UNESCO. The club recognises the value provided by tourism, the landscape, flora and fauna, and culture in the region formed by the municipalities of L’Escala, Sant Pere Pescador, Castelló d’Empúries, and Roses. Only a single bay is selected per country and sea, which means that the Bay of Roses was chosen from the entire Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
The Bay of Roses achieved the highest possible score for its three natural parks, the ruins at Empúries, the more than 45 kilometres of beautiful sandy beaches (a number of which have the European certification of quality, EMAS), the great variety of water sports, land, and aerial sports, as well as its fabulous gastronomy.
The Empordà marshes once occupied almost the entire plain of the Bay of Roses and the lower reaches of the Ter River. The Montgrí Massif was cut off by the water, and the Greeks founded Empúries in the first half of the 6th century BC on an island between the estuaries of the Fluvià and Ter rivers. That vast marshland gradually disappeared due to the development of agriculture (initially rice fields), then enclosed meadows for cattle; and finally the building of tourist facilities.
Els Aiguamolls de l'Empordà Natural Park was created in 1983 to preserve 5864 hectares of that ancient marshland, following a long and intense local and international campaign started in 1976.The main attraction of the Parc dels Aiguamolls de l'Empordà lies in the large number and variety of birds which live there permanently or temporarily. It is estimated that up to three hundred different species of bird can be found in the Park, one hundred of which nest in the area. Birds are the commonest and most easily seen animal species in the marshes but there is also a wide variety of other interesting species of vertebrates and invertebrates present. So far 329 different species have been observed, 93 of which are resident or breed there.
In fact, Catalonia is one of the most important stopping places for birds on their migratory journeys when they leave northern Europe at the end of the summer in search of warmer climes to spend the winter. The Parc dels Aiguamolls therefore plays a vital role as a refuge and resting place for the one hundred million birds that fly over the Mediterranean coast each autumn.
The Cap de Creus Natural Park, with a total area of 13,843 hectares, 3064 hectares of which is a marine park, was Spain's first maritime-terrestrial park. It is located in the Alt Empordà region north east of the town of Roses. It was created in 1998 to protect the Cap de Creus peninsula and its marine surroundings.
The waters surrounding the Cap de Creus peninsula are very clean, with extremely low levels of pollution. The morphology of the coast, with its sea-cliffs, rocks, islets, reefs, coves and bays, and the nature of its rocky bottom (which can reach great depths) and sediments offers diverse habitats for an extremely rich submarine life, and new species of deep water corals have been discovered there.
In 1955, the pioneering scuba diver and marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau visited the Medes Islands archipelago, on the southern side of the Bay of Roses, and investigated the biodiversity lying hidden beneath the waves. A group of islands situated a mile off the Montgri Massif; the Medes Islands are of extraordinary biological and ecological importance, due to the variety of species and environments there.
Protection of the islands began in 1983, with an Order of the Government of Catalonia, and was increased to include the seabed flora and fauna in 1990. This encouraged a spectacular recovery of the natural marine heritage and turned the area into a sanctuary for numerous marine species in danger of extinction. The Medes Islands Protected Zone covers an area of 93.2 hectares, with the Montgrí coast also included within the 1945 hectare Parc Natural del Montgrí, Iles Medes i el baix Ter since 2011.
This natural park offers some of the best scuba diving in the Mediterranean. Many Dusky groupers at the Medes Islands have reached over 25 years of age and are quite tame around divers. As numbers increase within the marine reserve, groupers and other threatened species are beginning to repopulate the surrounding coastal areas.
As a scuba diving destination the Bay of Roses ticks all the boxes with a range of dive sites to suit all levels and tastes. There are wrecks and caves, beautiful corals, and productive seagrass meadows that are the feeding and breeding habitats for hundreds of species of marine creatures, including enigmatic seahorses and pipefish.
For non-divers who want a glimpse of the great underwater biodiversity, there are glass bottom boat tours of the Medes and Montgri coast and the Cap de Creus natural parks. Dolphins visit the Medes Islands to feed, and the resident population of about 200 Bottle nose dolphins and Mediterranean Fin whales can be seen crossing the Bay of Roses between the two natural parks.
More than 2,500 years ago, the first human inhabitants of the area left behind artistic and cultural works as a testimony to their presence. One of the most important archaeological sites in Catalonia, the Greek and Roman cities and the Museum of Archaeology at Empúries, may be visited just outside L’Escala.
In the first half of the 6th century BC Greek traders from Phocaea founded a settlement (the Palaià Pólis) and years later created the new sector of the city (the Néa Pólis), the remains of which can be seen at the archaeological site. The colony was called Emporion, which in Greek means market. The city developed thanks to the commercial activity of the Greeks with the indigenous peoples of the Peninsula. In fact, their influence and culture were the features that conditioned the development of the indigenous people, giving rise to the birth of the Iberian culture. The Iberian peoples of Empordà belonged to the indiketes tribe.
In 218 BC, on the occasion of the Second Punic War, a Roman army under Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio landed at the port of Empúries with the aim of blocking land access to the Carthaginian troops. This started the Romanisation of the Iberian Peninsula. After the invasion of the Moors and its recovery by the Franks (8th century), Empúries was the capital of the area until the 11th century, when it was moved to Castelló. From that time Empúries was inhabited by a small group of fishermen.
L´Escala emerged in the 16th century as a small fishing port dependent on the neighbouring town of Empúries. However, in 1766 it attained the category of town and municipal capital in a period of great economic wealth thanks to the artisanal fishing and salting of fish. The Anchovy Museum (Museo de Sal) gives visitors an insight into the history of L’Escala’s anchovy fishing and processing, for which it is world famous; and visits can also be arrange to one of the anchovy processing plants, where the fish are still prepared by hand to a secret recipe passed down through the generations. L’Escala celebrates these traditions with the Festa de Sal each September.
The Triumirat Mediterrà is a market that is held in L'Escala in June to celebrate its ancient past. What makes it special is the fact that the whole market is "set" in the year 30 BC. Traders are dressed in Greek or Roman dress, the Tavernae sells drinks that would have been available at that time, and all products must be compatible with the era. During the days leading up to the market there are plenty of related activities and many restaurants offer a special Roman meal, serving similar food to that which the Romans at that time would have eaten. On the day of the market activities include several gladiator fights and an auction of slaves.
L’Escala has kept alive many popular traditions and celebrations. These are not maintained solely for the tourists, they are customs that are strongly rooted among its inhabitants. Other particularly impressive events are the human towers (castelleres) of up to 10 people high and the Gegants (giants) with their massive papier-mache heads towering above the crowds. Gegants originate from the Corpus Christi processions. Nowadays many Catalan towns have Gegants which are brought out on high days and holidays. There is an annual Gegants meeting every August in which all the local giants come to compete in L'Escala for the day and parade around the town to music.
The Sardana is the local dance in Catalonia that involves the townspeople themselves rather than a professional group. This traditional group activity has been even more fervently kept alive since Franco outlawed it as an act of subversion. An orchestra known as a "Cobla" accompanies the dancing. The participants stand in circles and, by listening to the cues given by the music, know which step they should be dancing at any given time. The Sardana looks leisurely and deceptively easy to dance! The dance take place every Wednesday evening during summer at Placa de l’Universe, L’Escala, and everyone is invited to participate.
Catalonia is well known for its wonderful cultural heritage and creativity, the home of world famous artists and designers like Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Antoni Gaudi. Within easy reach of the Bay of Roses, the Dali triangle is a pilgrimage for Salvador’s admirers. The Dali Triangle is composed of the Salvador Dali museum in Figueres (the famous surrealist painter’s birthplace and his final resting place), Port Ligat, Dali’s home during his adult life and inspiration for much of his work, and Gala’s Castle at Pubol, a small castle that Dali restored and furnished for his wife, Gala. These make three fascinating visits especially if you appreciate Dali’s unique and quirky style.
Creative cuisine is another important part of Catalan culture and the former world number one restaurant El Bulli, was situated in Cala Montjoi, on the Bay of Roses, until recently. El Bulli was ranked best restaurant in the world in 2002 and in 2006, by The World's 50 Best Restaurants, and retained this title in 2007, 2008 and 2009, making a record 5 times in the top spot. Despite the chef, Adrià Ferran, deciding to close El Bulli in order to move onto other culinary pursuits, this accolade has remained local. In nearby Girona, El Celler de Can Roca restaurant, run by the three Roca brothers, has held three Michelin stars since 2009. In 2013, it was ranked the best restaurant in the world after having been ranked second best in 2011 and 2012.
The Mediterranean diet is generally regarded as one of the most nutritionally healthy in the world. If your holiday budget doesn’t stretch to the Michelin starred restaurants, meals in many restaurants are fantastic value. The “menu del dia”, usually served at midday as a working man’s lunch dating back to the era of Franco, offers a quality three course meal including bread, wine and water from as little as ten euros.
Another of Spain’s gastronomic pleasure is 'tapas' which is served in bars. Whether at mid-day or in the evening, it is hard to resist trying the many delicacies such as cheeses and hams, and small earthenware dishes of sizzling chorizo, seafood, fish, or meatballs. The opportunity to try so many authentic tastes makes them universally appealing, especially with a glass or two of local cava!
L'Escala on the south of the impressive, sweeping Bay of Roses is one of the smaller more relaxed holiday destinations in the Costa Brava region of Catalonia. It is perfect for families and independent holiday makers wanting to avoid the mass-market package holiday resorts, and is an excellent base from which to discover the beautiful Bay of Roses with its history, culture, art, gastronomy and natural parks.
Written by Gaye Rosier
Gaye Rosier is a voluntary coordinator for two SILMAR Project research stations near L’Escala, which she monitors with the help of volunteer scuba divers who come to learn about Mediterranean biodiversity and gain hands on experience in marine conservation. Originally from Wales, Gaye settled in the area because of its marine biodiversity and the need to preserve this for future generations. You can find her on Google+ and Twitter.
For more information about scuba diving from L’Escala and/or to volunteer visit her website.
All photos used with the permission of Gaye Rosier and under © of Gaye Rosier.