Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Dali Triangle

This weekend, Andrew planned a surprise trip—whose destination, this time, I didn’t find out until we’d been driving for about an hour in the car. We were headed to Cadaques, a tiny village two hours north of Barcelona, just below the French border, on the rocky coastline of the Costa Brava. The drive isn’t difficult until the last leg, which involves a winding, steep climb up the mountainside—with a steep dropoff to the side, and lots of sharp blind curves. It was enough to make me realize that I haven’t, after all, grown out of my tendency to get motion-sick. But we reached the town without incident.

Our hotel, like so much else in Cadaques, was full of Salvador Dali memorabilia: photographs, prints, and Dali-esque artworks in the lobby. Cadaques was Dali’s home for many years, and it was where he met his wife, Gala—who had traveled to Cadaques from Paris with her husband, only to subsequently leave him for Dali.

Cadaques is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Spain or elsewhere. The hillside homes and buildings arranged around the sparkling blue bay are blindingly whitewashed, and the bay itself is dotted with small rowboats and sailboats. As we walked near the water, we saw what at first looked like a large seal or dolphin near the surface of the water; it was actually a snorkeling spearfisherman, who emerged from the water with his long spear (but no fish) in hand. The village is tiny, with one large church (with a stunningly ornate altar), several boutiques, and a handful of restaurants around the water. It is a place of absolute peace—quiet and tranquil, with water lapping soothingly on the shore and large-bowed pine trees rustling in the breeze.

Besides simply enjoying Cadaques, we had a goal in mind for the weekend: to complete the Dali Triangle, a collection of three places that constitute a significant portion of Dali’s life. On Saturday, after a lovely lunch at Casa Nun, we went home: to Dali and Gala’s home, that is, in Port Llegat, just outside of Cadaques. Dali and Gala lived in a large house they created from a series of abandoned fishing cottages. They added to the house piece by piece over the years, forming a mazelike home full of odd-shaped rooms and surprising windows. A stuffed polar bear stands as sentry just inside the front door—not a toy polar bear but the taxidermied kind. Stuffed animals populate the entire house, from large swans atop the bookshelves in a living room to two small white goats in the bedroom to a series of heads and other creatures peering out from almost every corner. There is also an unsettling number of mannequins in various states of undress, and Dali’s sun-flooded studio, with gigantic windows overlooking the water and the mountains that surround it.

Our first leg of the Triangle completed, we detoured to Cap de Creus to visit a lighthouse before heading back to Cadaques. The sun was setting as we inched up the mountain, and when we reached the top, the sky was pink and orange and gray. We joined a quiet crowd sitting in almost meditative peacefulness at small tables outside the lighthouse café, sipping cold beers in the cold air as the sky finally grew dark. Around us, people talked quietly, smoking, the whole night still ahead. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to actually live in a place like this—but in such stillness, when the entire world seems not only far away but nonexistent, it’s really tempting to try.

On Sunday, we began the drive to Figueres, a not-so-small town about an hour away from Cadaques. Dali was born in Figueres in 1904, and in 1974 he designed a museum to be built there. This museum—the Teatre-Museu Dali—is a breathtakingly bizarre structure in bright salmon pink, dotted with large gold loaves of bread and capped by several enormous eggs. The museum stands out absurdly in the very normal, not-so-charming city center, among very regular buildings and traffic-clogged streets. The museum itself is both what you’d expect and beyond all expectations: a temple of weirdness, full of mannequins, dolls’ heads, and those crazy melting clocks, with some quite beautiful paintings here and there. The fact that Dali once wore a large round loaf of bread on his head as a hat should come as no surprise, and bread-hats appear now and then in sculptures and drawings as well.

Dali lived and worked in the museum for several years, until he died in 1989. He’s buried in the museum—in a room filled with glass cases full of goblets draped with golden snakes.

The final stop in the Triangle proved a bit difficult to find. Pubol, a tiny village just east of Girona, wasn’t on any road signs, and the only map we had was in a brochure from the Dali museum—hardly detailed. But we were determined to find it, since Pubol is far off the tourist track and we were set on completing the Triangle. Our destination this time: a castle that Dali bought for Gala for her exclusive use, and which Dali himself could visit only by her invitation. The castle dates from the eleventh century, and it was in ruins when Dali bought it; he and Gala renovated it in the 1970s. Dali is clearly there, in the spindly elephant sculptures in the garden, in the paintings, in the egg-shaped fireplace, but it’s calmer, less weird than the house and the museum. And the gardens are beautiful, full of tall sycamores and hidden enclaves, a secluded pool (now a pond), and, since we were there in autumn, many red and gold leaves.

Gala died in 1982, and she’s buried in a crypt in the basement of the castle. Dali lived at the castle for several years after she died, so she wouldn't be alone.

Like Cadaques and the Cap de Creus, the castle and garden were peaceful and calm, set far apart from the outside world. Returning to Barcelona early that evening was jarring; we’d been only two hours away, but it seemed much further. I don’t know much about Dali beyond what I read this weekend in museum brochures and texts, but now I’m anxious to read a biography. All that silence, and all that strangeness—it’s hard to see how his vision took root in the places we saw. He found an alternate universe, a surreal landscape with no reality in sight, in what seemed to me like places where a mind could do little but rest, undisturbed.

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