The water here is like thick black ink, gnarled pine trees whisper directions to the wandering winds, and the red of the cliffs reminds you of bad sunburn. Here, between the little towns of Palafrugell and Mont-Ras, is Cap Roig, one of the lovliest and most famous botanical gardens of the Mediterranean. How did it come to be here and why is it so well worth a visit? A boat trip from the port town of Palamós to the Red Cape gave Your City the answers
How to get there
To see the Cap Roig botanical gardens from the sea or discover other marine excursions in Catalonia, Your City recommends contacting the Russian-Spanish Yacht Club, which organised this trip for us, either through their site www.yachtspain.ru or by phone — (+34) 932 080 736. If you prefer to drive, enter Palafrugell or Mont-Ras into the satnav. Jardin botanico Cap Roig is between the two towns. Approximate driving time from Barcelona is a little under 2 hours
Our yacht is rocking gently at the quay in Palamós port. But before we hoist sail, let’s take a quick look at the town, which has grown out of an ordinary fishing village. The old part of Palamós makes a pleasant stroll. Dandelions grow out of the walls of the little crooked houses and pigeons strut along the cobbled lanes. Old ladies share the latest news, gossiping for hours. Out of season Palamós, the third biggest port in Catalonia after Barcelona and Tarragona, literally envelops you with its provincial placidity. It’s good here in summer, too, when the casino opens its doors, a little queue develops at the Fisheries’ Museum, and there’s the buzz of the market where you can buy the most amazing creatures of the deep. Freshly caught prawns and spider crabs, mussels and sea urchins, tuna and sea bream, lobster and anchovies are loaded onto trays of crushed ice by the local fishermen. You can tell which of the boats has had a good catch even before they come into harbour, by the cloud of gulls wheeling and screaming at the stern.
What to bring back
A gigabyte of photos of cacti, gulls and cliffs taken on Cap Roig and surroundings, Mar de Palamos eau de toilette from the Fisheries’ Museum, and a couple of kilos of the famous local prawns, plus a burning desire to buy a house on the Costa Brava and masses of positive feelings
To sail from Palamos to the Red Cape you need to set your course north east. It’s three nautical miles, which takes just half an hour. Out to starboard the sea stretches smoothly away to infinity, while to port land slips in and out of view. Not any old land, for this is the Costa Brava, which translates as Savage Coast. In these parts it has almost managed to preserve its pristine wild state. A hundred years ago it was a place where smugglers and excise men fought their battle of wits, and the paths used by each side were given the name “Los Caminos de Ronda”, or “Roundabout Paths. Now they’re used only by the owners of the scattering of expensive villas and dedicated hikers, and the worst that can happen is an encounter with a squirrel hunting for nuts. But who was responsible for creating the botanical garden on Cap Roig, the true pearl of this idyllic spot? In 1927 a very unusual couple looked out from the cliffs overhanging the sea. He was a Russian colonel, Nikolay Voevodsky, she was an upper-class Englishwoman, Dorothy Webster. Tired of the social whirl in London, the couple decided to buy land on the Costa Brava and build themselves a little castle, where they could live out a quiet and contented retirement Voevodsky, an amateur architect, took part himself in the building of this strong, stone lovenest. And it was probably his idea to create a bathing pool in the bay nearby for his beloved wife. This modest structure at the foot of the cliff is now known as “El Baño de La Rusa”, or the Russian Bath. Though how often Dorothy, busy with her garden, found time to use it is a big question…
When to go
The Cap Roig botanical garden is open all the year round, though opening times between October and February are restricted, 9:00–18:00, Saturdays and Sundays. Entry costs 4 euros. Music lovers are advised to plan their visit for summer. Every year between late July and early August the garden hosts the Cap Roig international music festival, which has featured stars of the calibre of Elton John, Cesaria Evora and Barbara Hendricks
A society lady, who so recently was waltzing the night away and organising parties, suddenly turned into a genuinely dedicated gardener. Along with a few helpers, she nurtured delicate tropical flowers and trees, decided where to lay out terraces, watched carefully to see how the cypresses and cacti took to the stony soil of her estate. The size of the property, 17 hectares, of which 7 were given over to her hobby, meant Mrs Voevodsky had little time on her hands. Not that the Voevodskys did much socialising. They were generally satisfied with their own company, and that of their pets, a cat and a Great Dane. Guests were few. It is said that Voevodsky, a former colonel in the Tsarist army who never learned Spanish or Catalan, couldn’t get on with his neighbours. Cristóbal Balenciaga was an exception. The great couturier was a close friend of Nikolay and Dorothy, and often strolled with them along these paths, transferred in 1969, along with the house and garden, to the Caixa Girona foundation, which has not only maintained the architecture and landscape of the estate on the Red Cape (a condition of the bequest), but also opened it to the public.