On the Dali Trail

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Melting clocks, lip-shaped sofas, surreal landscapes and unfathomable religious motifs. These things are all associated with the wildly eccentric artist, Salvador Dali, and all of these, and more, are on display at the Dali Museum in Figueres and the Dali House-Museum at Portlligat. The museum in Figueres is housed in the remnants of the former municipal theatre, which was burned down at the end of the Spanish Civil War. According to Dali, the location is entirely appropriate for three reasons: ‘first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter; second, because the theatre is in front of the church where I was baptised; and third, because it was precisely in the lobby of the theatre that I had my first exhibition of paintings’.

On the outside, and coursing with rain the day we visited, the roof is bedecked with outsize eggs and golden mannequins like Oscars, and the walls are studded in a rigid pattern with abstract brown shapes, looking, depending on your point of view, like ornate bread rolls, or something less savoury that a dog might leave behind. Rising above them all is an astronomical-looking latticed glass dome, which forms the roof of one of the main rooms inside. Beneath the dome hangs a huge oil painting of Dali’s wife Gala – who was married to one his best friends when he met her. Its holographic qualities mean that from a distance it looks, bizarrely, like a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the museum are many works that experimenting with stereoscopic images to confound the viewer’s expectations.

In the Mae West room, again, perspective is all. At first glance, the room is filled with a quite random collection of objects, almost like an old antique shop. But when you climb the stairs to a platform under a wooden camel (this is Dali, after all!), the junk shop collection transforms into a 3D portrait of Mae West, with the iconic sofa forming her lips and two black and white paintings of classic Parisian scenes mysteriously becoming her eyes. The museum is more like a playground than an art gallery, and while the rain plunged down outside, we scampered around from exhibit to exhibit like children skipping from the swings to the sandpit.

Our thirst for the authentic Dali unquenched, the next day we drove through ruggedly beautiful mountain scenery to the tiny fishing village of Portlligat on the Costa Brava to visit Dali’s house. In contrast to the previous day, the weather glittered, with the sun highlighting the whitewashed walls of the sprawling house and bouncing off the jewel-blue lid of the Mediterranean. Dali spent a considerable part of his childhood in this area and was inspired by the light and the landscape. Originally a collection of fisherman’s huts, Dali and Gala expanded the house several times during the time they lived there, from 1930 to the 1970s. They decorated it in their own inimitable style and it reflects a riotous imagination, from the mirror set up in the bedroom to catch the sunrise, allowing Dali to be the first person in Spain to witness each breaking day; to the swimming pool flanked with tyres and yet another lip-shaped sofa. After poking into the rooms where the master of surrealism spent his time, undisturbed (he allowed no guests to stay at the house) and marvelling at the mesmeric sea views encroaching at every turn, we went for lunch.

And what a lunch! A few kilometres south of Portlligat, perched up on the peninsula at Cap de Creus and pummelled by the elements, is a restaurant with a view to pique the appetite. It had been a year since the four of us – Natalia, our current hostess, Marieke from Amsterdam, Susanna from Copenhagen, and myself – last met up, so there was a lot to catch up on as we sat on the sheltered terrace at the back, tucked into a hearty seafood lunch and gorged on the panoramic views. The wind decorated the ocean with delicate frills, the sun washed the sky with translucent rays and rocky boulders stoically held their own against the crashing waves.

Back in Girona, Natalia took us on a moonlit tour. We strode along the stalwart city walls and clambered up and down staircases, their iron steps tightly packed like the inside of a shell, and with a metallic smell like blood. In stark contrast to the buffeting winds we’d leaned into at Cap de Creus, the evening was totally still, a full moon hanging limpid in the air and the Catalonian flags of independence drooping from their poles. Near the cathedral, in Carrer Calderes, we saw a sculpture of a lioness climbing a pole. According to local legend, if you kiss its bottom you’ll return to Girona: Marieke did the honours, and I certainly hope to go back, not least because just outside the town there is a third museum, the Gala Dali Castle Museum, to complete the Dali trail.

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