Travel a tiny bit past Portbou and you’ll end up in France! This little village, nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees’ mountains, is on the border with France, which makes it a popular destination for day-trippers. As you approach the village, it’s the train station which stands out mostly, as well as the homes which seem to climb up the steep slope, out of the valley coming from the waterfront.
The border village of Portbou has around 1300 inhabitants, and even in the height of the season the beaches don’t become overcrowded. The pretty, pebbled beach of Portbou is embraced by a wonderful bay, which is apparently a natural amphitheatre.
Up until the latter part of the 19th century, Portbou was one of a collection of sleepy, peaceful fishing villages, that could be found dotted around various parts of the Spanish coast. However in 1878, a transformation took place when the International railway station was opened. This means that the village that you can visit today has an interesting blend of being hospitable, accustomed to international travellers, but with less tourist activity than other villages and towns further south in the Costa Brava.
So for now in Portbou you can find more tranquillity than in many of the other Costa Brava seaside locations, and I guess something the goes hand-in-hand with this, is that not all buildings have had a makeover. This means you will see some buildings that could do with some TLC, but depending on how you are as a person you might see that as part of the charm.
Apart from its imposing train station, Portbou is charming because of its coves and beaches, the cemetery that hangs over the sea, its neo-Gothic church, its port and its hospitality. Of course it’s famous for its connection with the philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin. The German philosopher committed suicide in Portbou, rather then been captured by the Gestapo. Considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin allegedly took an overdose of morphine, on 26th September 1940, after a long, difficult journey on foot fire via Pyrenees to get to Portbou.
On a slightly merrier note, Portbou offers its fair share of fiestas, even though it does only have 1300 residents or so. Just like the rest of Catalonia, Carnival is a big event and takes place before Lent each year. There are also the festivities in May, June, July and August in September Walter Benjamin is commemorated.
Like any border village or town, Portbou has a slightly more colourful history because of the likes of criminals and smugglers. Originally it was a quick and valley which belonged to the monastery of Sant Quirze de Colera, which later passed into the hands of St Peter of Besalu.
It was during the 18th century that the valley of Portbou was added to the population, of what was then called Sant Miquel de Colera (St Michael of Colera). Apart from the smugglers and the criminals, there were of course also farmers, shepherds and fishermen. Before the original railway station was built in 1878, Portbou was really a handful of shacks and fishermen’s houses, the port of Colera and a small military outpost. Until 1934 it was joined to Colera.
Things To Do
Walter Benjamin Memorial
This is of course a rather thought provoking experience, which when you connect with your emotions about the decision that Benjamin made, you may find that the surrounding environment helps to deepen these strong feelings. The memorial to honour Benjamin is called “Passages”, and it was inaugurated on 15 May 1994. Created to honour the 50th anniversary of Benjamin’s death, by Dani Karavan, the Israeli artist. The monument was jointly financed by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Generalitat of Catalonia.
The Israeli artist, Karavan, shows immense sensitivity in balancing the historical with the subtle emotions correctly in place to honour Benjamin, along with his amazing sense of creating and placing a sculptural installation, that integrates perfectly into the surrounding landscape.
El Cementiri – Portbou Cemetary
It could be a tough competition between the cemetery here in Portbou and the one located in Sitges – both of them are very beautiful and right by the sea. The cemetery in Portbou was completed in 1885, it has a small chapel dedicated to Christ built in the 19th century, and the plaque commemorates Walter Benjamin…………. and from the cemetery there are really beautiful views out over the sea.
Playa de Portbou – Portbou Beach
The main beach is never too busy, even in the height of the season. It is around 270 metres long by 50 metres in width.
There are also three smaller beaches –Platja del Claper, Platja de les Fresses and Platja del Pi.
La Esglesia de Santa María de Portbou – The Church of Mary of Portbou
Construction of the church began in 1879, under the direction of the architect Joan Martorell. The neo-Gothic style church has one large nave of around 18 m in height and 33 in length. The image of the virgin inside is by the sculptor Frederic Marés.
Where to Sleep
Where to Eat
Portbou Estació Internacional – Portbou International Train Station
The station that you can see today in Portbou was actually built in 1929, replacing the original station which first served in 1878, when the very first train arrived from Figueres. During the 1929 rebuilt and an iron structure was added, and in more recent times the Portbou railway station has had an extra section, which is for freight.