Great Gambas! A Day in Palamos, Spain

A chef displays a handful of gambas. (La Menta)

There’s a reason why La Menta — literally, “The Mint” — has a Michelin-endorsed reputation for great seafood. In all of our travels, we have never enjoyed succulent prawns (gambas) more than we did at this small restaurant in Palamos, Spain.

Even before Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf had docked for the day at this ancient community on the Costa Brava, our ship’s activity director had recommended that we seek out the locally famous gambas for lunch. With our new foodie friends Maya and Jim Lancaster, restaurant owners from Baltimore, we serendipitously guided ourselves to what may be the best restaurant in a town famed for its seafood.

It was early afternoon when we were seated in wicker chairs, in a discreet alley just outside the front door of La Menta. Starched white tablecloths were draped over umbrella-shaded tables, where waiters in starched white uniforms translated the menu and made recommendations.

Barb is all in. (JGA)

There was tuna tartare. Stuffed calamari. Local anchovies and mackerel. Bottles of Catalonian wine. But most of all, there were the amazing prawns.

We are not normally head-suckers. But these giant shrimp were irresistible. Squeezing the shell off the tail and legs was step one. Devouring the body meat was merely the second step. Slurping the savory cranial innerds was the climactic touch.

We’ll go back, any time.

Hello, Dalí

Palamós was our first stop in Spain after six days in France. This charming town in far northeastern Spain is 40 miles south of the French border and 60 miles northeast of Barcelona. It is an easy drive from here, across the rolling plains of Empordà, to Figueres — home of Salvador Dalí, the renowned surrealistic painter of the 20th century.

Palamos’ Platja Gran. (JGA)

The red, castle-like Dalí Museum in Figueres is said to be as whimsical as the artist himself. Windstar offered its passengers a day trip there, as well as to Girona, a larger town woven together with cobbled lanes and medieval walls. Either would have been fascinating, but we chose to spend our day in Palamós, enjoying the food and the maritime culture.

The Wind Star docked at a modern pier and breakwater beside Palamós’ fishing harbor. Just east of the pier is the Molí de sa Punta, the town’s small but picturesque lighthouse, best visited at sunset or in the early morning as fishermen head out to sea. West of the pier, the commercial Port district extends several blocks to the Platja Gran, the “Big Beach,” the long, lazy municipal strand.

Museu de la Pesca

Jim and Maya at the Museu de la Pesca. (JGA)

In the heart of the port is the very impressive Museu de la Pesca, the Fishing Museum, housed in a former boat shed. The Lancasters joined us in exploring this only museum in the Mediterranean region dedicated solely to the profession of fishing.

Permanent exhibits, interpreted in five languages, describe how this industry has shaped the development and culture of the Costa Brava over many centuries. On display is fishing gear more than 1,000 years old, along with dioramas that illustrate a range of fishing techniques, from coastal to deep-water methods. Final exhibits emphasize the importance of sustainability to ensure an enduring fishery.

Adjoining the museum is L’Espai del Peix: “The Fish Place.” Every weekday afternoon, after local fishermen return to port to unload their day’s catch, a colorful auction takes place here, with chefs front and center. More stunning for casual visitors is the gastronomic center, where local cooks demonstrate how to identify and prepare a wide variety of seafood dishes. And you can’t beat the price of meals.

Barri del Pedró

Palamos’ sport marina. (JGA)

Palamós was founded in 1277, when Peter III of Aragon established the village as a strategic stronghold. His old town survives as the Barri del Pedró, an elevated thumb of land just north of the port. Its architectural highlight is the Santa Maria del Mar (“St. Mary of the Sea”) church, built in 1417 beside a 1349 chapel. It contains a collection of early Catalan sacred art and a 16th-century Dutch altarpiece.

Just below the church, Plaça Murada offers a natural viewpoint across the port and the Platja Gran. On the north side of the barrio, the remains of  a 16th-century Augustinian convent occupy a bluff-top park with a view of Palamós’ sport marina, its nine piers stretching toward France.

Symbols of Catalan nationalism. (JGA)

A Coastal Path just north of the marina leads 1¼ miles to the Castell de la Fosca, where traces of the region’s earliest settlement have been excavated by archeologists. Located on a rocky point, it overlooks idyllic emerald coves and quiet beaches. Aboriginal Iberians are believed to have lived here as early as  the Sixth Century B.C.

As I wandered the Barri del Pedró, I couldn’t help but notice the support for a secessionist Catalonian nation in the flags, posters and graffiti on walls. The Catalan language is more widely used than Spanish in Palamós, even moreso than in Barcelona, capital of the region of 7.4 million. Separatists advocate for independence from Spain.

I don’t have a political opinion one way or the other, so long as I can still eat great gambas in Palamós.

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