This Wonderful Little Place … On The Costa Brava

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Irish author Kathleen MacMahon describes how she discovered her favourite Spanish village, the family holidays she has spent there, and the memory of which sustains her throughout the winter …

There’s a bend in the road right at the top of the last hill that leads down to the holiday village of Aiguaclara (the place is real but not the name) on Catalonia’s Costa Brava. The hill is winding, and edged with pine trees, but if you’re quick you can catch a glimpse through the trees of the village below. It’s just a snapshot, but it’s enough to confirm the picture postcard image that sustains me all winter, from the white curve of shops and restaurants along the promenade, to the sliver of golden beach and the emerald green sea. Every year my husband and I fall silent in the car as we wait for that hairpin bend and the first glimpse of our holiday place. It feels like our lives together turn on that moment.

Mark and I discovered Aiguaclara together. We were only a year married, but already reeling from the first of life’s curve balls. An ectopic pregnancy, undiagnosed, had nearly been the death of me. Young and shockingly ignorant, we sat through the night on our couch at home and waited for daylight as the blood poured out of my ruptured fallopian tube. The pain in my collarbones was the signal that I was nearly full up with it. By the time we got to the hospital I was hours away from death and the surgery that ensued put an end to my chances of conceiving naturally. In the photos of that summer’s holiday, I see a young woman with the mournful face of a Modigliani portrait, wearing a matronly black swimsuit. She seems so far removed from me as to be a different person altogether. A thing of the past along with the long-discarded black swimsuit.

Subsequent holiday photos show the same beach, with the same restaurants lining the promenade and the same feathery tamarisk trees casting their shade over the patio tables. We’re pictured with our twin baby girls, the joyous result of IVF treatment. In one photograph my husband is ferrying water from the sea to feed the moat of their sandcastles. In another, the girls are precariously fishing for sprats off the tiny pier. Only the age of the girls and the evolution of my swimwear marks one year out from the previous one – from a turquoise bikini one summer to a bottle green, scoop-backed one-piece the next. New togs from the local swimwear shop are a ritual holiday treat from my husband every year.

The first time we stayed in Aiguaclara we rented a swanky modern apartment on the seafront, where the twins stood at the glass balcony and chanted ‘beach’ like a mantra. We moved along the front the following year, to a duplex with a terrace where we ate take-away paella from the restaurant downstairs and returned the pan the next day. There were years when we rented a house up the hill with a pool – the twins were by then at the age when nothing but a pool will do – and on at least one occasion we tried to skimp on the rental price and ended up rueing the day in a damp, dark apartment with framed needlepoint on the walls and a sweltering, windowless bedroom. Good or bad, each of these episodes went down in our family history as ‘the year when…’
There was the year when my husband was worried sick about work – I see it in his face in the photographs – and the year when my mother died. The year I was in a state of exhausted anxiety about my first novel, and the year I was in a state of exhausted anxiety about the second. We would arrive in Aiguaclara pale and tired and all wintered out and, gradually, over the course of two weeks restore ourselves by drinking more white wine than was wise and lapsing back into smoking the cigarettes we were forever trying to give up, as the girls became teenagers and eventually adults and we went from being 30 to 40 to – quite unbelievably – 50.

The people of Aiguaclara have aged too in the time we’ve been going there. The local kids who once played with our children on the beach are adults now, gone to live and work in Barcelona or Girona, or some such place. The restaurants have changed hands, passing from mother to son, or in some cases to new owners. A guy in trendy glasses took over a place on the seafront and introduced a cocktail menu. We watched these developments jealously, fearing all the time the advent of some fundamental alteration that would ruin the place for us. That’s what we dread, every year, as the car takes the turns of the hill on the way down and we lean forward, hungry for that first glance of Aiguaclara. Every year it’s a relief to see the same green sea, with the same fingernail of beach and the same tamarisk-lined promenade. Unlike us, the place remains blessedly and miraculously unchanged.

Kathleen MacMahon’s new book nothing but blue sky, published by Sandycove, €18, is out now.

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