We turn our backs on Edward James and climb the narrow stairs, arriving in a bright, happy room where a large window looks out over the sun dancing on the sea. Beneath it sits a long, yellow settee that fills one side of the room.
“This is the yellow sitting room,” says Antoni Pitxot, surrealist artist and lifelong friend of Salvador Dalí whose home in Portlligat we are currently exploring. “Whenever a journalist came to interview Dalí he would bring him through to this living room and carefully position him on the settee here.” Pitxot points to the cushions to the left of the window above which the wall protrudes. “When the interview was over, Dalí would get quickly to his feet with his hand outstretched and naturally, the journalist would jump to his feet to shake hands with the artist, smacking his skull on the ceiling as he did so.” Pitxot grins. “Dalí never tired of that one.”
Arriving at the pretty little bay of Portlligat where fishing boats bob lazily in the liquid sapphire waters and white cottages spill down the hillside to the pebble beach shoreline, it’s difficult to imagine the eccentric artist Salvador Dalí living in such an orthodox beauty spot. But from the moment we enter the small room and Antoni Pitxot introduces us to Edward James, the stuffed, white Polar Bear decked in necklaces in whose right paw the lamp that lights the hallway is held aloft, that notion is dispelled.
In 1930 Salvador Dalí purchased a small fisherman’s hut on the shore of the tranquil bay of Portlligat not far from his birth place of Figueres in the north west corner of Costa Brava. Drawn by the landscape, the light and the solitude, little by little over the course of the next 40 years, Dalí acquired adjoining cottages and knocked them through until finally, the rambling warren that stands today was created. Dalí lived happily in the house with his wife and muse, Gala, with whom he was besotted, until Gala’s death in 1982 when he could no longer bear to be there.
Climbing up the cliff side, the house twists and turns through different levels and directions, rooms upon rooms like the cells in a honeycomb. Each room is vastly different from the last and each bears the character and idiosyncrasies of the artist and his wife. From the bedroom that looks like a fairytale palace waiting for a princess and the Oval Room with its igloo style and Barbara Cartland décor to the chaotic clutter of the studio, there’s a Marie Celeste quality to the museum that feels as if Dalí and Gala could come back at any minute and catch you snooping through their home.
Antoni leads the way into the library where, alongside the open wings of stuffed swans, an entire wall is occupied by volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, many of them duplicated. “Dalí liked to read the encyclopaedia when he went to bed,” Antoni explains. “And if he saw something that interested him, he would tear the page out so that he would remember to show it to me the next day and we would discuss it.” Keeping a full and intact encyclopaedic collection was evidently an expensive business in the Portlligat household.
Antoni Pitxot (above) was born in Dalí’s birthplace of Figueres some 30 years later than the artist. His uncle Ramon and Dalí’s father were close friends throughout their lives and it was Ramon who was responsible for introducing the young Dalí to Impressionism and was a key influencer in the boy’s decision to become a painter. An artist from the age of 13 years, Pitxot studied and exhibited across Spain before returning to the family home in Cadaques in 1964 when he began a friendship with Dalí which was to last to Dalí’s deathbed.
We emerge from the rear of the house into the warm sunlight and the enclosed patio where a rectangular window in the whitewashed wall frames the bay. Pausing on the sun filled patio, Antoni points casually to the ground as we pass. “That’s where Dalí lay the white tablecloth and the red wine which inspired his painting,” he remarks. It suddenly occurs to me he’s referring to The Sacrament of the Last Supper and I edge past the spot, irrationally fearful lest my footfalls somehow violate the very canvas that bears the work.
As we stroll the path that runs along the cliff side, passing the rows of pomegranate bushes whose fruit makes several guest appearances in Dalí’s paintings, Antoni tells us that on moonlit nights Dalí and Gala dressed in white, flowing garments and strolled slowly along the path like ghosts. I half close my eyes and imagine the couple gliding along the path, performing their little drama for the benefit of the heavenly audience.
At the far end of the garden path a stone bench is carved into a small alcove in the cliff on which, Antoni tells me, Dalí and Gala would sit and contemplate the beauty of Portlligat. Below us the waves are breaking over rocks on their way to a small, secluded beach. “Dalí and Gala liked to swim there,”, Antoni says. “Gala enjoyed sitting on the rocks because they returned the heat of the day, while Dalí sought clear patches in the sand in which to stand because he hated the feel of seaweed beneath his feet.” I imagined the whimsical artist’s disgust as his feet encountered the slimy seaweed, sending him leaping like a moustached Kermit onto a patch of sand while Gala laughed from her rock perch, the sunlight reflecting on her throat.
It’s these intimate details of Dalí and Gala’s lives in the house that make Antoni’s account so unique. These are not just amusing anecdotes churned out from a tour guide, they’re Antoni’s very personal recollections of long, sun filled days and warm evenings spent with Dalí and Gala in the white house on the rocks. Days that he clearly still mourns, along with the memory of his friend.
Without Antoni Pitxot the house would be a great place to visit, filled with the surreal paraphernalia with which Dalí and Gala surrounded themselves. With him, I felt I had just been a voyeur on the fantastical lives of two extraordinary people whose love of life’s eccentricities and of each other permeates every stone.
House-Museum Salvador Dalí, Portlligat; (0034) 972 251015; open 10.30-18.00, admission €11
My tour of the House-Museum Salvador Dalí in Portlligat was kindly arranged by Costa Brava Tourism
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+