Standing in the lobby of the hotel with my guide Ana, we spent the first few minutes of the tour looking at photos on the wall of Dalí enjoying meals with his friends and wife, Gala.
“She was the love of his life, she was everything to him. His parents weren’t happy about the relationship because she was ten years older than him.
"And she was quite modern, she’d already had other lovers. His family stopped talking to him, hoping it would make him leave her, but he never did,” said Ana.
We walked through the restaurant and snuck into the secluded dining area where Dalí used to sit and eat with his friends. It was an intimate and rustic little space with white-washed walls and giant wine barrels made of dark wood.
He lived in Cadaques – a beautiful little fishing village on the Costa Brava – a couple of hours away from where we were in Figueres, so they always kept room 101 available for him when he was in town to work on his museum.
Outside in the street, Ana showed me Café Astoria. It had a tranquil terrace out front that looked over the main rambla, a sun-dappled street protected from the late morning heat by a row of trees.
“He used to go there to drink coffee. There’s a story about it: The people of Figueres always thought Dalí was crazy. One sunny day, it was a really hot day, he took a piece of Spanish omelette, folded it and put it in his jacket pocket as if it were a handkerchief, like a floral decoration.
"And other times he’d sit there and work honey into his moustache so that the flies and wasps would be attracted to it. And he’d just sit there, watching them.”
Apparently, putting the museum in Figueres, was in many ways Dalí’s way of earning the respect of his home town.
“It was the first time Dalí went against Gala’s wishes,” Ana explained, “she wanted him to open the museum somewhere more important, in Madrid or Paris, for example, but he was convinced that it had to be in Figueres, in his home town. And there was nothing that could change his mind.”
Inside, Ana explained how Dalí himself had designed the museum.
“This is not like many other art museums. This was not created after Dalí died. He even lived here at one point, because he was so particular about how he wanted it. And his body is buried here too!”
We walked through to the centre of the building and you could see that it used to be a theatre. A huge black Cadillac sat in the middle of the space.
“He was very proud to own a Cadillac and when he lived in America. This was his car. He brought it back and wanted to turn it into a work of art.
"Once, when he was in America, he got into a taxi and he was so wet from the rain that he said it felt like it was raining inside the taxi. So this is meant to represent that time in his life.”
Looking upward, around the inner space of the old amphitheatre walls, there were golden statues, like giant Oscar awards.
“He worked in the movie business as well,” Ana told me, "and although he never won an Oscar, he always felt he deserved one. So this was his gift to himself.”
Many of the paintings inside are from his early days, “when he was an art student and didn’t have his own style yet,” Ana guided me.
And interestingly, you can see that many of the paintings are signed with a “G” by his signature.
“She was his muse. And more importantly, she was always working to create the best environment for him to work in, so he added her name to his work to say thank you.”
Many of Dalí’s most iconic paintings are elsewhere, in private collections, but there are some really important paintings on show.
One of the smaller paintings was the painting Dalí decided to take to Paris with him to show Picasso what he could do. He felt it was the best representation of where his style was going.
But what I really loved about the museum was that it was experiential – it is not so much a “collection of works”, rather one complete piece.
As Ana said, you have to look at Dalí’s museum as a whole, to experience every little nook and cranny, to see it as he wanted you to see it. Some paintings are even hidden away, because he wanted to reward the people who look deeper into their surroundings.
And there’s no shortage of mind-melting surrealism to delve into. In “The Mae West Room”, you can walk around the pieces of furniture that, when looked at from a certain viewing point, come together to create the face of the famous actress, Mae West.
“One day he was looking at her face and he thought how it would make a nice living room. So he made this.”
There was one more stop to make, to see a collection of jewellery that Dalí had designed. We walked through the dark rooms, bending over to study the intricate detailing. Ana explained that he had wanted to be an artist like Leonardo, to create many different forms of art.
“And this one is my favourite,” she smiled, “it’s a brooch, a mouth. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Lips like rubies, teeth like pearls.”
The Dali Museum is located in Figueres, a town just outside of Girona, around 143 km from Barcelona. If travelling from Barcelona, take the train to Figueres Vilafant station and then catch a bus to Figueres the city centre (the stop is around 200m from the museum).
Bus tickets cost around €1.25 and departures are quite frequent, with pick-ups every 25-30 minutes. Taxis are also available at the Figueres Vilafant station.
Visit the tourist board websites to find out more about the stunning Costa Brava and the rest of Catalunya. And head over to the Sagales website for detailed travel information on travelling from Girona airport to Barcelona and the Costa Brava, and vice versa.
- Ben Holbrook