Such was the case with Tossa de Mar, which was a sleepy little village on Spain’s Costa Brava until MGM Studios arrived.
The year was 1950 and stars James Mason and Ava Gardner were on location to film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, based on the tale of the legendary 17th century ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, the spirit of which is doomed to roam the seas endlessly in search of true love. The Flying Dutchman sails into the pretty bay at Tossa de Mar (the small Catalan port of Esperanza in the script), setting the scene for the village to play a starring role in the drama.
Remnants of old Hollywood linger in the picturesque town with its citadel, lighthouse and ancient walled village, together with the hotels and restaurants that have sprung up to capitalise on its new life as a tourist haven.
Topping the list is a life-size bronze of Ava Gardner, which gazes out across the bay from atop a hillside promontory. A black-and- white photo of a smiling Gardner, off the set and holding a basket of meringues, is still used in the window display and on the packaging of a confectionary store. The bar where some of the movie’s scenes take place is now the Pandora boutique and the Art Deco Hotel Diana, where the stars stayed, mentions its brush with Hollywood on its website. Frank Sinatra, married to Gardner at the time, visited during filming.
Some of the locals who were extras in the film are still around, according to Merce at the Hotel Florida, a family-run property built in the 60s when the tourist boom was under way. And yes, she says, Hollywood changed the face and fortunes of Tossa, turning it from quiet village to modern-day resort town.
Today, Tossa de Mar is still pretty and charming, albeit more built-up than in the old photos capturing its rustic past. The special character of the bay, with its rocky shoreline on one side and hill fortress and walled village, or Vila Vella (old town), on the other, remains. Modernity has come in the shape of the numerous bars and cafes that now line the waterfront, shops and boutiques, and the hotels and apartments built on the surrounding hills. There is still a small fishing fleet which operates from the bay and supplies local restaurants. The boats are pulled up on to the Platja Gran each evening and you can watch the fisherman stow away their nets.
Tossa de Mar’s other claim to fame is that it was the first place in the world to declare itself an anti-bullfighting city.
We would have bypassed Tossa de Mar had it not been for the need to find a place to stay en route from St Remy de Provence to Barcelona. Tossa, 95km north of Barcelona and 100km south of the French border, seemed a good spot to spend a few days before heading south for the remainder of our journey. Coincidentally, at the time we were planning our holiday, a DVD copy of Pandora and The Flying Dutchman arrived in the mail from a relative who shares my fondness for Hollywood classics. It came with the suggestion to check out Tossa de Mar on my upcoming holiday.
So, in a nod to Tinseltown nostalgia, we booked a two-night stay. The Diana, with its link to the movie and its stars, did not provide on-site parking, so we opted for the Florida, which did. The hotel comes with big, basic rooms, friendly, helpful staff and lovely views of the town and bay.
Our drive to Tossa de Mar takes in a largely rural landscape and parts of the Costa Brava where we detour to photograph the scenic coast. The approach to Tossa is through the hills of the Massif de Cadiretes, a vast natural reserve, with the descent along a circuitous road offering tantalising glimpses of the sea and township.
It is July, with warm days and balmy nights – perfect for dips in the bay and wandering about the cobbled streets of the Vila Vella, the only inhabited example of a fortified medieval town still standing on the Catalan coast. Now the labyrinth of alleys echoes to the footfall of tourists eager to check out the ancient houses and the shops, restaurants and bars.
Any amble should include the climb up Mt Guardi to Castillo de Tossa de Mar and the lighthouse. The lighthouse is still operational and the Castillo was built atop the headland in 1187 to defend the town. Now the only invaders are visitors savouring the panorama.
The old town is a quaint place with narrow streets. It contains the governor’s house (now a museum), the medieval hospital of Sant Miquel and remnants of a Romanesque and a Gothic church. Other historic sights include Els Ametllers, the ruins of a Roman farm, and the Moorish Tower, protruding from a nearby hill.
Boat tours operate from the bay and we board a glass-bottomed version to take in the Costa Brava from the sea. The coast is honeycombed with caves and grottos and boats chug into some for a closer look. Our excursion includes a visit to a beach resort and a stop for lunch and a swim.
One evening, after a progressive dinner comprising montaditos in a bar followed by tapas and sangria at a beachside cafe, we stroll along the waterfront to La Mar Menuda, the neighbouring beach and bay. It offers a different vantage from which to admire Tossa and has its own mix of attractions, from more seaside dining options and apartments built into the cliffside to a beach bar and a night-dive operation. Flamenco songs drifting on the breeze and the lights of the cruise ship we were on two weeks earlier twinkling on the horizon make us wish we could stay just a little bit longer.