Europe's train systems make it possible to reclaim a sense of adventure--and still be back in time for dinner.
BARCELONA TO FIGUERES
From the surreal to the sublime (and then back to the surreal): Figueres is home to what might be the zaniest cultural institution on the planet: Salvador Dalí's outrageous interactive museum, the Teatre-Museu Dalí. The mischievous surrealist's sense of humor is instantly evident: The building is crowned with cream-colored eggs and adorned with cement "knots of bread." Inside, it's a circus of trompe l'oeil, holograms, and staged mob hits. Dalí's works, which include countless wild portraits of his wife, Gala, fill a maze of rooms around a central courtyard. Even his crypt is on view; the artist was laid to rest here after his death in 1989. Figueres is also Catalonia's original foodie destination. At the unassuming Hotel Empordà, a 10-minute walk from the center of town, Jaume Subiròs i Jordà cooks some of the region's best food. The $51 menu del día, which may include chilled cream of asparagus soup, poached hake with a coulis of fennel and sweet red pepper, and handmade lime sorbet, is a reasonably affordable way to experience Spain's ongoing culinary revolution. Arrive hungry and begin with a glass of cava on the terrace, surrounded by golden fields. One of the largest fortified castles in Europe, the 18th-century Castell de Sant Ferran, overlooks the town, but it's a bit run-down on the inside (skip paying the admission and instead take the two-hour walk around the stone wall, where there's a bird's-eye view). Down the street from the Teatre-Museu Dalí is the Museu del Joguet de Catalunya. The little toy museum has such nostalgic objets as marionettes, tin cars, and love-worn teddy bears from the 1930s. There's an amusing exhibit dedicated to Catalonia's most famous symbol--a small pooping man with a red hat and a pipe. The caganer is thought to bring luck because he fertilizes the earth, enabling good fortune to grow. The caganer figurines in the gift shop make memorable souvenirs.
A bittersweet-chocolate brownie or a tortilla española sandwich--on bread that's been rubbed with tomato and drizzled with olive oil--from Salvador Dalí's hangout, Café Hotel Paris.
Teatre-Museu Dalí: Plaça Gala-Salvador Dalí 5, 011-34/972-677-500, salvador-dali.org, $13. Hotel Empordà: Avenida Salvador Dalí 170, 011-34/972-500-562, hotelemporda.com. Castell de Sant Ferran: Pujada al Castell, 011-34/972-506-094, castellsantferran.org, $4. Museu del Joguet de Catalunya: Carrer de Sant Pere 1, 011-34/972-504-585, mjc.cat, $6.50. Café Hotel Paris: Rambla 10, 011-34/972-500-713, sandwich $3.
106 minutes each way. Round-trip ticket: $22. Trains to Figueres run at least once every hour from Barcelona's main train station, Estacio-Sants, but the best connection is the Catalunya Expres, which takes one hour and 46 minutes. The 9:25 A.M. train operates daily; tickets ($22 round trip) can be purchased at the station's counters up to two hours before departure. Keep the receipt: You'll need it to pick up the return ticket at a booth in Figueres. There's a 4:00 p.m. train that arrives in Barcelona at 5:46 p.m. Schedules at renfe.es/ingles.