The Dalí Theater-Museum is in Figueres, fitting because the artist was born here in 1904 and died here in 1989. About 800,000 people each year visit the museum in Figueres, a town of 35,000 about 15 miles south of the border on the main highway from France to Barcelona.
The creation of the Dalí repository evolved in a classically Dalí-esque way. In 1960, the mayor of Figueres asked the artist to donate a few paintings to the town so the local museum could feature a special Dalí room. The painter, in an expansive mood, promised instead to donate enough paintings to fill a whole museum and proposed transforming the ruins of the municipal theater, destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, into a Dalí museum. The museum would be on the site of his first exhibition, mounted when he was 14.
The mayor and city council agreed to the proposal but soon hit some snags. Dalí insisted that the city stage a promotional bullfight fiesta with a sensational ending: A helicopter would lift a dead bull as a sacrificial tribute to "the verticality of Spain." City officials agreed — reluctantly — but were relieved when bad weather scotched the helicopter and bull show.
Dalí also managed to slow the construction. He told city officials that he had decided to fill the museum with photographs of his paintings rather than the originals because photographs "are better than the original works." Mayor Ramón Guardiola Rovira wrote later in his memoir, "The general feeling was that he was crazy." When the Ministry of Culture in Madrid heard about the photos, it stopped funding the project. Dalí relented.
The theater-museum of Dalí opened in 1974. Dalí had said he wanted his museum to be like "a great Surrealist object" that would make people "leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream." Although it has many distinguished Dalí paintings, the building seems more like a Surrealist experience than a museum. It has the air of a manic fun house in a wild theme park.
The highlight of the museum's atrium is a Cadillac that shakes and rains inside whenever you put a euro in a slot.
One of the most popular rooms features an odd assortment of furniture, including a fireplace shaped like a nose and a sofa shaped like ruby lips; when you climb a stand and look at the room through an optical viewer, the space turns into the face of the actress Mae West.
The ceiling mural in another room depicts Dalí and his beloved wife, Gala, showering gold coins upon the countryside. The main chamber of the museum is a great hallway covered by a transparent cupola and guarded by a huge painting of a bare-chested giant, a slice of its torso cut away.
Dalí is buried in a crypt beneath the main chamber. (Although he had long said he wanted to be buried alongside Gala in Púbol, the city of Figueres and museum officials insisted he had changed his mind in his last weeks and had asked to be buried within his museum instead. That change infuriated some friends who feared that a weakened Dalí had been manipulated by those who wanted to keep the artist's body in the town of his birth.)
After the museum was built, Dalí bought an adjacent building with a tower that once formed part of the medieval wall of Figueres. He painted the façade pink, pockmarked it with small sculptures of breads, festooned the roof with large sculptures of eggs, and named it the Torre Galatea in honor of his wife. (Dalí lived in an apartment within the Torre Galatea during the last years of his life.)
The tower, now the headquarters for the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, can be admired from the outside but not visited.
The Gala-Dalí Foundation exhibits Dalí-crafted jewelry in a small annex to the theater-museum. The jewelry includes some of his most fantastic creations, such as "The Royal Heart," a 1953 brooch of gold, diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, other stones and a mechanism that makes the brooch's heart beat.
Dalí's home, which attracts 90,000 visitors a year, is about 20 miles from Figueres — but it can take an hour or more to drive there. You must descend a narrow mountain road from the high plain, deep down to the village of Cadaqués.
The way offers wonderful vistas of a craggy coastline that Dalí often depicted in the background of his paintings. Once in Cadaqués, with its delightful statue of Dalí, you can find a small road to tiny Port Lligat less than a mile away.
Dalí and Gala bought a small hut here in 1930 and expanded their home by buying the neighboring homes of fishermen, connecting the houses and adding more structures on top until the whole contraption metamorphosed into a large, gleaming white villa with Dalí-sculptured eggs on its roof.
After World War II, Dalí would spend much of the year painting in Port Lligat, taking off for a few months to go to Paris and New York for promotion and parties.