Portbou, the Border

The construction of the international railway station and the opening of the line in 1872 resulted in the rapid growth of what had been a small community. Until then Portbou had been a cove with a few shacks where fishermen sought shelter when the sea was rough. This may be the origin of its name, because fishing trawlers used to be known as bous. However, another theory holds that the cove was formerly known as Port Bo or ‘good harbour’, and the waters of the little bay of Portbou are indeed well protected from the east wind and the tramuntana, the north wind that affects the whole of the Empordà.

Located at the eastern end of the Serra de l’Albera, the last range of foothills where the Pyrenees drop down to the Mediterranean, Portbou is part of the Alt Empordà region. For the tourist, it marks the northern limit of the Costa Brava. Abutting on the neighbouring district of Vallespir in France and the town of Cerbère, its position on the border has given it a highly distinctive identity and has helped shape the lives of its inhabitants. A favourite refuge of fishermen and smugglers, its population began to grow with the coming of the railway in the late nineteenth century. The main road from Figueres reached Portbou in 1918, and the stretch to the Belitres pass on the French border was opened two years later. The Barcelona International Exposition of 1929 prompted the construction of a new station, and the large and imposing modern building is still in use today.

In 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Portbou had about 3,000 inhabitants. When the war ended in 1939, a large number of the 350,000 people who went into exile in France passed through or near the town. The end of the War brought great destruction to Portbou, which was shelled and bombed from land, sea and air. When Walter Benjamin arrived there in September 1940 it was still suffering from the destruction inflicted by the victorious Franco. Those were very lean years — closed-in years in every sense.

The 1960s saw the advent of tourism, and the 1970s brought political change with the restoration of democracy. In 1993, the creation of the European Union and the Maastricht Treaty ushered in a Europe that has opened up its borders. The customs posts have disappeared and Portbou has lost jobs and population, but this town on the sea, shaped by its border location, has done better than most in maintaining a quiet tourism and a restrained urbanism.


More information about Portbou at: http://www.portbou.cat



Passeig Lluís Companys s/n 17497 Portbou

Telèfon: 972 125 161

Contact: turisme@portbou.cat

Guided Tours:


Opening times:

Summer: monday to saturday: from 10 to 20 h / sunday: from 10 to 15 h 

Winter: monday to saturday: from 10 to 14 h (closed tuesdays) / alternate sundays: from 10 to 14 h