Though not as well-known as neighboring Barcelona, the northern Catalan city of Girona is an attractive destination with an historic center threaded with winding alleyways offering a charming mix of architecture.
Our journey through time was spent in the company of knowledgeable guide Quim Puerto who met us along the banks of the River Onyar lined with a tapestry of pretty painted houses in a palette of bright yellows and ochres resembling a row of colored boxes.
Beyond lay a blend of medieval, Romanesque and Moderniste (Catalan Art Nouveau) styles.
Crossing the bridge, we stopped briefly at a small pedestal topped by a lion, the tradition being to kiss the lion’s butt for good luck and a safe return. We politely declined, instead heading for the ancient Roman walls, part of a mighty fortress built in the first century BC, with an almost triangular perimeter (a kind of acropolis), known as Força Vella.
Beyond is the medieval quarter, constructed between the 11th and 15th centuries, wherein lies the Jewish Quarter or Call, with its quaint streets, porticoed squares, baroque spaces and Noucentisme-style buildings by architect Rafael Masó. Jewish people were forced to leave the city after an order by Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Elizabeth in 1492. A museum nearby tells the story of the people who lived in these cramped alleyways for centuries.
An impressive Romanesque 12th century construction inspired by Roman baths is known as the Arab Baths, outstanding elements being the entrance, once used as a changing room and relaxation area, covered with a barrel vault and a cupola over the central pool supported by slim columns with ornately decorated capitals. Once a convent, nuns once enjoyed the pleasures of bathing here.
After a few minutes stroll down Plaça de la Catedral we stopped to gaze high up 91 steep stone steps to the city’s magnificent cathedral, founded in 1038. It’s not just the vastness of the exterior that’s daunting but the interior as well, including an intricate stonework of elegant cloisters and the widest Gothic nave in the world at 23 metres. In fact, the building mirrors three designs in one – Romanesque tower and cloister, Gothic nave and Baroque façade.
As you gaze upward, spare a thought for those who walked before you along this same road – Via Augusta, a Roman road that crosses Iberia – including Moorish and French invaders.
Nearby is the Basílica de Sant Feliu, with its Gothic naves and a baroque façade. Inside is the tomb of St Narcissus, Girona’s patron saint, held in such high acclaim that a festival takes place every year in his name. Interestingly, the basilica also contains intriguing works of art, including eight pagan and early Christian sarcophagi from the 4th century.
Not all attractions are within Girona’s historic center. Across the river, for example is the little Museu del Cinema featuring a fascinating collection of iconic props including the lamp from Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca; Johnny Depp’s scissorhands; Robert de Niro’s Raging Bull boxing glove, and Dustin Hoffman’s red sequinned Tootsie dress.
Lunch is a highlight in Girona with a host of restaurants offering delicious Catalan food, cooked in traditional ways, and at reasonable prices.
Among them Divinum is an excellent choice, well located in the historic center, a five-minute walk from the cathedral. Opened several years ago by Joan and Laura Morillo, this Michelin-star restaurant, in a former 1920s casino, reflects a sense of quiet elegance in a century-old building with a high, arched brick ceiling, polished wood floor, hanging chandeliers, crisp white tablecloths and service by uniformed waiters.
When a restaurant offers seven different breads including nut and rosemary brioche (from Fleca La Puntual bakery) and three types of salt, one’s expectations inevitably rise. In this case, they were well matched, with appetizers arriving artistically on mini marble, porcelain and wooden pedestals, followed by tiny bowls of chanterelle and ceps mushroom tea, a fresh sea urchin and samphire caviar emulsion.
Looking like an enticing eel on the indented plate, a roasted parsnip garnished with truffle shavings and plum sauce was a highlight, emanating a rich, earthy flavor.
Other menu items created by chef Jordi Rotllan included ‘inside-out’ ravioli of black pudding with wheat filling and a venison and wild pig sauce; cod skin resting on rice cooked in cod and truffles stock with macabeo grape and barrel wine; and red mullet cooked at 85 degrees in olive oil and truffle sauce.
As for wine, the Morillos boast a well-stocked cellar with a wide choice of vintages, including 10-year-old Mont-Ferrant cava from Blanes; Cami de Cormes from the village of Mollet de Peralada with macabeo and grenache grapes and an aromatic sweet wine, Sambukina, made from flowers in an artisan winery in Les Preses (La Garrotxa).
One of the advantages of a stay in Girona is its closeness to the Costa Brava with its beaches and secluded rocky coves, Pyrenees ski resorts and Barcelona, all of which are an hour away by car. Friendly staff at Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava can help organise your entire stay as well as plan day trips.
One place worth visiting is the pretty village of Tossa de Mar, especially if you’re being escorted there by Costa Brava Cars a company that provides an efficient and elegant service throughout the region.
Sitting between the Gavarres mountains and the Mediterranean, Tossa, the only remaining fortified medieval town on the Catalan coast, has been transformed over several decades, from a quiet fishing village to a bustling seaside resort that more than doubles its population during summer.
Fish-bone cobblestone streets lead to the top of a restored 13th century fortress. Along the pathway, you’ll be surprised to see a bronze statue of sultry Hollywood actress and former wife of crooner, Frank Sinatra.
Ava Gardner holds special esteem among Catalans due to her passionate love affair with a bullfighter and her 1950 movie ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’ filmed in Tossa which helped catapult the village into sensational front page headlines.
Aside from charming cafes and restaurants hugging the shoreline and its labyrinth of narrow streets with Gothic features, Tossa de Mar also has a fine art museum inside what was once the Governor’s home with pride of place being a painting entitled ‘The Celestial Violinist’ by Mark Chagall. You can also visit the Lighthouse which houses a maritime interpretation center featuring historical records of the keepers and enjoy frequent summer carnivals, including a special flower festival, as well as open-air concerts. With four beaches, there’s no shortage of lively activities at sea including scuba diving and cruises on glass-bottom boats while on land, forests and coastal paths provide excellent hiking choices.