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The Province of Girona is an exceptionally privileged part of the world, with unparalleled natural beauty combined with an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage. Perhaps the best way to describe the province´s topography is to compare it to other well-known regions in Europe. It´s as if you took the very best sandy beaches and pine-backed rocky coves of the Côte d’Azur, put the hilly vineyards of Tuscany right behind them, and then enclosed it all with gently rising ranges of lush Alpine meadows and snow-capped peaks. There you have an idea of the splendor of Girona’s landscape.
Add to that the rich history of this land, gateway between Iberia and Europe, where architectural reminders of the past abound. Prehistoric ruins mingle with those of the Greeks and the Romans, pristine Medieval towns might hold the remains of a Roman, Arab, or Jewish bath-house, while countless Romanesque and Gothic treasures compete with Art Nouveau gems for your attention. Catalunya takes special pride in its unique identity, with its own language and its own thriving culture. Perhaps a consequence of the oppression experienced under Franco, (where everything Catalan, including the language, was considered separatist and therefore banned), Catalunya, more than anywhere in Europe, revels in manifesting its cultural pride.
It´s almost as though they seek any excuse, be it a festival of Christian, pagan, or civic origin, to go out and dance their sardanas, sing their habaneras, and build their castells. Catalan cuisine - based on the combination of freshest ingredients from surf and turf - has also undergone a renaissance, while Catalan wines consistently outpoint more expensive competitors at international tastings.
The Province of Girona is also recognized as privileged within the context of the Spanish state. The region has Spain’s second highest per capita income (the Balearics have become richer by selling themselves to the Germans), and Girona capital is consistently voted the city with Spain´s highest quality of living. Much of that wealth is from tourist income, and a good portion of that is generated at a handful of large resorts on the Costa Brava. These resorts have been packing them in since the early sixties, there seems to be a growing consensus among public and private sectors alike that the Province as a whole might be better off developing an alternative to the kinds of mass tourism that patronize these resorts.
The package holiday was practically invented on the Costa Brava. It all started in the 50’s after a number of celebrities like Ava Gardner and Orson Welles decided that the Riviera was too crowded and began to holiday on the Costa Brava. Discreet little resorts began springing up between the fishing villages, like José Ensesa´s up-market S’Agaró. By the late 60s and 70s, the tour operators had moved in, backed by Franco´s newly-formed Ministerio de Turismo. An international airport went in near Girona, and seemingly overnight a half-dozen hitherto innocent fishing villages were turned into enormous resorts. Needless to say, the cheap high-rises that went up displayed all the subtlety and charm of that era´s esthetics - all with a particularly Mediterranean flair.
The bigger resorts became a stunning success. With time the local service sector learned to excel at providing their guests (mainly from northern Europe) with just what they demanded. These tourists were after the three S’s, sun, sea, and sangria (the fourth S more readily available in Southeast Asia). Most of these tourists did their best to ignore the fact that they were in a foreign country. As long as there was cheap sangria to wash down the pizza and ‘burgers, then Spain was the place for summer holidays...and cheap too! How could tour-operators offer a week on the Coast Brava, all-included, for a paltry $200? Volume-volume! Towns with winter populations of five thousand would swell to 100,000 in the summer months.
In the meantime, the more understated resorts alluded to earlier, mostly catering to well-heeled Catalans and their European counterparts, flourished alongside and separate from the bigger resorts. As Catalunya prospered, demand for more up-market installations put increased pressure on the coast´s limited resources. The proliferation of luxury marinas, golf courses, private aerodromes, and Michelin-rated inns have meant that the package tourists have lost clout. Whereas in the downtrodden Spain of the early years the package tourists were hailed for their purchasing-power, today they are sometimes referred to as turistas de alpargata, an oblique but clearly sarcastic allusion to the lowly espadrille shoe.
While the big resorts continue to attract an ever increasing number of visitors, these tend to spend less and less. Inevitably, some of the resorts have become run-down, and are regarded as blights on an otherwise attractive coastline. They are variously blamed for all sorts of problems: as havens for drunken hooligans, as easy targets for money laundering, and as ecological disaster areas. The truth is that none of these allegations is reasonably substantiated. What is really at stake is that these resorts give the entire region a bad name, thereby scaring off more discerning tourists.
The consensus for the need to upgrade the tourist sector owes a lot to the way Catalans see themselves within the context of modern Europe. Spanish society has greatly progressed in all spheres since the original tourist boom of the 60s and 70s, and along with the rise in standards of living there´s a renewed sense of self and a reappraisal of culture and traditions. Catalans are no longer content to pander to those seeking the three S’s - selling them Mexican sombreros and Spanish bull-fighting posters, things that have nothing to do with Catalunya. The Catalans see themselves and their region as deserving better.
Traditionally, Catalan city-dwellers remain faithful to their villages of origin, often keeping country villas or townhouses for weekend and summer retreats. With the expansion of the rail system early this century, several mountain resorts gained popularity with Barcelona´s bourgeoisie, and in recent years, great improvement in the road network have meant that the Pyrenees are now well within reach for day-trips. As a result, a solid tourist infrastructure catering mainly to Barcelonans is firmly in place - one which is in no way tainted with the excesses committed on the coast. To the same extent that the resorts on the coast are famous - or infamous - the rest of the Province, with the world´s greatest patrimony of Romanesque monuments, is virtually unknown to the outside world.
This situation presents tremendous possibilities for the tourist sector in Girona. For, if the idea is to scale down the big resorts, replacing the income they produce with revenue from more demanding and sophisticated tourists, then these would presumably be more interested in cultural attractions, and - unlike the package-tourists - would dispose of personal transportation with which to diversify their itinerary to mountain as well as seaside attractions. That would take pressure off the coast, while presenting the mountains with the possibility of developing a sustainable tourism of quality.
Could this really come about and is it really desirable? Although I have come to love the mountains just as they are, and am very wary of the harmful effects of tourism, I am convinced the process is inevitable, not only in this part of Catalunya but in all of Spain. (People often forget that this is Europe´s most mountainous country, and Madrid, at 800m altitude, is the continent´s highest capital city.) As the coast succumbs to the needs of mass tourism, the Pyrenees increasingly become the true repository of Catalunya´s authentic ambience and character. Like many Barcelonans, discerning visitors are awakening to the very real charms of the mountains, as are the local tourist authorities and writers of guidebooks. The Costa Brava Tourist Board, for example, is now promoting the Province as a hyphenated entity: Costa Brava-Pirineu de Girona, extolling the virtue of coast and mountain in equal measure. In a more curious development, those Gallic arbiters of touristic bon goût, the Michelin Guides, have just come out with a Green Book exclusively on Catalunya- a distinction previously reserved for regions such as Tuscany or Bavaria, (and of course, almost all regions in France). Quite inexplicably, the old guides were as dismissive of Catalunya as the new guide seems favorably disposed. What has changed their minds? Have they too learned to peek behind the resorts?
If the Pyrenees of Girona are to receive an increase in visitors, what sort of provisions need to be made for them? Recognizing the area´s potential, locals have been slowly preparing for more visitors. In frequent trips to the mountains it has become clear to me that they´ve learned from the mistakes of the coast and that, quite instinctively, they´ve come up with plan for a tourism in consonance with and respectful of local traditions and the fragile mountain environment. The key to success here is what has become known in Spain as “turismo rural”. Whether it be practiced in luxurious or rudimentary surroundings, rural tourism is a recognition that visitors want the countryside to remain rustic and beautiful. It has to be said that, along with the farmers and villagers, the mountains are full of ex-city dwellers and commuters who are zealous about protecting their patrimony. This translates into strict zoning-laws, protection of natural parks, and a general concern for conservation and restoration. In truth, it is they, with their heightened sense of the vulnerability of their surroundings, who are channeling efforts in the right direction.
Changes are inevitable, and I´m heartened by what I´ve seen. A flood of European Union funds has gone towards improving the area´s communication infrastructure. The coast is now within a leisurely hour's drive from most points in the high Pyrenees. Helpful road signs have been erected indicating newly-scrubbed Medieval villages and Romanesque monasteries. Exciting discoveries, such as the late-1997 find of original twelfth-century frescos in the Dórria hermitage near Ripoll, add to the areas already rich patrimony. Ubiquitous Tourist Offices are full of bright-eyed polyglots handing out masses of free publications which invite visitors to take part in a myriad of activities, from kayaking to sky diving. The nature reserves are full of well-marked trails for hikers, while in towns, local artisans proudly display their crafts at revitalized village markets.
Standards have risen in all sectors. A new generation of hostelries, most situated in carefully renovated masias, or Catalan farmhouses, offer comfortable accommodations and delicious meals of local produce, including wild game, sausages, cheeses, wines and liquors. Some inns offer the possibility of partaking in activities such as horseback-riding and stream-fishing. I´ve even detected a subtle change in the attitude of those working in the service sector. The wary warmth so typical of the Mediterranean is still much in evidence, but now with a greater professionalism of the sort where visitor's needs are anticipated. The old attitude of “the least they can do for you is the most you can expect” is a thing of the past - except perhaps in the coastal resorts.
The future of the hinterland as a tourist haven in tandem with the coast is only just beginning. It´s up to the Catalans to make the most of the outstanding natural and cultural splendor of the Pyrenees, while protecting and perhaps restoring some of the lost magnificence of the Costa Brava. If the Catalans of the Provence of Girona can implement the sort of improvements which successfully transformed Barcelona in the run up to the Olympic Games, then we can be assured that the Province of Girona has the bright future it most assuredly deserves.