Guidebook pages 37 to 39. Girona city
Intro: Girona and interior Costa Brava.
Although the region is generally referred to as the Costa Brava, and the coast is and will always remain the main attraction, I think some of the region's most memorable sights are to be found inland. Inland towns and villages are surprisingly prosperous, a relic of the early industrial era, when Catalunya prospered more rapidly than the rest of Spain. People are enterprising and open, celebrating a unique range of festivals in almost obsessive fashion. There's a confidence about being Catalan that traces right back to the fourteenth-century Golden Age, when the Catalan Kingdom ruled the Balearics, Valencia, the French border regions, Sardinia, Corsica, and Naples. Today, Catalunya is officially a semi-autonomous province, but it can still feel like a country separate from the rest of Spain. Away from the beaches, you'll hear Catalan spoken more often, (on the coast most people working in the service sector have moved here from the rest of Spain in search of jobs), and inland you will be enjoy a richer and more varied cuisine, which is often highly specialized, varying even from village to village. As one approaches the high Pyrenees, the cuisine becomes more robust, with many of the specialties reflecting the good hunting to be had in the mountains. Wild rabbit, partridge, pheasant, boar, deer, and goat are available in season, as are a great variety of wild mushrooms. We will begin our tour of the interior in the provincial capital of Girona.
5. Girona (city of a thousand sieges)
The ancient walled city of Girona stands on a fortress-like hill, high above the confluence of the Onyar and Ter rivers. As the provincial capital it has a long and distinguished history. It was founded by Iberians, the remains of whose walls can still be seen. The Romans named it Gerunda and established it as an important stopping point on the Via Augusta, linking Iberia with Rome. Owing to its strategic importance, it has been fought over in almost every century since its foundation, and, perhaps more than any other place in Catalunya, it retains the distinct flavor of its erstwhile inhabitants. Following the Moorish conquest of Spain, Girona was an Arab town for over three generations, a fact apparent in the maze of narrow streets in the center, and there was a continuous Jewish presence here for over six hundred years. The intricate former Jewish quarter of houses, shops, and community buildings is now visible again after centuries of neglect (thanks in part to restoration funds donated by American Jewish organizations). By the eighteenth century, Girona had been besieged on twenty-one occasions, and in the nineteenth it earned the nickname "Immortal" by surviving five attacks, of which the longest was a seven-month assault by the 35,000-strong Napoleonic forces in 1809. Not surprisingly, all this attention has bequeathed the city a hodge-podge of architectural styles, from Roman classicism to art-nouveau, yet the overall impression for the visitor is of an overwhelmingly beautiful medieval city, whose attraction is heightened by its river setting, and lovely views of the distant Pyrenees. Considering that Girona's nearby airport serves most of the Costa Brava's resorts, the city is oddly devoid of tourists, which makes browsing around the streets and cool churches doubly enticing. There are three excellent museums and one of the most original cathedrals in Europe.
Although the bulk of modern Girona lies on the south side of the Riu Onyar, bordered to the west by the large riverside Parc de la Devesa, most visitors spend nearly all their time in the old city to the north of the river. Look for a legal parking place (municipal tow trucks do a brisk business in Girona) or pay for parking on the west bank of the river near the bridge, and plan to get around the compact old town by foot. I usually try to park near the Plaça de Independencia and cross the river on the pedestrian Pont d'en Jimez. A well supplied and helpful Tourist Office with very good maps and guidebooks is located just to the right of where the arcaded Rambla meets the Plaça de Catalunya. Note that the schematic map with the recommended tourist itinerary - with lines dotted into a bird's-eye-view painting of the city, while helpful and attractive - doesn't include many street names. Ask for another map with street names to supplement this one.
It's easy to orient oneself in Girona. The skyline is dominated by the Romanesque bell-tower of the cathedral. As you walk across one of the bridges, stop to admire the tall multi-hued row of houses that rise sheer from the river, with the cathedral in its elevated position soaring above in what looks like a faded Italian scene of medieval life. Once in the old quarter you are engulfed in a labyrinth of steep, narrow streets, especially in the atmospheric and sensitively restored Jewish quarter, the Call, one of the best preserved juderías in Europe. The Call was home to over a thousand Jews until 1492, when, on March 31st, the Catholic Kings Fernando and Isabel pronounced an edict expelling the Jews from Spain. The Sefarad meant the end of the renowned Girona School of Kabalists, who for centuries managed to preserve and spread the mystical teachings of Judaism in the West. The Isaac el Cec Center on San Llorenç, and the Kabalist School on carrer la Força, are the newly-restored spiritual centers, once attended by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. The city of Girona is eager to recoup some of the prestige it once enjoyed as one of the capitals of Jewish thought, and in December of 1998, a multitudinous Januka ceremony presided by a Rabbi from Israel was celebrated here for the first time in 506 years. A museum dedicated to the history of Judaism in Catalunya is planned to be inaugurated in the year 2001.
The main street in the old town is the arcaded Rambla de la Libertat, with pavement cafés, a couple of modernist buildings, and a steady flow of strollers. In the sloping side-streets leading up to the cathedral you'll chance upon all sorts of curious shops, from antique dealers to hippie arts and crafts shops. You may prefer to work your way to the Cathedral through the Call, as the 90-step esplanade leading up to the splendid barroque façade of the Cathedral, though majestic, makes for a grueling climb.
The tourist office brochure has brief descriptions of Girona´s principal sights. Try to see, at the very least, the Cathedral, with the world's widest Gothic nave, 22.98m, only surpassed by the 25m-wide Baroque nave of Sant Peter's in Rome. Don't miss the Cloisters and the important Chapter museum (400pts. 10-13, 16-20h) where, amongst other gems, the famous 11C tapestry depicting the Creation is kept. The Chapter museum has an English language catalogue. Within five minutes' walk from the Cathedral are a number of good sights, including: the Museu d' Art, Sant Feliu Church (in the rather sad but non-threatening red-light district just below), the Arab baths, Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants - now site of the Museu Arqueològic, the Promenade along the Medieval ramparts, and the Museu d´Historia de la Ciutat on Carrer la Força, with one of the three mummification workshops left in the world. For lovers of the Seventh Art, there is a fascinating new Cinema Museum just across the river from the old town on carrer Sèquia (972 412 777, open winter 10 to 18h, summer 10 to 20h.)
Girona is a big town, (pop. 88,000) and there are plenty of decent places for good food and drink. Our favorite for a drink or a snack (good home-made crêpes and quiche) is the Café Bistrot, in stunningly beautiful setting just across from the Palau dels Agullana. The cafés on the arcaded Rambla are pleasant, and good hot chocolate and pastries are available at the Xocolateria Antigua at Plaça del Vi 8 (21 66 81). Restaurant L'Hostalet del Call, c/ Batlle y Prats 4, (21 26 88) is best reached down c/ Claveria near the Cathedral. This family-run restaurant has a good reputation for imaginative regional cooking. Also in the Call on c/ de la Força is El Pou del Call, impossible to miss at number 14. For a cheaper and more proletarian experience, try the bar-restaurant Los Jara at number 4, where hungry workers pile in for hearty menus day and night. Old fashioned Cal Ros, Cort Reial 9, just off Ciutadans - a main street parallel to the Rambla - is set in a somewhat gloomy basement but is popular for traditional Catalan food. The vast helpings may have something to do with the city's siege mentality. Lamb and beef dishes a specialty. Not far from Call Ros is Albereda, at Albereda 7, (22 60 02) an elegant and pricey restaurant in a noble setting. Cipresia at General Fournas 2 (21 56 62) has Catalan fare with a French accent. Casa Marieta, on the Plaça de Independència at # 5, just across the river from the old town, has been serving home-style cuisine for over one hundred years. If you're only slightly peckish, try the pastries at Puig, at Argenteria 8, Can Roca at Abeuradores 4-6, or at Castelló, Santa Clara 45. The best charcuterie is found at El Petit Paradís, Travessia del Carril 1, Valimañas at Plaça Calvet i Rubalcaba 12, or at Moriscot on Ciutadans 4. The best liquors at Agustí Ensesa Vins on Santa Eugènia 7. Antiquities at Claret on Cort Reil 14. Handicraft stores are concentrated on Carrer Ballesteries, La Carpa, at no. 37 being one of the more original. For nightlife, I've been told that Platea is now the in-place. The week-long activities during the Fiesta Mayor de Sant Narcís, October 29, culminates in a firework display over the old town. On Wednesday and Good Friday evenings during Easter, Roman soldiers march through the streets in solemn processions.
The Club de Golf de Girona, in Sant Julià de Ramis (17 16 41), 4 km north of the provincial capital, has a course designed by F.W. Hawtree. The design takes advantage af the lie of the land and offers a pleasant round for golfers of all levels. Eighteen holes, greens fees, hire of clubs and caddie carts, electric buggies, caddie master, practice green, putting green, golf school for youngsters and adults, squash, paddle tennis. Bar, restaurant, child care crèche, shop. Open all year round.