GO CITYBREAK: From the narrow cobbled alleyways to the rugged coastline with its charming villages – Girona is a perfect spot to explore Catalonia, writes BERNICE HARRISON
WHILE I’VE BEEN to Girona over a half dozen times, I’ve never been to Girona. It sounds daft but it’s a conundrum that will be familiar to Ryanair travellers. The scenario usually goes like this: you fancy a nice weekend break in Barcelona and hunting round for cheap fare you hit upon Ryanair flights to some place called Girona which the airline had as its Barcelona destination (it’s 90km away). From then on, your only interest in this never-before-heard-of destination is how to find the bus to Barcelona, how long will it take and how much. For all you know or care you could be flying into a field in Spain that just happens to have a small airport and be vaguely near where you want to go.
My three-day visit to Girona in May proved just how wrong I was about that, how beautiful the city of Girona is and how it’s a great starting point for a short break in Catalonia taking in the gorgeously rugged coastline – the Costa Brava (brava meaning fierce). The sea is only a couple of hours drive away with easy access to many of the charming inland villages and towns that dot the Catalan countryside on the northeastern tip of the Iberian peninsula.
On the day we arrived, Girona was putting its best foot forward in the most colourful way. It was the middle of Temps do Flors – an annual May festival where flowers – real, or extravagant art installations – were everywhere, hanging from lampposts, strung across narrow medieval walkways, filling window boxes or challenging the window dressers in every shop from chichi designer boutiques to butchers to think of a floral theme for their displays.
Even the restaurants put on special flower themed menus – delicious deep-fried courgette flowers and delicately flower-scented sorbets being part of our dinner in the very traditional Catalan Cal Ros restaurant ( calros-restaurant.com) on the evening of our arrival. Best of all though, the festival lets visitors get a glimpse into some superb private courtyard gardens – those beautiful places that you know must lie behind forbidding tall wooden doors on narrow streets in old European cities but you can never normally see.
The tourist office opposite Devesa Park and next to the must-see Sant Feliu Bridge provides an extensive walking tour map for Temps do Flors, but even if you don’t go when that festival is on, a self-guided walking tour of the city is the way to discover it.
Wear flat shoes because it takes you through the narrow cobbled alleyways that make up the Jewish quarter – said to be the oldest in Europe and on up to an archaeological walk along a medieval wall past the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants notable for its Romanesque architecture. Dotted through the old part of the city are examples of a whole patchwork of architectural styles including baroque, medieval and gothic. Incidentally, this is not a trip where you’ll get to practice your school Spanish. Catalan is the spoken and written language – quite different in look and sound from Spanish though most people you come across will be fluent in both.
The choice after that was to decide which section of the Costa Brava to explore – south from Blanes to Sant Feliu de Guixols and visiting the big – and built-up tourist area of Lloret de Mar – or north to take in some of the smaller fishing towns and coves but also to visit Figueres, where Salvador Dalí was born and where the spectacular Dalí museum is. We opted for going north – first to visit the tiny and very pretty seaside village of Sa Tuna to walk on the beach and for lunch on the terrace of the Hostal sa Tuna where seafood is a speciality. It was also a chance to taste fideu de pescado, a local delicacy which replaces rice with fine noodles in the famous Spanish paella dish.
This part of Spain is bursting with regional foodie specialities and impressive local wines – a surprise for first-time visitors of a certain age who have come, out of hopeless ignorance to associate “costa” with fish and chips.
On inland then to Pals, a medieval town that’s one of Spain’s historic sites of artistic merit and is a testament to tight planning controls that ensure that it maintains its historic integrity. With its narrow cobbled streets, terracotta roofs, window boxes overflowing with colourful flowers – it makes for a lovely wander. Intriguing too to stand in the little park at the highest point of the town and see the sea in near distance, the Pyrénées further away and down below you, a sight I didn’t believe existed in Spain, paddy fields. Rice has been grown in the marshes in the county of Baix Emporda for centuries which explains why it appears on so many menus. The tiny, 10th century church of Sant Pere is a popular wedding venue – and you can see how booking the church, which couldn’t be more picture-perfect and one of the town’s many restaurants, would make for a dreamy wedding.
There’s any amount of places to stay along the coast – mass tourism, in terms of high rises, all day English breakfasts and giant resorts isn’t too much in evidence – although many of the campsites along the Costa Brava are vast. We stayed just outside L’escala in the rather special Hostal Empuries, which was one of the first hotels to be built in the Costa Brava in the early 1900s but was recently given a major makeover as an eco hotel. Not that as a guest this means any sack cloth privations – gorgeous rooms with their own terraces and sea views, and not very expensive but astoundingly good meals in its small terrace restaurant.
A lovely afternoon was whiled away sitting on one of the squishy chairs on the terrace, reading a book and drinking a crisp glass of white wine (€3.50 – and this is a very posh hotel). Lovely in summer while we were there but it would make for a perfect romantic getaway weekend in the winter. Interesting to see Irish skincare company Voya on sale in the gift shop and in use in the swanky spa. More time here would have allowed a proper exploration of the Camino de Ronda – the seaside walkway built centuries ago to make pirate spotting easy but which is now a popular walk as it links several small seaside towns and villages along the coast. As it was, we did just a short bit of it from the hotel to the pretty Sant Marta d’Empuries.
The next day was devoted to Dalí starting with a morning in the Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres – equal part bonkers and breath-taking. Dalí was born in the inland town and had a great deal of imput into the design of the museum built in his honour. Even from the outside it’s obvious this museum is going to be a surreal experience. There are giant golden eggs lining the perimeter of the roof, and as he was a fan of the local bread, what looks like hundreds of loaves of bread dot the red exterior.
While Dalí’s best known works are not here – they’re in the Dalí Museum in St Petersburg, Florida – visiting his hometown museum built in an old theatre is a suitably surreal experience, to see his car now an installation where the rain falls inside, and a living-room with custom furniture that looks like the face of Mae West when viewed from a certain spot. He’s buried in the museum.
Lunch in the Duran restaurant, the family run hotel in Figueres which was Dalí’s favourite haunt – ask to see the alcove table where Dalí held court and look at the photos on the wall to see the mustachioed showman in his heyday. On from there we travelled further north, close to the French border, to the picturesque seaside village of Cadaques – a place Dalí loved and worked and where there’s a large statue of him on the seafront – for a final blast of seaside sunshine and then back on the motorway to Girona – a small easy to manage to airport – and then home.
Girona and Costa Brava
To stay: Hostal Empuries,Platja de Portitxol, l’Escala Tel: 0034-972 770207 hostalempuries.com
Beautiful hotel on the beach in l’Escala, rooms in the original buildings have balconies looking out to sea while the rooms in the smart new single story extension have private terraces. Lovely spa.
Hostal sa Tuna, Platja Sa Tuna, 17255 Begur. Tel: 0034-972 62 21 98. A real find in this tiny seaside cove. Just six rooms all with sea views, an old hotel, recently renovated, situated above a lovely seafood restaurant. hostalsatuna.com
Hotel Carlemany, Placa Miquel Santalo, tel: 0034-972-211212 Well located, comfortable business-type hotel, in the centre of Girona. Good in-house restaurant, Indigo, for a reasonably priced dinner. carlemany.es
Places to visit: Teatre-Museu Dalí, Figueres. Gala-Salvador Dalí Square, salvador-dali.org/museus/figueresConsult website if travelling in the winter as opening times change. In summer, prepare to queue to get in, especially at weekend. Excellent museum shop with any amount of melting clocks.
Pals, a beautiful medieval town, just a few kilometres from the sea with glimpses of the Pyrénées in the distance. Lovely historic centre, and great views from its highest point over the surrounding countryside. Buy some locally-grown paella rice to bring home. Bring your walking shoes for a trek along the Camino de Ronda. It hugs the coast and links several small seaside villages so you could plan lunch in one village, dinner in the next.
Web tip:The Costa Brava, especially the northern parts, doesn’t have the mass, high-rise tourism that other coastal parts of Spain have, but even very small towns have their own tourist-friendly website listing places to stay, eat etc, eg: visitlescala.com. Worth checking out before you travel.
Ryanair fly to Girona.
Bernice Harrison travelled Spain with the Spanish Tourist Board