Barcelona is Catalonia’s largest and most famous city and I’ve enjoyed exploring it in the past. This time I pick up a car from the airport, bypass the centre, and head north on the highway. I’m tempted by the turnoffs to the Costa Brava like Tossa de Mar but my first stop is going to be another city of culture.
The Romans arrived in Girona in the first century AD and built a fort called Gerunda, on the road running from the Rome to southern Spain. Later, Visigoths, Moors and Charlemagne all left their mark. The old town occupies the steep hill above the River Onyar with later development sprawling across the plain on the other side.
A row of picturesque houses lines the river painted in distinctive pastel shades and the view from any of the bridges is dominated by the cathedral, originally built by the Moors as a mosque and approached by a flight of 86 steps. The medieval quarter is all cobbled streets, shady squares and balconied houses.
It’s worth checking out the Arab Baths, some of the best preserved in Spain, with several rooms each with its own pool. There’s the cold water frigidarium, with columns supporting a central dome, the warmer tepidarium and the steam caldarium, warmed by hot flames below. There was also once a large Jewish presence, a centre of learning for documented in the nearby Museum of Jewish.
The Romans built the first city walls they were extended and rebuilt under the reign of Ceremonious in the second half of the 14th century. You can walk their length, climbing up lookout towers for panoramic views of Girona and the surrounding countryside. The student population supports a lively night life and, on the opposite side of the river, you’ll find vibrant.
Around 40 minutes’ drive north is the town of Besalú whose most striking feature is its medieval bridge spanning the Fluvià river in seven arches and two towers. At its midpoint is the gatehouse where tolls were collected, the major source.
The streets, as you enter the town, were once the Jewish quarter and the surviving Miqvé, purification baths, date from the 12th century. The quirky Micromundi Museum of Miniatures on the main square has a selection of shop interiors reduced to 12th scale but to see the Eiffel tower perching on a poppy seed, you’ll need a magnifying glass.
Driving east to the coast, I stop at the medieval walled village of Peratallada. Its narrow streets and stone houses are perfectly preserved and the castle. It’s now and there are other places that rent rooms plus a selection. When the crowds have left, it feels like a deserted set – it’s no surprise that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was filmed here.
Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell
This section of the Costa Brava is home to a cluster of fishing villages and although the fishing has long gone, they still retain much of their original character, unspoilt by inappropriate development. Llafranc is my first port of call and, after dumping my luggage in the seafront, I head across the sandy beach for a quick dip.