Beyond Barça: A Bridge, A Medieval Wall; and Finding Dalí
12th October 2019
Girona and Figueres, two smaller cities north of Barcelona, were my next destinations in June 2019. Off the beaten track, they offered respite away from the tourist cacophony in Barcelona, plus some gems of their own.
Like most of Spain’s cities and towns, Girona is steeped in history. This medieval city is known for its narrow cobblestone streets and its many bridges that connect the old town to its modern commercial district. The Pont de les Peixateries was designed by the Frenchman Gustave Eiffel – of the eponymous tower in Paris – and the bridge is commonly referred to as the Eiffel Bridge. It is flanked by two rows of colourful buildings, some of whose balconies had banners calling for Calaluña independence. But it’s the old town that makes this place worth visiting.
In Old Town Girona
It’s no surprise that the best way to get around the historical part of town is on foot, navigating the cobblestones and all. It gets a bit uncomfortable after a while, but your feet can find relief in one of the many cafés or museums or churches this side of the River Onyar.
The imposing gothic Catedral de Girona sits atop a rather daunting flight of Baroque stairs. Lots of visitors were taking selfies with the cathedral as the backdrop, and there was a group of cyclists using the stairs to train for an upcoming race, hopping up and running down several times in unison. My heart was in my mouth as I thought any one of them could trip and seriously harm themselves on the stone stairs. At the same time, I thought what a great use of this historical monument.
Game of Thrones fans may know that Spain provided many locations from Season 5. Girona served as the backdrop for part of the 6th season. Locations there were used to film parts of King’s Landing and Braavos. The city’s main cathedral was used to film the exterior of the Sept of Baelor. Some highly dramatic scenes were filmed at the cathedral. As a consequence of the exposure GoT brought to Girona, there are now GoT tours that take die-hards to the various locations used in Season 6.
An audio-guided tour of the cathedral is well worth the hour or so. Although cathedrals and churches are ubiquitous in this deeply Catholic country, each has its own unique story, or special architectural feature, or sculptures and paintings depicting religious imagery or local lore, or tombs of saints, and such like. Girona’s cathedral is said to have the widest single nave span in the Christian world.
For a small-ish city, Girona is home to half-a-dozen museums: Museum of Art; Museum of Archaeology; Museum of Cinema; Girona History Museum; and Caso Masó (which is actually the former home of another well-known Catalan architect of the early 20th century, Rafael Masó), and the Museum of Jewish History, which is housed in a 15th century synagogue. Girona was home to a sizeable Jewish community until they were expelled in 1492.
One of the must-do activities is to walk along the medieval walls surrounding the city. The Romans made their presence felt by building a fortress, ruins of which can be seen today. Watch towers along the wall provide predictably spectacular views. On a clear day, part of the imposing Pyrenees is visible.
About five years ago, Figueres surfaced while I was researching places to visit in Spain, and planted the seed for my trip to northern Cataluña. This small town was the birthplace of Salvador Dalí and is home to the splendid Teatre-Museu Dalí, a grand monument to Cataluña’s most eccentric artist.
Easily accessible from Girona – approximately 15 minutes by express train – Figueres is a quiet town. The busiest place was the Dalí museum, domestic and foreign visitors queuing patiently for their designated entry time.
The museum houses the single largest and most diverse collection of Dalí’s works – paintings, as well as sculptures, holograms, jewellery, and mechanical devices. Additionally, some of Dalí’s personal collection of works by other artists are on permanent display. His crypt lies beneath the stage of the theatre.
It’s difficult to describe the museum and its exhibits, so I won’t attempt it. Art is personal, and one doesn’t have to be an expert in Surrealism to appreciate Dalí’s imagination and genius. I highly recommend a visit; allow about three hours to navigate the labyrinth of rooms to enjoy the mind-bending and provocative pieces.
My palate is always happy when I’m in Spain. Apart from the standard tapas, there’s bound to be a new and delicious discovery, or a local variation on a staple, or some free entertainment with your meal…
Crema Catalana was my first new discovery. Some say it is the Spanish (or Catalan) version of Crème Brulee. Therein lies a regional dispute! That said, there are several differences between Crème Brulee and Crema Catalana, I’m told, among them: the Catalan version is cooked on a stove rather than in the oven; the sugar is burnt or caramelised using a hot iron; it is lighter than Crème Brulee; and my Crema Catalana was indeed feather-light and delicious.
While dining, I had a front-row seat to a peaceful independence rally in Plaça de la Independència, spicing up my meal.
My other gastronomic discovery was Pan Tumaca, a traditional Catalan bread appetiser. It is simple to make, strongly flavoured (garlic, of course) and left me wanting more. If not for the main course, I would have indulged, but I had ordered some exquisitely succulent lean cuts cooked over an open fire. The aroma was tantalising.
Spain continues to be my playground for now. ¡Mi corazón está en España – hasta pronto!