Tired of over-priced paella and Thierry Henry T-shirts? Then avoid the tourist traps of Barcelona and explore the lesser-known towns of Catalunya instead, like Figueres and Girona
It’s a common sight: the arrivals hall at Girona airport empties onto a string of coaches heading straight into the heart of Barcelona, on the trail of football, Gaudi, Picasso and Irish theme bars. But instead of joining the crowds in the big city, why not explore the lesser-known towns of the Catalan region? From theatrical artists to dramatic hill walking, the region is about far more than Messi and modernistas.
So we hopped on the bus into Girona itself, a half-hour trip to the door of the hotel. And then the holiday begins, without sitting in traffic on the way into town. Girona itself, with well-preserved Jewish and Moorish districts, is a perfect medieval Spanish city, with the so-called ‘Arab Baths’ creating an unlikely centrepiece for visitors.
Outside the charms of that hamam, there are several fine medieval churches to explore. The town also has a thriving cultural life, regularly hosting visiting orchestras and big-name art shows, despite the rival attractions of Barça’s booming cultural life. And for the terminally football-addicted, there’s even a local side in the Spanish second tier, tough to beat in their compact home stadium with its views of distant snowy mountains. It’s not the passionate theatre of the Camp Nou, but it carries its own charms for the sports-lover.
For me, the region’s big draw was Salvador Dali, the flamboyantly moustachioed surrealist who was born in Figueres, about an hour up the railway line towards the Pyrenees. Returning to his birthplace late in life he took over the bombed-out theatre and transformed it into a custom-built showpiece for his art - or at least those works that hadn’t already been sold to top international galleries. The result, like the man himself, is both fascinating and at times frustrating.
Dali always regarded himself as a supremely stagey artist, and here he creates the space for his works to perform, rather than merely being displayed in a conventional gallery. The main courtyard and the conversion of the stage into a vast exhibition space show off his vision to dramatic effect, while discreetly sidling into a balcony bar generates some of the suspense of a mystery. Yet, with such a prolific and popular artist, much of the work on display is repetitive. His ‘greatest hits’ are scattered among the world’s top galleries, leaving some intriguing insights here but few true masterpieces. Such confusion may be a fitting memorial to a perplexing figure - genius and charlatan closely combined.
Happily, the town of Figueres itself has charms of its own. Its little Rambla carries a flavour of Barcelona’s grandeur and visual diversity, but on a more human scale. People-watching from a café here isn’t an exercise in feeding the tourist industry, it’s a way of passing a couple of hours in good company. And, lest you thought Gaudi’s modernism ended at the city limits, there are several teasing examples of a kind of provincial Art Deco style. These citizens weren’t immune to the fashions of the age, but preferred to incorporate them into a more liveable mould.
The monks of Montserrat had different ideas about what made for a liveable world - and carved their conclusions into the mountainside. This medieval centre, about 45 minutes inland from Barcelona, is a deservedly popular day-trip from the city. Swinging up the cable car from the railway station takes you into a small, isolated, mountain community. From there, most visitors tour the imposing church and browse the museums; others opt to tackle the various walks up in the hills, following a network of pathways linking the isolated hermitages of the pious previous residents.
At busy times it can take a while to get away from the crowds, but with sensible shoes and a spirit of adventure it’s possible to find a slice of quiet hillside all to yourself. Paths are well signposted, and easily passable even in light snow, so it takes no great skill to explore these slopes. In summer a pair of rack and pinion railways can give a head start towards a couple of the chapels: truly adventurous hikers can tackle the St George’s Way pilgrimage trail from here as well.
Ryanair runs regular flights to Girona from several UK airports. In summer Girona is also a popular stop for Costa Brava charter flights. Barcelona international airport is served by BA and Iberia.
Car hire is available at Girona Airport from most major firms. Alternatively, rail operator RENFE offers regular services across the region, while bus company Sagales connects Girona airport with the town and the Costa Brava.
Where to stay
In the heart of old Girona, the Pension Bellmirall has a great reputation for atmosphere at a good price. Its next-door neighbour, the Historic, offers larger rooms and self-catering apartments for families.