Far from the madding crowds of the Costas, the gem-like walled city of Gerona is a haven of history, culture and top cuisine - with Dali on the doorstep, too
Think of Spain and what comes to mind? The beaches of the Costas, perhaps; the nightlife and 24-hour club scene of the Balearic island of Ibiza, much loved by those who thrive on too much alcohol and little or no sleep; the cool of Barcelona, with its designer hotels, chic shopping and fashionable restaurants; or the bustle of the capital, Madrid, still a long time favourite for a weekend break. Then there’s Gerona!
Never heard of it? Or perhaps you have come across it but know precious little about it? Then this is a good time to change all that. Gerona, tucked away slightly inland from Spain’s eastern coast and roughly northeast of Barcelona, is a city well worth getting to know.
This is not the Spain of mass tourism, inflated prices and fish and chips for supper. Visit Gerona and you will see the country not only as it really is but as it quite probably was hundreds of years ago, long before Spain became best known for its beaches, in a time when visitors from the colder climes of northern Europe toured at a much slower pace, taking time to explore, admire and experience a culture very different from their own.
Gerona was already well on the map in Roman times and there is plenty of evidence of their presence even today. The ramparts they built are largely intact, though now they form part of the Passeig Arqueologic (Archaeological Walk), which runs right round the city and provides a very pleasant trip through history.
Start your exploration on the north side of the town, near the oddly-named church, Esglesia de Sant Pere de Galligants (St Peter of the Cock Crows). Take the narrow street leading into the old part of the town and admire the huge Roman foundation stones, marking the original route of the Via Augusta, the road that once lead all the way from Tarragona to Rome.
Of course, no Spanish city would be complete without its cathedral, usually the bigger the better, and Gerona’s is no exception. The west face may be Catalan baroque but the rest of the building is pure Gothic on a very grand scale. Indeed the single nave, built in 1416, is said to be the widest Gothic span anywhere.
Make time, too, for a visit to the cathedral’s museum, with its fine collection of Romanesque paintings and statues. The collection’s most famous work is a tapestry, “The Creation”, parts of which date from the 11th century. You will not be alone in your amazement at the richness of the colours after all these years.
But there is much more than simply history and art to this attractive city. To see it at its best and most lively, make a beeline for the river, the Riu Onyar, where tall pastel-coloured buildings rise above the water and form the backdrop for a lively area of thriving shops, street cafes and bars, which, this being Spain, do not really come into their own until well into the evening.
This is the Rambla de la Llibertat, known as the old town, although in reality many of the buildings were constructed as recently as the 19th century to replace sections of the city wall damaged during a seven-month siege by the French in 1809. Take an early evening stroll, stop off for a drink at one of the traditional tapas bars, then choose from any of the remarkably cheap, often family-run, restaurants in the area and you will be doing exactly the same as the locals and their forebears have been doing for centuries, long before tourists came on the scene.
And in the morning, do as I did and head for another of the unmissable attractions of this part of Spain: Figueres and the Teatro-Museo Dali, founded by perhaps the town’s most famous son, Salvador Dali, in 1974 and said to be the second most visited museum in Spain after the Prado in Madrid.
A visit here is much more than simply a trip to a museum or gallery; it is a delight, it is confusing, it is hilarious and it is tragic – do not be surprised if you end your tour feeling mentally, if not physically, exhausted by it all. The building itself, with its eye-catching glass domed roof and glass-embedded walls, is extraordinary in its own right, but step inside and you really do find yourself in another world, all of it orchestrated by Dali himself, who incidentally died in Figueres in 1989 and is buried right in the museum.
By no means all of Dali’s best-known works are here but the way in which those that are housed here are displayed will almost certainly amaze you. Look out for “Rainy Taxi”, a black Cadillac being sprayed by a fountain, the “Mae West Room” with its furnishings designed to look like a huge face and the ceiling fresco in the “Wind Palace Room”, not to mention the amazing display cases of mechanically-powered jewellery.
And after all that, sit at a pavement café with an ice-cold glass of wine and congratulate yourself on finding a part of Spain still successfully off the beaten track.