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Pace is gentler in Girona

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / March 7, 2004

GIRONA, Spain -- Don't get me wrong, Barcelona's a wonderful city. It's flashy, boisterous, and crammed with the accoutrements of a world-class destination: art, tapas bars, street performers, museums, architecture, tour buses, and great shopping for clothes and shoes. Barcelona is tourist-friendly to a fault. But after a few days of hip-hyped frenzy, I wanted a place with a quieter pace.

I found it in Girona and the nearby Costa Brava, a little more than an hour north of Barcelona by train. Girona is not some sleepy little hamlet with one bar and a small hotel. Lance Armstrong the five-time Tour de France winner (and Texas native), lives here near the Pyrenees, and so do some 80,000 other Catalans. What's appealing about Girona is that it isn't a tourist destination -- not yet, at least. It's a vibrant city that goes about its business while letting you participate in its life and charms.

The town is divided in half by the Onyar River, which separates the old and new quarters. The modern side of town is certainly worth exploring, but the true beauty of the place is in the old part. Along the river, newly painted cream, pale green, and ocher-colored 19th-century buildings sit atop the ancient city wall at the water's edge. Beneath the pedestrian Eiffel Bridge, built by the same company as the tower, lazy carp expect to be fed. On the far side, the old city waits to be discovered.

Girona was founded by the Romans, and the medieval quarter maps its history through a mixture of architectural styles. A wide pedestrian walkway (the Rambla) hugs the river, with shops and restaurants on the ground floors of the colorful buildings. Renovated in the last 10 years, it's becoming an upscale area of apartments, bookstores, fabric shops, antique stores, modern furniture shops, and restaurants. There's not a single T-shirt joint, postcard and film store, or corporate-logo chain.

Under stone arcades in the Rambla, vendors hawk vegetables, spices, and nuts. Nearby streets have names that tell a story: Plaza of Chestnuts, Street of Ironworkers, Street of Traders.

Turning inland, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets rises up a slight hill, and stone buildings with red tile roofs form narrow passageways beneath boughs of wisteria.

When the Romans lived here, Via Forca was a length of the Via Augusta, the Imperial path that led to Rome. In the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the main artery of the Call, or the Jewish Quarter. Today, Via Forca leads to the Museum of the History of the Jews, located where the last known synagogue in town was built. What's most impressive about this town-run museum is that there are no Jews in Girona, and haven't been since their expulsion in 1492. Yet their 600-year presence is lovingly documented and celebrated through exhibits, music and dance, a library, and a collection of tombstones from the medieval cemetery.

Farther up the street, the boxy cathedral sits on a Roman temple site. The cathedral's architecture spans several periods: Baroque facade, Gothic interior, Romanesque cloister, neoclassical bell tower. Chartres it's not; but there's a stunning view of the town from its upper plaza. In this quarter, too, are 12th-century Arab baths, a Benedictine monastery, and the Romanesque Church of Sant Nicolau. Even without a history lesson, Girona is an interesting town to simply walk around in.

April 23 is the feast day of Saint Jordi the dragon slayer. Celebrated throughout the Catalan region, (also known as the Day of the Rose and the Book and, coincidentally, the birthday of writer Miguel de Cervantes), it's a holiday much like Valentine's Day. Men are expected to give women a rose; women give men a book. All through the city, flower and book vendors sell their wares. Couples of all ages walk hand in hand or sit by the river and kiss.

The Catalan region encompasses mountains and sea, and its food reflects both environments. Favorite local dishes pair the products of each, as in chicken served wtih prawns or lobster. I missed the two-star restaurant in Girona, El Celler de Can Roca, but had a terrific meal at Boira, near the river on the modern side of town. I can still taste the salad of mixed greens with thin slices of Iberian ham (salty, like prosciutto), shaved parmesan, almonds, walnuts, raisins, and sweet fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and orange slices.

The Costa Brava has been called a low-key French Riviera, which also appealed to my get-away-from-it-all mood. From Girona it's a short drive, or bus ride, to the coast and a string of towns each more picture-perfect than the next. In summer, the area is jammed with European tourists, but in spring the crowds are few, the breeze is warm, and the Mediterranean glints in the sun.

The town of Calella de Palafrugell spreads out along a bay of rocky peninsulas and beaches. Two- and three-story buildings, mostly white, sport blue, red, and sea-green shutters. First-floor shops are touristy affairs: cafes, ice cream parlors, souvenir and film shops, and resort-wear boutiques.

Plastic seats overlook the water at the tapas bar, Gelpi, where the calamari and croquettas are sublime -- though perhaps it was the view that made everything taste so good. The beach was not so much sand as a bowl of smoothly ground, small stones in off-white, peach, and gray. Small, brightly painted fishing vessels rest high above the waterline.

In the 19th century, Costa Brava sailors set off from Calella de Palafrugell to trade with Cuba. One reason to brave the summer crowds would be for the Monday-night Havaneres, an outdoor concert that commemorates those voyages. The melancholy songs are accompanied by cremat, a flambed rum and coffee drink.

It is possible to walk a path between several towns, much like Italy's Cinque Terra. Hilly at times, the trail meanders past purple, yellow, and white flowering bushes, pine trees, cactus, and crops of rocks that drop toward the sea. Tucked behind some trees, a two-star hotel offers 10-star views. The smell of jasmine mixes with the salty air, and the town of Llafranc curves in the distance like a string of pearls resting against a lightly tanned neck.

Up close, Llafranc is more upscale than Calella de Palafrugell (no rum and sailor songs here). The beach is one continuous sandy wonder, and pine trees make a canopy over the sidewalk that fronts shops and restaurants. The wall behind the bar at the Hotel Llafranc boasts of celebrity visits from a more glamorous age, with framed photos of Liz Taylor, Kirk Douglas, and Sophia Loren.

A more rigorous hike leads from Llafranc to the lighthouse at Sant Sebastia. It's not the stumpy lighthouse you're there for, though, it's the view. From this height, boats at sea are tiny dots, and the arc of the coastline to the south reveals its jagged coves and clusters of villages.

A small cafe near the lighthouse provides nourishment for the homeward journey, though the hardier could continue a two-hour hike north to Tamariu. (The wealthier could check in at the summit's four-star hotel.)

Every trip has a moment that pivots from outward to homeward bound, like the stretching and releasing of an elastic band. Sant Sebastia marked the turning point that would lead back to Llafranc, Calella de Palafrugell, Girona, Barcelona, and ultimately home. Somewhere between the sea and the river, the roses and the books, the cobblestone streets and the salty-sweet salads, I was seduced by the subtle attractions of Girona, and the Costa Brava. They've become not only places I have been, but also places I plan to return.

Necee Regis is a freelance writer who lives in Boston and Miami Beach. She can be reached at neceeregis@yahoo.com.

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