If you’re lucky enough to be enjoying a short break in Barcelona, chances are that you won’t feel the need to leave the many diverse attractions of the city in search of additional culture and sightseeing beyond. And yet the regional autonomy of Catalonia abounds in treasures which reach far beyond its principal city. In the first of a series of blogs, I take a look at two cities to the north of Barcelona within easy reach of the Catalan capital and lend themselves perfectly to a day trip: Girona and Figueres.
Set at the confluence of four rivers and overlooked by an imposing hilltop castle, Girona (Gerona in Castilian Spanish) effortlessly combines a multitude of historical riches with a vibrant present-day pulse thanks to its large university community. Built onto the side of a mountain, the Old Quarter (Força Vella) is an absolutely fascinating place to explore, its labyrinthine, steep and narrow cobblestone streets lined with arcaded medieval buildings. Today the Old Quarter is home to chic boutiques, buzzing cafes and contemporary art galleries, not to mention the soaring Santa Maria Cathedral, set 86 steps up from the Plaça de la Catedral. In fact the main street running through the Old Quarter, the Carrer de la Força follows the Via Augusta, once connecting Rome with Cadiz.
In addition to impressive 12th-century Arab Baths, an ancient Benedictine monastery, the Eiffel Bridge (constructed by Gustave Eiffel prior to his eponymous Parisian tower) and the Museu del Cinema, the only cinema museum to be found across Spain, Girona also plays host to one of Europe’s best preserved Jewish communities – El Call – dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. It’s also the setting for one of Europe’s foremost Michelin-starred restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca, voted top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013. Easily accessible from Barcelona, via high-speed AVE train, the journey to Girona takes just 38 minutes.
Capital of the Alt Empordà region and synonymous as the birthplace of the Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí, Figueres is a tick-box essential if only for the flamboyant and eye-catching Teatre-Museu Dalí alone. Adorned with soaring statuettes and giant eggs and studded with what can only be described as an abundance of plaster croissants across its exterior, the Dalí Museum must undoubtedly be Figueres’ most photographed star attraction and is thoroughly worth a visit for its unique exhibits, even if Surrealism is not your preferred artistic style.
Dalí aside, there are also a number of other attractions to the town. Figueres plays host to the country’s only toy museum, the Museu del Joguet, where all manner of antique toys from board games and dolls houses (some 3,500 exhibits in all) provide an interesting visit for all ages. There’s also the imposing Castell de Sant Ferran, the largest 18th-century fortress in Europe situated on the outskirts of town in addition to the Museu del Empordà, containing archaeological artefacts dating back to Greek, Roman and medieval times in addition to artworks with loans in situ from the Prado in Madrid. The Rambla itself is also a very pleasant setting for a spot of people watching. Figueres is just over 30 minutes on from Girona on the train.
Next time, we’ll be heading south from Barcelona, looking in particular at two very different seaside cities: Tarragona and Sitges.