On my last day in Barcelona, I headed back to the Explore Catalunya tour office for a day tour to Girona, Pals and the Costa Brava. I’d been looking forward to seeing the Costa Brava more than anything on this trip.
As on the Tarragona tour the previous day, our group of seven headed out in a small van, this time traveling north of Barcelona for about an hour and a half to the fascinating city of Girona.
Girona lies less than an hour south of the French border near the Costa Brava and is one of Catalonia’s largest cities. It has a similar history to Barcelona with its succession of conquerors. Originally inhabited by the Iberians, the city was conquered by the Romans, and later, the Visigoths, the Moors and Charlemagne.
The Onyar River cuts through Girona and forms one border of the medieval heart of the city. Ancient buildings line the river banks and reflect their colorful pastel facades in the water. This romantic scene reminded me of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
It was a frosty morning as we crossed the Eiffel Bridge that spans the river, but the sun promised to melt the coating of ice on the bridge and bring some warmth to the day.
On the other end of the bridge, we stepped into Girona’s medieval city center. Our guide, Lydia, led us through ancient cobbled streets as she elaborated on the highlights: Roman fortifications from the 1st century BC that protected Girona from invaders for hundreds of years, the original city gate, an Arab bath house and a Gothic Cathedral.
The cathedral had been built as a mosque by the Moors. After they were expelled from Spain in 1492,
it was rebuilt to serve Christians.
We made our way into the lovely old Jewish quarter, with its flower-adorned balconies and shop-lined cobblestone alleys. It’s one of the best preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. In the 12th century, this community had flourished. But like the Moors, the Jews who would not convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain in 1492, and much of Girona’s rich Jewish history was wiped away.
When we got to the far border of Girona’s historic center, Lydia let us wander through the city on our own for about 90 minutes. It was still chilly, so I looked for a shop where I could get some coffee.
Along a newer street lined with shops, I stopped in a café and had a Spanish espresso and croissant. That was becoming my mid-morning habit, since the Spanish eat lunch so late, usually around 2:30 pm.
After I refueled, I walked back into the maze of medieval cobbled alleys and retraced our earlier steps to the Arab Baths. I paid 2 Euros for entry and wandered around the cave-like rooms.
This well-preserved Moorish structure dates back to the 12th century, its design inspired by Roman baths. The entrance, which was the most interesting, is covered with a barrel vault. Graceful columns with ornate capitals support a cupola that covers a central pool. After the Moors were expelled, the baths became privately owned until 1617 when they were converted into a convent laundry by the Order of Capuchin Nuns. In 1929, the baths were restored to their former glory under Spanish rule.
As I headed back down the narrow shop-lined main street in the Jewish quarter, one of the shops caught my interest. I had not yet bought any souvenirs, but it was hard for me to pass this up. The shop was filled with locally-made pottery. Yes, there were some touristy ceramic trinkets, but mostly, there were beautiful dishes, many of them small enough to pack in luggage.
The prices were fantastic. I bought a traditional Spanish olive server, with attached bowls for olives, pits and toothpicks for 6.50 Euros. The same thing in the US would cost $25-$40. I also purchased several small serving bowls that can be used for tapas and dipping sauces. They were not identical in design but their color schemes of red, blue and yellow coordinated with each other.
At the appointed time, our tour group met up in the parking lot and we headed off to our next destination, the fairytale-like walled city of Pals.
(TO BE CONTINUED)