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Landing in the Middle Ages

Meandering its mysterious alleyways, climbing its towering ramparts, exploring its ancient Jewish quarter, one wonders why so few Americans have discovered Girona, Spain, on the Costa Brava

September 08, 2002|BARRY ZWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GIRONA, Spain — You would have thought we had just climbed Mt. Everest. There we were, toasting in triumph, sitting amid Scandinavians in hiking shorts, Swiss with stout walking sticks and sturdy British women wearing sensible shoes. My wife, Bobbie, and I and dozens of others had reached the top of the ramparts and circled the city, and we were celebrating. We were, after all, 500 feet above sea level.

Now, with our climb and the midday sun behind us, we were lunching at Cafe le Bistrot, halfway up a steep stone stairway inside the wall, with dozens of superathletes like ourselves, bonding under belle epoque opera posters and Impressionist watercolors of ballerinas as ceiling fans twirled. We had endured 25 minutes and nearly a mile of climbing stairways and watchtowers, and we were buzzing and jumping with adrenaline in this crossroads, soothed though we all were by its greenery, blue flowers, and cocoa and peach walls.

Most of our fellow climbers were in their 20s and 30s, and six or seven languages were spoken. During our three-day stay here in July, we did not cross paths with a single American. Of the 109,000 tourists who visited the city last year, I found out later from Girona's tourist office, most are from elsewhere in Spain. In second place were the British, with 15,000, and in third place, the French, with 14,000. American visitors were so few, with totals below 1,000, that they didn't even make the list.

Americans don't know what they're missing, because there is much to do in this historic city on Spain's Costa Brava. You must snack on tapas, drink Penedes and climb the 90-step Baroque apron to the 900-year-old Gothic cathedral. You must wind through the narrow, twisting cobblestone lanes where one of Spain's most influential Jewish communities lived six centuries ago. You must sample free wine, cheese, candy and salsa at the outdoor market.

Above all, you must climb to the top of the wall that almost encircles the Barri Vell ("old district"), Girona's medieval quarter. Here, nearly 70 feet above the old stone streets, you look down at lemon and olive trees, up at pines and an occasional spruce on the slopes of Montjuic rising before you, and out toward the stunning Cathedral of Santa Maria and the blue ridges of the Pyrenees mountains beyond.

Bobbie and I had come to Girona for the same reason as the builders of the walls--the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Aragonese: The city is on the main road from Barcelona to southern France, and we were headed to Arles, France, then to the Riviera on a two-week vacation in July. But we found so much to amuse ourselves here--snaking alleys with surprises at every bend, good food and drink at low prices--that we were in no hurry to move on.

Our 62-mile drive from Barcelona to Girona took an hour, not counting the extra hour at each end during which we were thoroughly lost. The train, which takes a little more than an hour and deposits you within four blocks of the Barri Vell, would seem a better bet than driving.

But once we arrived here, we found a different world from the one we had left in Barcelona. The brisk efficiency and the cool stylishness of Barcelona were nowhere in sight. Although our hotel, the Melia Girona in the New City, is the best of the seven hotels--there are a dozen hostels and pensions as well--in this city of 72,000, the laid-back desk staff tended to disappear for long periods. No one stood outside to hustle us into restaurants. We could wear whatever we wanted. We discovered a warmth and friendliness that we thought had long since departed from urban Europe. By our second day, locals were saying "hola" to us in the streets. Whenever we whipped out a map, someone came by to help us.

Though we stayed in the prosperous New City--parts of which are 200 years old--we spent nearly all our time in the Barri Vell. Consisting mostly of pedestrian lanes, it was compact and a joy to walk. Parking, though, was unthinkable.

To get to our first meal in Girona, we parked in the New City and crossed a bridge to the east side of the mirror-like Onyar River and the Barri Vell. We had landed in the Middle Ages. We found a village of hand-hewn stone, graceful arches and, off in the distance, the soaring cathedral.

And, of course, the wall. Its foundations date to the 4th century, when the Romans enclosed a village they named Gerunda in honor of Geryon, a three-headed monster in Greek mythology who was killed by Hercules. The wall looks much as it did in the 14th century, when the Aragonese put on the finishing touches.

"Are we dressed properly?" Bobbie asked as we entered the wood-paneled vestibule at Albereda, the most expensive restaurant in the Barri Vell, around lunchtime. As black-suited waiters came into view carrying silver-domed serving dishes, I began to wonder the same thing. Then we saw the other diners, who, like us, were wearing sandals and shorts.

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