If it's a universal truth that Spaniards stay out late, Girona is the exception to the rule. About 11 o'clock on a balmy March night, the restaurants lining the plazas and graceful arcades were all but empty. Nothing to do, I thought, but head to the hotel for a good night's rest.
Then we heard it. Boom! Tap, tap. Boom! Boom! Tap, tap. Boom!
The sinister rhythm ricocheted through the narrow cobblestone streets. If this were a period drama, it would be the sound you hear as the gallant prince is led to execution. Slowly, somewhat nervously, my cousin Will and I followed the drumbeat up the hill to the cathedral square. Bathed in the glare from the floodlights atop the church were lines of spear-toting men marching in formation. Boom, they slammed their spears on the pavement. Tap, tap, boom! They made the sign of the cross. Next, a fife and drum band joined in. It was, I learned later, practice for the town's annual Easter processional, one of the few still regularly held in Catalonia. Rehearsal went well past midnight.
History is taken seriously in Girona, an ancient city in northeast Catalonia. Catalonia is famous for its modernist artists — painter Salvador Dali, architect Antoni Gaudí and gastronomic wizard Ferran Adriá — and the buzz of its capital, Barcelona. But in Girona, the draw is tradition. Beginning in the 1980s, the town, led by a historian-turned-mayor, rediscovered its ancient Jewish quarter, reconstructed part of the medieval ramparts and polished the shopping boulevards of its historic quarter. Pride in the old is so ingrained that when, on my first day of what I termed my "beyond Barcelona" tour, I asked a local what he thought of El Celler Can Roca, a Michelin-starred destination restaurant that employs avant-garde techniques, he answered: "It's nice. But it's different."
Perhaps it's the determined focus on history that makes many tourists overlook Girona. And guidebooks give the city only a cursory nod. Even when discount airline Ryanair announced that it would begin flights to Girona in 2002, most tourists used it as a cheap way to get to Barcelona, about an hour away.
But Girona is to Barcelona what Arrezzo is to Florence in Tuscany. It's smaller, quieter and a city that would be a top destination if it didn't have such a famous neighbor. Day trips don't do it justice, because the best way to appreciate it is slowly: lounging at one of the elegant outdoor cafes, window-shopping at the boutiques housed in historic facades or wandering the circuitous, narrow lanes. There must be almost a dozen ways up to the cathedral on the hill, and each offers a different vantage of the Gothic spires, the Romanesque towers and stone ramparts that once protected the city.
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On the hunt for history, I had chosen the aptly named Hotel Historic, which sits in the shadow of the cathedral.
It was an excellent choice. The thick, stone walls of the family-run hotel date back to the third century, but rooms offer modern conveniences: comfortable beds, central heating and a deep bathtub good for an end-of-the-day soak. (The staff also speaks English, something you cannot take for granted in proud Catalonia.)
On top of our sightseeing list was Girona's top historical attraction, the Jewish quarter, or Call. The first Jewish community arrived in the ninth century and formed a settlement protected by the crown. By the 12th century, the population numbered 1,000, including Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known as Nahmanides, one of the early scholars of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah.
About 30 percent of Girona's tourists come to see the Call, a tour guide told me. But there are few remaining signs of Jewish culture. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Christians moved in and either destroyed the Jewish homes or built new houses on top of them. Even the much-touted Museum of Jewish History doesn't reveal much about Girona's Jewish past. Housed in an elegant building with a stunning sunny patio, the museum is designed to show what a Jewish home might have looked like. But the exhibits are geared to Spaniards, who, according to our tour guide, know little about Judaism. There's a tiny oil lamp, a mezuzah and photographs of mikvahs, or Jewish baths.
The history of the Cathedral de Santa Maria is far better documented. A 90-step, 18th century stairway leads up to the gray facade that dominates Girona's skyline. The church's interior is equally imposing. The single nave is 72 feet wide, second only to that of St. Peter's in Rome. Built over the course of 500 years, the church has a Romanesque frame that houses more than a dozen baroque chapels, including one for St. Narcis (Narcissus), the patron saint of Girona. He was martyred in the fourth century; in 1285, French invaders broke open his tomb and, according to legend, were attacked by a swarm of monster flies. This explains the chocolate flies (mosques de Girona) found in several traditional confectionery shops and why the otherwise uncommon name Narcis is so popular in Girona.
Views from the cathedral square are postcard-perfect. But there are even better ones from the city ramparts. From the cathedral, I wended my way uphill through a maze of streets and walled gardens to an 11th century tower, the access to the Passeig de la Muralla. From the walls, the view is of spires, red-tiled roofs and the bridges that span the River Onyar. (Only the crisscrossed red iron bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, nods at modernism.)
Starting near the cathedral, the breezy stroll along the ramparts was, mercifully, all downhill — a relief to my throbbing calves. Near the end of the ramparts walk, I spotted a well-manicured garden dotted with tables and headed for it. It turned out to be Els Jardins de la Mercè, a chic restaurant that serves the cultural center next door. The garden, with its central fountain, potted palms and views of the old wall, was an ideal setting for a cortado (espresso with a touch of milk) or a beer. At 4 p.m., it seemed only right to have both.
Girona's restaurants also reflect the city's love of tradition. Yes, there is El Celler Can Roca. But most of the others offer a sampling of simple Catalan cuisine. At El Bistrot, we gorged on rich onion tart, meaty pork cheeks with flageolet beans and a hazelnut flan. It tasted as if a Catalan grandma was at the stove.
To sample the ultimate Spanish mother's cooking, we left the old city for El Restaurant Can Roca. This is where the Roca brothers, Joan, Josep and Jordi, of the famed El Celler grew up eating. The cook is their mother, Montserrat Fontoné.
This was the place where I was most excited to eat. Spanish newspapers had reported that the three brothers still eat lunch there most days; their modern temple of gastronomy is just down the road. Joan reportedly favors the poached onion and celery; Josep, the kidneys cooked in sherry; and Jordi, the Catalonian meat stew called escudella.
The restaurant's focus is its regulars. There is no menu. And the only explanation of the set menu is in Catalan. On the day we visited, the options included a thick lentil soup with chunks of pork that would have made a meal in itself, chicken and rice, and a delicate grilled squid topped with baby beet greens. Not everything lived up to expectation: The flan was flavorless and the waiter readily admitted that the profiteroles were not house-made. But it was as authentic an experience as we had found.
Which, of course, is what we came to Girona for in the first place.