In Review

Catalan chic: A guide to Girona and the Costa Brava

Get lost in a tangle of cobbled lanes before escaping to the nearby coast for a blissful dip in the Med

Just 60 miles from Barcelona, Girona offers a more concentrated Catalan experience than its internationally minded neighbour. The compact old town, contained within medieval walls, is "a jewellery box of museums, galleries and Gothic churches" connected by "a tangle of cobbled lanes", says Lonely Planet.

The walls were necessary if not impregnable. Successive waves of conquerors and settlers have left behind a "beguiling mix of architectural styles", says the Daily Telegraph. The Romanesque rubs shoulders with the gothic and baroque, not least in the cathedral that dominates the skyline.

The food is good, too. Visitors can dine out at a restaurant twice ranked the best in the world, feast on glorious seafood from the Costa Brava or savour the cream-filled pastries sold for pocket change on the city's streets. 

The history

Established by the Romans, the city changed hands several times as the tide of history washed over it. "Taken from the Muslims by the Franks in the late 8th century," says Lonely Planet, "Girona became the capital of one of Catalonia's most important counties, falling under the sway of Barcelona in the late ninth century." In the middle ages, it became known as "the city of a thousand sieges". Now, supporters of Catalan independence would love to see the region pass out of Spanish hands, but the government in Madrid has other ideas.

What to see 

Even a first-time visitor to Girona might feel a nagging sense of deja vu. Over the years, it has proved irresistible to film and TV producers. The 2006 movie Perfume made lavish use of the old town's stone alleyways, but it has since been trumped by Game of Thrones in which Cersei Lannister parades naked and shaven-headed down the cathedral's 91 steps.

Gather your energy – and resist the urge to disrobe – at one of the cafes below the cathedral staircase, then head inside to see the 11th-century Tapestry of Creation, which depicts the Genesis myth on 12 feet by 15 feet of canvas. Or descend into the nearby Jewish Quarter and Artisan's Quarter, "home to Girona's own version of Las Ramblas", says Conde Nast Traveller, before climbing up onto the ramparts to put it all into perspective. "A stroll along the walls offers spectacular views of the enchanting medieval alleyways and the mountain backdrop beyond," says The Independent. "The earliest date from the time of Charlemagne."

Out and about 

Girona is the "gateway to the Costa Brava", says the Telegraph, sitting as it does just 20 miles from this glorious stretch of Mediterranean coast. Rocky headlands and dense pine forests punctuate a ribbon of golden sand that winds its way up towards the French border. Several footpaths retrace parts of the long-distance routes followed by pilgrims and merchants in past centuries: the gentle walk from Platja d'Aro to S'Agaro takes in spectacular cliff-top villas with enviable views over the crystalline water.

Where to stay

The five-star Hotel Camiral, a ten-minute drive from the centre of Girona and half an hour from the coast, is a stylish, spacious base from which to explore the region. Gourmets (see below) and golfers will be in their element: the hotel's Stadium Course, a mainstay of the PGA European Circuit, was recently voted the best course in Spain and the third-best in continental Europe. Modern, crisply decorated rooms are arranged around an unusual stepped atrium, lined with books, bottles and other local artefacts. Outside is a dining terrace and a vast swimming pool lined with gorgeous steel-blue tiles. Rooms are from €200 (£175) per night.

What to eat

The Hotel Camiral's restaurant holds its own amongst the heroes of Catalan cuisine. As a native of Barcelona, chef Ramon Simarro is big on local flavours. Gambas de Palamos (an enormous prawn on a bed of rice cooked in rich prawn stock), veal from Girona and roasted monkfish are among the highlights of the 1477 restaurant menu, while the pool bar menu includes heavenly patatas bravas and a selection of tapas.

In Girona itself, Conde Nast Traveller recommends "the city's best pastry shop, La Vienesa", one of many places selling "the local specialty: chucho, a cream-filled fried pastry" – or, for a more exalted culinary experience, the tasting menu at the "sublime" El Celler de Can Roca, which holds three Michelin stars. "You may never have a better meal," it says, with some justification: it was ranked the best in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2013 and 2015, and now sits in third place.

Nu Girona, which has a Michelin star of its own, is another foodie favourite. Order a la carte from its fresh and delicately flavoured fish dishes, or tuck in to an adventurous tasting menu. Foie gras with banana ice cream and ground chocolate cookies is among the more unconventional offerings.

In S'Agaro, at the end of your coastal walk, the Taverna del Mar lays on a veritable feast of seafood. Baked whole red snapper, filleted at the tableside, is a family-sized treat.

When to go 

July and August are the busiest months, but spring, early summer and autumn can be delightful. The streets are quieter and the heat less intense. During the annual Temps de Flors flower festival in mid-May, the city is decked with floral art works while heavily decorated homes are opened to visitors.

How to get there

Ryanair flies direct to Girona from ten UK airports, including Stansted, Bristol, Birmingham and Glasgow, from £16.99 each way. Alternatively, several airlines fly to nearby Barcelona.

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