May 06, 2020

Beyond Barcelona: A delicious madness

Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, is one of the world’s flashpoints for the so-called overtourism phenomenon, but just a short ride by fast train will see you in delightful Girona - or its famous neighbour, Figueres.

Away from Gaudí’s interminable Sagrada Família and the tat-infested La Rambla where plagues of tourists and rowdy touts have smothered any semblance of a cultural experience, there lie the twin towns of Girona and Figueres, two settlements with similar histories yet distinct lives of their own.

Figueres, just 12 minutes by train from Girona, lays claim to one of the most visited art museums in all of Spain, the Dalí Theatre and Museum, where 1.2 million surrealist devotees are drawn like moths every year. The brilliant artist and consummate showman dazzled his fans and perplexed the critics with outrageous antics and stunning works of art which included everything from paintings and sculpture through to jewellery, costumes and movie set design.

Retrospective Bust of a Woman1933Dali Museum, Figueres

“There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad." - Salvador Dali

Time itself melts just as Dali’s famous clocks ooze from the canvas as you wander the halls and corridors of this bizarre palace, devoted to the voluminous works of the eccentric Catalan who was both born and buried in Figueres. In fact, his remains are interred in a vault within the museum itself.

Whether you want to argue that the abundant art and design culture found in Figueres and the surrounding Empordà (region) is a result of Dali’s influence or the other way around, it matters little. What you find today is a concentration of museums and galleries in the little city, all within a stone’s throw of Dali’s opulent mausoleum. The Museu de l'Empordà features the art and design work of lesser luminaries such as Santos, Reig, Vallès, Planells, Massanet, Gabriel and Mitjà as well as Dali himself. The Technical Museum of the Empordà is famous for its collection of classic typewriters while the smaller Toy Museum is nonetheless rich in fantastic playthings from dolls, board games and tin soldiers to slot cars and fantasy teapots.

Go Your Own Way

Call it a coincidence but independent-minded Catalonia, with its own language, culture and flag, can be said to be a reflection of Dali in that it shines like a beacon for tourism, captivating visitors with its eclectic appeal to the annoyance of the staid and predictable central parliamentary monarchy.

Figueres, whose population barely nudges 50,000, is about half the size of Girona yet retains the ornamental rural decor accumulated over the centuries despite being bombed heavily during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. In fact, Catalonia was on the losing side in that brutal conflict and may go some way to explain the pent up persecution and hostility that is still displayed by the central government when the issue of a fully independent and separate Catalonia is raised.

Industrious and relatively prosperous, Catalans are outwardly sanguine about independence but scratch the surface and their desire for autonomy is palpable. Catalan flags still drape from windows and balconies and slogans adorn windows. Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim. ("We are a nation. We decide.") How the issue of full independence for Catalonia will be resolved in the near future is unclear.

Furthermore, their sympathy for refugee causes has seen an influx of migrants from various embattled nations as far away as Africa and the Middle East. These displaced people can be found around the central square and civic buildings like the railway station, and squatting in the many ancient ruins, adding a sense of unease for visitors and in some cases a personal security issue. Begging and pickpocketing are evident all along coastal Spain.

Starring Girona

Girona's Cathedral used as a centrepiece in Game of Thrones (HBO)

Movie buffs won’t need to be told about Girona’s star quality. Set designers could not have purpose-built a more authentic cityscape than the ancient town itself with its many secret alcoves and shadowy stone nooks. In fact, the whole coastal region, known colloquially as the ‘Costa Brava’ has a cinematic history stretching back more than a century. Girona even has its own Cinema Museum.

Most recently Girona has enjoyed a return to the limelight, albeit on the small screen, via HBO’s hugely successful historical fantasy, Game of Thrones. In season six, Girona’s Old Town was transformed into the streets and landmarks of King’s Landing and Braavos for two weeks in September 2015 when actors and even some local extras played their part in key scenes. The major set-piece was the 1000-year-old Romanesque Catedral de Santa Maria de Girona when it became the Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing, its size and inherent grandeur further enhanced by the latest CGI effects.

The Monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants, the Arab Baths as well as the many old stone bridges and narrow alleyways all had their respective moments, creating a prominent leap in visitation numbers as the many fans came for that all-important selfie, particularly on the steps of the Cathedral. Today you can join one of several themed tours that explore in detail every location used in the filming.

Two Wheel Touring

Girona’s already substantial ecotourism credentials are bolstered by the widespread use of bicycles, not only for personal transport but also as a means to explore the city and the wider region. Cycling enthusiasts and tourists come from all over Europe and beyond to ride the serpentine roads that one writer described as “like wandering into the home of the professional peloton.” This assertion can be supported by the fact that numerous prominent cyclists have homes in the region including former professional racer David Millar who remarked, “One of my friends in the professional peloton (leading riders) said I should come and check out Girona. I didn’t even know where Girona. My wife and I came here and within two days we knew it was where we wanted to live.”

Add former Movistar rider Rory Sutherland, who owns the Federal Cafe, and another former professional, Christian Meier, who also owns three hip establishments in town, including La Fabrica Girona. Factor in the pleasant year-round weather, delightful roads, sympathetic drivers and great scenery and you have a near-perfect cycling destination.

Now you don’t have to be a ‘peloton’ racer to enjoy the pleasures of two-wheel touring around Girona. Stop by Burricleta in Carrer Bonaventura, near the city centre, and hire an electric eco-bike or join one of their tours. These clever machines look for all the world like your regular pushbike but come with a secret battery pack that nudges you along nicely on the steeper bits. It’s not really cheating because you still get your pedalling exercise, you just get to explore further without getting exhausted. And there is plenty to explore, both around the city and the nearby countryside. Take a picnic and enjoy a break under the olive groves, it’s superb. Of course, if time is on your side, you can easily enjoy the same locations while meandering on foot.

Salvador Dali, when quizzed about what makes him happy, he coined a famous quote that could easily be the mantra for any visitor to Girona, Figueres or Costa Brava. You may wish to test it for yourself.

“There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”

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Good To Know

Rocambolesc is a famous gelateria started by Catalan Michelin-starred chef, Jordi Roca. The icecreams are a work of Dali-esque art - and taste amazing.

Where to Stay

Located in the historical and commercial heart of Girona, a historic building was completely renovated to become the Nord 1901 Superior Hotel, offering sophisticated and well-equipped rooms and apartments.

Plan Your Trip

It’s a simple matter to jump a fast national or international AVE or TGV high-speed rail service from either Barcelona or Paris. Girona and Figueres are both less than an hour from Barcelona main station, which also links to the airport (BCN).

RENFE fast train at Girona (RE)


You can research all there is to know about Catalonia at the official website:

Eating Catalonia

The native cuisine of Catalonia is steeped in its own 1000-year history and draws heavily on its neighbours, France and Italy, as well as more subtle Moorish and Jewish influences. Any way you look at it, the rich and flavoursome food is truly Mediterranean, derives from nutritious and wholesome ingredients of both the land and ocean.

Big on any menu are such vegetables as eggplants, tomatoes, artichokes, peas, beans, pasta, crusty bread and olives. There’s bound to be wine like the local favourite, tempranillo, as well as pork, beef and any of the common local fish like cod, tuna, sardines and anchovies.

A few of the local delicacies include:

Escalivada. Made with ash-grilled and peeled aubergines, red peppers and tomatoes.

Escudella is a two-part dish featuring a soup with rice and pasta with a generous side plate of meat and vegetables.

Esqueixada de bacallà (pic above) consists of cod - rubbed with salt and hung outdoors to dry -  red peppers, tomatoes, onions and black olives.

Fricandó is an authentic traditional Catalan dish featuring beef as the main meat. The selected cut is covered in flour, seared in butter or olive oil with some mushrooms and stewed in white wine.

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