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Girona. Barcelona. David. Goliath?

How a smaller, more provincial town not only survives but thrives next to a much larger urban neighbor is a bit of a mystery.

It’s common for people to visit Barcelona on weekend city breaks from around Europe, and the Catalonian capital’s name is the upstart darling of the travel set. How then can little Girona hope to compete?

In Spanish the name lingers on as Gerona, with Girona its Catalan original. Growing up in Spain, I never visited here. There didn’t seem to be a reason to. First mistake.

Riverside along Girona - Barcelona is less than an hour away

Ryanair doesn’t fly from Geneva where I live so I didn’t even know Girona had an airport. I assumed everyone flew in and out of Barcelona. Second mistake.

I also believed the city could be dispatched quickly with a day trip from Barcelona: see the Cathedral, walk at a clip through the old town, eat a good meal, and rush back to civilization. Third mistake.

Girona has been called the ‘great unknown,’ a city stuck between the twin monsters of Barcelona and the Costa Brava. Yet it refuses to live in anyone’s shadow. It has instead carved out its differences – and made herself famous for them.

There are advantages to being David

Size matters. People have actually moved from the glitter of Barcelona to the more manageable Girona, like Charo Errando, who promotes tourism for Girona. “It’s all about how you live. You don’t have the stress of a metropolis and you can be at work in five minutes. This city is all about quality of life, friendliness, services and culture.”

If you like culture…

…then you’ll love Girona. There’s the Gothic Cathedral, of course, which once served as a mosque, the bit that’s left of the Jewish Quarter, funky architecture, and a concerted effort to attract artists of all stripes.

But the real culture, at least for me, lies in the food.

Girona is home to the world’s second-best restaurant. There, I’ve said it. However much I regret not having eaten there (directly) I did sample their food indirectly when they catered an event I attended at the magnificent Castell Sant Gregori. Reminds me of the Avis commercial – we’re number 2, we try harder. El Celler de Can Roca is second only to Noma in Denmark.

Tapas in Girona, Spain

Tapas in one of many great Girona bars

I can’t even show you what their food looked like: in contravention of Travel Blogger Law #1, Thou shalt not eat before taking the photograph, I was swept away by the mouth-melting ham, the brochettes, cheese tuiles, heaps of finger food and desserts which turned everyday fruit into brilliant red and blue explosions of sweetness. By the time I remembered my camera destruction was total.

Not satisfied with being home to one of the world’s best eateries, this is the second year Girona runs it’s popular Destapat, a city-wide tapas contest in which restaurants are asked to submit either a single tapa (at a reasonable €2.80 including a beer – about US$3.65) or a full tapas menu.

“Some years ago Ferran Adriá (the renowned chef) said the future of gastronomy would be tapas. Today people want to try many different things,” said Jesús Pastor, head of Destí Girona, the municipal tourist office.

So I spent an evening exploring this hypothesis.

Owner of Granja Nova restaurant in Girona

Nazaret shows off her creations

Nazaret Bochaca runs the restaurant Granja Nova, a converted house in Girona’s Old Quarter. She started serving tapas because of the Destapat. “My contest entry is made of beef fillet with foie gras, apple, and a Port reduction,” she told me, while preparing me one (I would shortly ask for a second).

“I love the creativity so I took advantage of the contest to create other tapas.” Her arsenal includes cod, snails, sausage, and plenty of other snacks whose names all sound better in Catalan than in English.

In an (almost) all-male world of chefs, Nazaret is one of only two women whose restaurants entered the 2012 contest. “I don’t mind being a woman in this trade. And anyway, women often cook better.”

Girona’s citizens brook no nonsense when it comes to politics

Seen in Girona Barcelona and other cities

Barcelona may have the cosmopolitan feel of a meeting of nations but Girona, while open and diverse, is Catalan through and through.

People will greet you in Catalan, and even if you slip into Spanish they may – very politely – try their luck with another Catalan sentence or two.

Girona is considered the most separatist of Catalonia’s cities. September 11 was the National Day of Catalonia but by month’s end no one had taken down the flags across Girona.

And then there’s all that history and geography

Despite the ear-piercing volume of fake ammunition, Girona’s reenactment of the French invasion in the early 19th century was a colorful slice of history, a proud reminder that the hardy citizens of this city succeeded in keeping Napoleon’s troops at bay for a full seven months before surrendering.

Reenactment in Girona of French invasion under Napoleon

The geography is about location, location, location: Girona is almost equidistant from Barcelona, the Costa Brava and the Pyrenees. Its size makes it easy to enter and exit and it’s a great base from which to explore these various regions. Where else in Spain can you ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon?

The city has a bit of an avant-garde approach to promotion and has banked heavily on social media and online marketing to build its brand and get the word out. I was in Girona for TBEX, a travel bloggers’ conference and a coup for the city as hundreds of travel and tourism professionals explored every old and new corner of town. By providing urban tours and regional trips, the authorities made sure every minute not at the conference was spent exploring the city or its environs.

The strategy worked. I now know the city as well as I know Barcelona, and there’s something about its spirit that wills me to return.

Barcelona may be Goliath, but Girona is comfortable playing David. In the friendliest possible way, of course.

 

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Julie Dawn Fox October 7, 2012, 1:34 pm

    I visited Girona a few times while I lived in Barcelona and loved it each time. When the annual flower festival is on (3rd week of May), it’s truly magical as the whole city centre is transformed into stunning and creative displays of colour.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 9, 2012, 4:32 pm

      It’s not the first time I hear about that festival so I think I’m being pushed to go!

  • Anita October 7, 2012, 2:28 pm

    Beautifully said, Leyla! I love Girona’s small pleasures, and am also eager to return–I was quite impressed with how Cataluna’s chefs have taken Spain’s tapas tradition and made it their own.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 9, 2012, 4:33 pm

      You read my mind. I’m planning on going back, maybe in the spring, and food will be high on my list of… ummm… homework.

  • Doreen Pendgracs October 9, 2012, 8:26 pm

    You make me really sorry I missed the TBEX event! (Hope we’ll see you at the next one in Toronto, as I’ll definitely be there.)

    I really love experiencing smaller cities. Girona looks great and I hope my next visit to Spain will get me there. The 1st pic you show here of the river lined with colourful buildings really reminds me of Pisa.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 9, 2012, 8:39 pm

      I’ll try to be at the next TBEX Europe event but I’m afraid I won’t make it to Toronto, Doreen… But it’s never too late to visit Girona! It’s amazingly easy to get to, either flying directly, or through Barcelona (subway and train to Girona, really straightforward). And they have great chocolate ice cream, too. Given your chocolate interests, you’ll probably enjoy Kerrin Rousset’s blog if you don’t know it, at mykugelhopf.ch. I always run for chocolate after I read her!

  • lola October 24, 2012, 1:07 pm

    really enjoyed this post. i love the line “where else in Spain can you ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon?” it was so fantastic to meet you too, Leyla! looking forward to our paths crossing again down the road 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 24, 2012, 1:26 pm

      Thanks Lola, it was lovely to meet you too! Unfortunately I can’t take credit for that sentence… I brazenly stole it from Adventurous Kate, who was wondering where you could do that in the world… I mentioned Beirut… 🙂

  • Sandy October 24, 2012, 6:20 pm

    Loving the first photo of the buildings beside the canal — Girona looks like an Iberian Amsterdam!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak October 24, 2012, 6:25 pm

      Hah – hadn’t looked at it that way. Not enough canals, shame, but the architecture makes up for it, doesn’t it!

  • Sally Smith December 12, 2012, 7:40 pm

    Girona sounds amazing. I hope to travel there some day. The flower festival alone makes me want to just take off and go. Thanks for sharing these wonderful travels with us all.

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