Thursday 23 November 2017

Girona: Costa calmer

Costa Brava, Catalonia, Spain.
Costa Brava, Catalonia, Spain.
Girona
Nicola samples the wine at Celler Can Sais
Ceiling at the Dali Theatre Museum

Nicola Brady

Away from the big resorts further up Spain's coast, Nicola Brady found Girona to be the perfect place to soak up laid-back Catalan culture

As I wandered the streets of Girona, I noticed something unusual. Every doorway I passed was surrounded with flowers.

Bouquets of all sizes were tucked into alleyways and balconies. Floral chains were strung between apartments, creating a swinging rooftop of petals. Every spare space, from lampposts to trees, bore a thick decoration of blossoms.

When I reached the cathedral, standing proudly over the city, I found that even the steps leading to the entrance were blanketed in a layer of flowers and grass.

This wasn't, I discovered, in honour of my visit, but for Temps de Flors (the Festival of Flowers) which takes place each May. Citizens of the city transform Girona into a veritable garden paradise and the walls of the town bloom into life.

Though Girona isn't in blossom all year round, each month seems to bring a different festival to the city. From the open-air rice party to the hobby horse dance, there's always a reason to take to the squares and celebrate.

With such a beautiful backdrop, it's easy to understand why. The city seems to be the perfect combination of old and new, the calmer older sibling of nearby Barcelona.

Small and winding streets lead you through the tangled fortress of the old town, with each turn revealing a hidden square dotted with bijou bars and cafés.

When you reach the peak of the city, you stand overlooking the thick, lush greenery that envelopes the nearby mountains.

The Onyar river's waters seem crystal clear, reflecting the orange-hued facades of the waterside buildings. Follow it out of town and the water is filled with poppies and shadowed by the branches of weeping willows.

On my first evening, I walked through the old town to explore the Jewish Quarter. This district makes up the heart of the city, and is one of the largest and best preserved in Europe.

As you walk, it's difficult to resist running a hand along the old stone walls that tower overhead.

Hidden among the labyrinth of streets is the Museum of Jewish History, where, on entry, I found myself surrounded by the song of a local choir.

Echoing throughout the thick walls, the music followed me as I passed tiny gated gardens and found myself in the Patio de la Estrella.

This small square in the middle of the museum is the setting for Nights of Music in El Call -- a series of free concerts during August.

As you emerge back into the core of the city, there's no shortage of places to eat. Cal Ros (calros-restaurant.com) is a foody's delight, carved into the sandy rock with the feel of an ancient tavern.

In honour of the Temps de Flors, I dined on a chilled pea soup with borage, deep-fried courgette flowers and rose-water sorbet. Even the steak was served on a blanket of edible flowers.

After dinner, the residents of Girona take to the street-side cafés and bars to see out the day with a glass of wine, in that most enviable Mediterranean style.

Those in the mood for a stroll take to the ancient city walls, which make up the boundary of the old town and create the perfect route for an evening amble. Couples walk arm in arm, and those with a nosier inclination peer into secret gardens and the rooftops of the Modernist private houses.

The trudge to the peak of the walk is well worth it, where your efforts are rewarded with majestic views over the city and onwards to the Pyrenees.

Beautiful hills and mountains surround the city from all angles, and after a few days they were calling out to me. The vineyards that reside on the hillsides were calling the loudest.

Celler Can Sais (cellercansais. com) is around an hour out of Girona, tucked into the depths of the wilderness. As I strolled one of the eight vineyards with Marta, the head winemaker, she told me what makes the wines of Catalonia so special.

Her vineyard, like many other family run wineries, is in the Emporda region in the northeast of Catalonia, bordered by the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea. As well as making for a stunning backdrop, the location means that these vineyards are visited by the Tramontane wind.

This strong wind sweeps down upon the hillsides, creating a climate that is ideal for vines. In combination with a largely acidic soil, this creates a 'perfect storm' of winemaking.

Beautiful though the vineyard was, all this talk of wine was making me rather keen for a taste. In the shade of the rambling family home, Marta brought out five bottles of Can Sais wine from the eight they produce annually. No vintage is ever the same, as different grapes are blended each year.

I'm no wine aficionado, but I can assure you that these went down a treat. Even at 10.30am.

To keep an air of civility to the proceedings, I tore into chunks of bread dunked in Marta's olive oil. She makes enough for the family, but not to sell. As I ladled more on to my bread (and watched others practically drink it from the bowl) I could understand why she kept it to herself.

Hard as it was to tear myself away from Can Sais, the sun was rising in the sky and it was time to head for the sea. Though large-scale beach resorts are plentiful on the Costa Brava coastline, the tiny cove at Satuna feels like a private island. White-washed homes jut out from the rocky coastal path, with balconies looking out into the turquoise bay.

Hostal Satuna sits in the centre of the cove, serving up freshly caught seafood and more of the aforementioned wine. The servings are gargantuan, the fish delicious and the relentless courses meant that our lunch soon became a four-hour affair.

Chilled Cava was shared between locals and tourists, and no one could tear their eyes away from the ocean.

Beaches as tranquil as Satuna are plentiful, and a million miles away from the resorts I was expecting. Further up the coast lies Escala and the town of Empuries, in a spot where world-class windsurfing and Roman ruins collide.

The Tramontane wind was in full effect as I walked the coastal path. One on side, the waves lapped onto the shore. On the other, schoolchildren were exploring the ancient ruins of Empuries.

I was frequently passed out by joggers and cyclists, making the most of the afternoon sun. However, the Catalan lifestyle had caught up with me. As I plonked myself down on the sand to soak up the rays, I let them all pass me by.

All I had to do was lie on the beach, listen to the sounds of the sea and worry about where my next glass of wine was coming from.

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