I was invited to be a sketch-artist-in-residence in Costa Brava—the rugged coastline that spans from Blanes, just north of Barcelona, up to Spain’s border with France in 2015. All told, I spent six weeks in the region, including a two-week stint in Girona.
I was instantly enchanted by the ancient Catalonian city’s markets and maze-like covered passageways, the melodic church bells that herald the passing of time each day, and the ever-present seagulls who seem to enjoy making their home some 20 miles—as the crow flies, of course—from the sea.
But what made the deepest impression on me was Girona’s history. Nowhere else in my travels have I discovered so many layers of the past in a single place.
What’s more, owing to the city’s compact size and pedestrian-friendly old town, Barri Vell, it’s possible to explore Girona’s myriad layers in a short period of time—making a day-trip here a delightful stand-in for time travel.
My walking-tour guide, Anna Aliu, expressed it best: “The deeper you go, the more you’ll find.”
Here’s my recipe for the perfect day in this storied place:
A full day of time travel is best begun on a full stomach.
For breakfast, make your way down Carrer de les Ballesteries, a narrow street lined with narrow houses whose memorable shades of ocher, vermilion, and gold are colorfully reflected in the quietly wending Onyar River.
From sweet and savory pancakes at the cozy L’exquisit café to crepes at D’Aquí and Crêpdequè, you’ll be spoiled for choice on this boutique-lined lane. But there’s perhaps no better way to start the morning than with pa amb tomàquet—perfectly toasted bread rubbed with fresh tomato and topped off with a dash of salt and olive oil—so consider stopping into the Context Llibreria to sample this Catalonian classic.
After breakfast, you’ll be perfectly positioned to visit Casa Masó, the birthplace of renowned Catalan architect Rafael Masó—a key figure in the Noucentisme cultural movement, which was in large part a reaction against the Modernisme embodied by Antoni Gaudí.
The house museum opened in 2012 and is run by the Rafael Masó Foundation, which was established to preserve the architect’s familial home and celebrate his life’s work.
“A house like this explains the time and the values of the artist much better than a [conventional] museum,” the foundation’s director, Jordi Falgàs, remarks as he leads me on a tour through room after carefully preserved room. In one, a blue-and-white porcelain tea set sits out on a table, as though waiting for Masó to return home and pour himself a cup.
But as I gaze out of a window onto the river, I realize that Casa Masó’s greatest gift is, perhaps, the view it provides of Girona. “This is the only house on the river open to the public,” Falgàs notes. “Here you can enter into the postcard—you can enter into the picture.”
This is when your blast into Girona’s past truly begins. From Casa Masó, a two-minute walk up Carrer de la Força will take you about six hundred years back in time, to the center of the Call, one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe.
“[The Jewish people] are an important part of the history of this city,” my guide, Anna Aliu, tells me as we pass through the quarter on our walking tour of Girona. “But this is a very Catholic country—if you were of the same group and religion in that day, life was easier for you.”
Though there was a documented Jewish population in Girona starting in the ninth century, discrimination against the group slowly increased, until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.
The Museum of Jewish History is an ideal place to learn more about this important community and the role it played in Girona’s evolution, but leave time to wander the labyrinthine Call, where cool limestone walls, skinny flights of steps, and plaintive strains of a busker playing flamenco songs on his guitar—as was the case when I sat there sketching—will instantly transport you to another world and time.
At this point, you’ve no doubt worked off your pa amb tomàquet and are ready for a leisurely lunch, Catalan-style. For an elegant café atmosphere—and quintessential view of Girona’s old town—head to Le Bistrot, whose outdoor tables and cane chairs are arranged beneath a sweeping stone archway.
After lunch, continue walking up the Pujada de Sant Domènec until you reach the Gothic cloister on the University of Girona’s Barri Vell campus. Originally home to a Dominican convent founded in Late Middle Ages, the cloister’s grassy center is now more likely to play host to students sprawled out on the grass.
From the university, you’re just around the corner from what will prove to be the pinnacle of your physical exertion for the day: the Passeig de la Muralla. This network of ancient fortified walls has encircled the city’s old town for more than 2,000 years, protecting it against dozens of sieges. “Every time a new quarter was important enough, the city walls were expanded,” my guide, Anna Aliu, explained on our walking tour.
The epic ascent begins behind the Romanesque church of Sant Pere de Galligants. Follow the trails and steep stairways to the Torre Gironella—one of several lookout towers positioned along the wall—and bask in one of the best vantage points in the city. From the Girona Cathedral to the snowcapped Pyrenees rolling across the distant horizon, the view seems to bring everything together—near and far, new and old, the city’s vibrant present with its still visceral past.
After you finish walking the walls, check your watch; I have a feeling you’ll be just in time for happy hour at nearby Café L’Arc. Find a seat on the terrace, order a refreshing tinto de verano (red wine with lemon-lime soda) and a round of classic Spanish tapas, and marvel at the cathedral looming up before you—from its baroque facade and Gothic interior to its Romanesque bell tower, there’s hardly a period of history that hasn’t left its mark.
For the perfect end to your day of time traveling through Girona, arrange a rental car and go for a quick out-of-town jaunt for one final discovery. A half-hour’s drive toward the coast brings you to Empúries, where what remains of a trading port founded by Greek colonists in the sixth century BC still stands along the shore.
As you may have gathered from your day spent touring Girona, virtually every significant group in history passed through this region at one point or another—from the Visigoths and Moors to Charlemagne and Napoleon’s armies. So it only makes sense that the world’s original wayfarers—Greek, Roman, and Phoenician traders—found their way across the water and spent time in the Costa Brava, too.
The Archaeological Museum of Catalonia has a branch at Empúries, where it’s possible to tour the excavated ruins of a Roman city and Greek trading settlement, but there couldn’t be a more fitting place to end your day than on the sandy shores of the Mediterranean itself, steps away from the timeworn port, with a bottle of rioja you picked up along the way.
The port isn’t roped off, nor are there any barriers separating you from the ancient site—just like Girona itself, it’s only you, the stones, and two thousand years of time.