Originally created 06/03/01

Walls of history

GIRONA, Spain - Built on an ancient route linking Spain to the rest of Europe, the walled city of Girona has been fought over for ages.

Iberian people were here 2,500 years ago; the Via Augusta linked Rome to Cadiz; and Napoleon had it under siege in 1809. Still, it has been untrampled by mass tourism.

Overshadowed by its elegant Catalan neighbor, Barcelona, or bypassed en route to the isolated, sandy coves of the Mediterranean's nearby Costa Brava, Girona belongs on any short list of Spain's most enticing cities, joining Seville, Cordoba and Granada in the south, or San Sebastian in the northern Basque country.

The provincial capital of 73,000 is a quilt of architectural styles mixing modern and classical, but the focal point is the medieval old city, which spreads out beneath ancient walls and watchtowers on a hillside on the east bank of the Onyar river.

The old city is compact and easily walkable. The centerpiece is the vast Gothic cathedral with its Baroque facade poised above an imposing staircase. The site has long been an area of worship, with a mosque and synagogue once occupying nearby ground.

A few minutes' walk alongside the intact medieval walls is the Jewish quarter - known as the Call - a maze of steep, shaded alleyways centered on Carrer La Forca. It was home to one of Iberia's most prosperous Jewish communities in the 13th century, numbering about 1,000 - 20 percent of the city's population at the time.

A good way to view the old city is from atop the walls. It will take about 30 minutes to go from one end near the Placa Catalunya to the northern end near the cathedral and Arab Baths.

Few cities its size have more museums. Girona, originally named Oppidum Gerunda by the Romans and located just 35 miles from the French border, has a half-dozen, including Spain's only Cinema Museum, the City History Museum, the Archaeological Museum, the Art Museum (located in the Episcopal Palace) and the Jewish History Museum, located on the site of Girona's third and last synagogue.

Girona had a strong Arab presence for several hundred years after the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711. The first reference to Jews in Girona dates from 898, and they stayed until they were expelled with Muslims - or forced to convert - under the 1492 edict of expulsion.

"There is a lot of history behind every stone in the city," says Neus Casellas, who works at the Jewish History Museum. "Cross the river and you are in a modern city with a dynamic university. We are a small city, so you feel things are on a human scale where you can walk anywhere."

If you go

GETTING THERE: The easiest way to get to Girona is by flying to Barcelona, which is served by many major airlines. Train or car travel from Barcelona northeast to Girona will take just over an hour.

LODGING: Hotel rooms may be difficult to find in July and August in Girona. The city of 73,000 has seven hotels, two 4-star, two 3-star, one 2-star and two 1-star. The tourist office on Rambla Llibertat 1 is very helpful (34-972-22-65-75). The Girona city hall also runs a welcome service and will help with hotels and guided tours (34-972-21-16-78). The average hotel price for a double in the summer season is about $85.


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