July 18, 2005

Girona: Ask Lance Armstrong how many steps there are

Lance Armstrong has a home in Girona, but we didn’t see him. We visited this medieval gem of a city nestled between Barcelona and the Spanish Pyrenees just after Christmas, and Lance and the many other pro cyclists who make Girona their European training headquarters typically move in around February to prep for the race season and leave after October’s final two-wheeled battles.

So, with no
spectacularly fit guys in Spandex around to distract me, I was able to devote my full concentration to Girona’s haunting medieval beauty and rich layers of history and architecture. Girona is one of my favorite small European cities. Quiet, less-traveled and overflowing with color, character and the simple, honest commerce of everyday life. (The city’s name is spelled Girona in Catalan, Gerona in Spanish. The traveler to fiercely proud Catalonia will find more doors and people open to him if he attempts Catalan first, Spanish second.)

The guidebooks said Girona was an hour by road from Barcelona. Because they show you nothing of a place,
I eschew, unless time is of the essence, interstates, motorways, autoroutes, autobahns, autopistas and autostradas equally wherever in the world I find them, picking my way instead along small roads that poke and wind and wend their ways through a land’s real life. The kids and I took seven hours to travel 180 kilometers, meandering along the rugged Costa Brava and detouring up, down and into her villages, ruins and pine forests.

The beauty started at
Tossa de Mar, its medieval battlement towering over beach and sea. (The stretch between Barcelona and Tossa was an ugly industrial wasteland.) We listened to CatalRadio, familiarizing our ears with the vaguely Portuguese-sounding Catalan. We bought cans of black olives and mussels (and a salami for Adam) at the supermercat in the resort town of San Felix de Guixols and picnicked on the broad oceanfront promenade. We found Calella, a fishing village bursting with color, where we collected sea glass and inspected tide pools. Pants and coats were called for on that crisp Costa Brava December day, but bundled-up Calellans were out in force. Old men and women sat in groups of three on benches high above the sea, families walked along the sandy beach in front of the wildy-hued line-up of old wooden boathouses, and young boys jumped from one grouping of sea boulders to another, surf crashing onto their pant legs, looking for the next place to cast their rods.

We drove into Girona just as the sun was igniting the ochre, amber, green and blue stucco houses lining the Onyar River into an architectural rainbow.
Girona has been inhabited for two thousand years, and the old city (where Lance lives) serves up a dizzying menu of delights, from Roman walls to Arab baths to a mystical medieval Jewish quarter to gothic and baroque churches dating from the 14th to 17th centuries.

Adam sprinted up the massive,
vertiginous baroque staircase that leads to Girona’s cathedral. According to the guidebooks -- the ones that declared the trip between Barcelona and Girona to be a one-hour drive -- there are 90 steps. Adam counted 91. My money’s on him.

Happy Birthday, Mom