If it’s a universal truth that Spaniards stay out late, Girona is the exception to the rule. About 11 o’clock on a balmy March night, the restaurants lining the plazas and graceful arcades were all but empty. Nothing to do, I thought, but head to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

Then we heard it. Boom! Tap, tap. Boom! Boom! Tap, tap. Boom!

The sinister rhythm ricocheted through the narrow cobblestone streets. If this were a period drama, it would be the sound you hear as the gallant prince is led to execution. Slowly, somewhat nervously, my cousin Will and I followed the drumbeat up the hill to the cathedral square. Bathed in the glare from the floodlights atop the church were lines of spear-toting men marching in formation. Boom, they slammed their spears on the pavement. Tap, tap, boom! They made the sign of the cross. Next, a band of drummers and fifers joined in. It was, I learned later, practice for the town’s annual Easter processional, one of the few still regularly held in Catalonia. The marchers continued rehearsing until well past midnight.

SERIOUS ABOUT HISTORY

History is taken seriously in Girona, an ancient city in northeast Catalonia. Catalonia is famous for its modernist artists — architect Antoni Gaud?painter Salvador Dali and gastronomic wizard Ferran Adri?- and the buzz of its capital city, Barcelona. But in Girona, the draw is tradition. Beginning in the 1980s, the town, led by a historian-turned-mayor, rediscovered its ancient Jewish quarter, reconstructed part of the city’s medieval ramparts and polished the shopping boulevards of its historic quarter. Pride in the old is so ingrained that when, on my first day of what I had termed my “beyond Barcelona” tour, I asked a local what he thought of El Celler Can Roca, a Michelin-starred destination restaurant that employs avant-garde techniques, he answered: “It’s nice. But it’s different.”

Perhaps it’s the determined focus on history that makes so many tourists overlook Girona. Serious cyclists pay the city attention: Lance Armstrong made Girona his base while he trained for several Tour de France races. But guidebooks give the city only a cursory nod. Even when discount airline Ryanair announced that it would begin flights to Girona in 2002, most tourists used it as a cheap way to get to Barcelona, about an hour away. For most, it’s a day trip — at best.

But Girona is to Barcelona what Arrezzo is to Florence in Tuscany. It’s smaller, quieter and a city that would be a top destination in its own right if it didn’t have such a famous neighbor. Day trips don’t do it justice, because the best way to appreciate it is slowly: lounging at one of the elegant outdoor cafes, window-shopping at the boutiques housed in historic facades or wandering the circuitous, narrow lanes. There must be almost a dozen ways to wind your way up to the cathedral on the hill, and each one offers a different vantage of the Gothic spires, the Romanesque towers and the stone ramparts that once protected the city.

PREPARE TO CLIMB

One piece of advice: Take a cab to your hotel.

On the hunt for history, I had chosen the aptly named Hotel Historic, which sits in the shadow of the cathedral. What looked like a short, pleasant walk from the train station — across the river and past Girona’s much-photographed, sun-washed ochre- and rose-colored houses — was a haul with a large suitcase in tow. The distance isn’t great, but the direction is straight up. Up steep, cobblestone lanes. Up sets of stone stairs. the time we arrived at our hotel, we were out of breath.

It was, however, an excellent choice. The thick, stone walls of the family-run hotel date back as far as the 3rd century, but the rooms offer the conveniences necessary to soothe more modern souls: comfortable beds, central heating and a deep bathtub good for an end-of-the-day soak. (The staff also speaks English, something you cannot take for granted in proud Catalonia.)

At the top of our sightseeing list was Girona’s top historical attraction, the Jewish quarter, or Call. The first Jewish community arrived in the city in the 9th century and formed a settlement that was protected by the crown. (The rulers of medieval Spain appreciated the Jews’ medical and financial skills, especially their willingness to lend money.) the 12th century, the vibrant population numbered 1,000.

About 30 percent of Girona’s tourists come to see the Call, a tour guide told me. But there are few remaining signs of Jewish culture. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Christians moved in and either destroyed the Jewish homes or built new houses on top of them. (This explains why many of the houses are three stories high, startlingly tall for medieval dwellings.) Even the much-touted Museum of Jewish History doesn’t reveal much about Girona’s Jewish past.

THE LEGEND OF MONSTER FLIES

The history of the Cathedral de Santa Maria is, unsurprisingly, far better documented. A grand 18th-century stairway, with 90 steps, leads up to the gray facade that dominates Girona’s skyline. The church’s interior is equally imposing. The single nave is 72 feet wide, second only to that of St. Peter’s in Rome. Built over the course of 500 years, the church has a Romanesque frame that houses more than a dozen baroque chapels, including one that tells the story of Saint Narcis (Narcissus), the patron saint of Girona. He was martyred in the 4th century; in 1285, French invaders broke open his tomb and, according to legend, were attacked by a swarm of monster flies. This explains the chocolate flies (mosques de Girona) that can be found in several traditional confectionery shops and why the otherwise uncommon name Narcis is so popular in Girona.

The views from the cathedral square are postcard-perfect. But there are even better ones from the city ramparts. From the cathedral, I wended my way (uphill again) through a maze of streets and walled gardens that end at an 11th-century tower. This is the access point to the Passeig de la Muralla. From the walls, the view is of a jumble of spires, red-tiled roofs and the bridges that span the River Onyar. (Only the crisscrossed red iron bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, nods at modernism.)

Starting near the cathedral, the breezy stroll along the ramparts was, mercifully, all downhill.

Girona’s restaurants also reflect the city’s love of tradition. Yes, there is El Celler Can Roca. But most of the others offer a sampling of simple Catalan cuisine. Casa Marieta, on the stylish Plaza Independencia, is well known for hearty dishes such as Catalan sausage butifarra with white beans. We headed to El Bistrot, a spacious cafe decorated with antique posters and mirrors, where we gorged on the set menu of rich onion tart, meaty pork cheeks with flageolet beans and a hazelnut flan. It tasted as if a Catalan grandma was at the stove.

To sample the ultimate Spanish mother’s cooking, we headed out of the old city to El Restaurant Can Roca. This is where the Roca brothers, Joan, Josep and Jordi, of the famed El Celler grew up eating. The cook is their mother, Montserrat Fonton?

Photos by The Washington Post

Church towers rise above the River Onyar in the ancient Spanish city of Girona, which recently rediscovered its old Jewish quarter and rebuilt part of its medieval ramparts. Steep steps lead to the Gothic spires, Romanesque towers and stone ramparts of Girona, a city in Spain’s Catalonia region. Although its flashier neighbor, Barcelona, gets more attention, Girona is a worthy destination in its own right.