Exquisite golf in Gaudi country - Golf in Barcelona & Girona
When you go on a golfing trip you expect to play golf, to talk about golf, perhaps even to watch some golf. You expect to lose a few balls, sink a few drinks, perhaps tip over a buggy (I did that in Ireland), buy a long-case clock and lose your golf clubs (yes, both of those, too) and have a memorable if tiring few days (ditto).
What might not be expected is that on a golfing trip to Spain you and a golfing partner end up in a cathedral discussing the meaning of life. Nevertheless, there I was with Gary in the 14th century Gothic cathedral of Girona one recent autumn day.We were a few feet away from the second widest Gothic nave in the world at 22.98m and the second widest nave of all styles after St Peter's Basilica in Rome and as we stared in wonder at a 12th century tapestry depicting the Creation I turned to my golfing partner. “Gary, do you believe in the Immaculate Conception?” I asked.
There was a pause as Gary cleared his throat, a sure sign of a man who has been caught unawares. He looked as though he had been dreaming of his birdie on the 15th the previous afternoon. “I certainly think about it now and again” he replied, audibly racing through the gears.“But as to whether I believe in it, I am not sure.” He coughed again, nervously.“I shall have to think hard about that one.”
Think hard, too, about Spain as a golfing destination. The southern part of the country, as you will no doubt be aware, is and has been a popular golfing destination for years.The Costa del Sol was renamed the Costa del Golf during the 1997 Ryder Cup and continues to draw thousands of tourists.The Balearic Islands are growing in popularity and there are those who like to make forays across into Spain from south west France.
But Girona for golf? Barcelona?To most people the attractions of these areas lie in the nearby beaches of the Costa Brava.Yet PGA Catalunya, for example, a 36-hole resort with another 18 holes being built is only an hour from the architectural delights of Barcelona, claimed to be Europe's most stylish city, and almost on the runway of Barcelona Girona airport.
“We are 80 kilometres from Barcelona, 10 kms from Girona, 15 minutes from the coast and you can be skiing within one hour”Augustin Garcia, the general manager of PGA Catalunya, said.“For years we were considered to be in the middle of nowhere.Now we are in the middle of everything.”
The land on which the resort is laid out was sold by the Royal Automobile Club of Catalunya to the PGA in the early 1990s to be developed as the site for the first Ryder Cup to be held on the Continent of Europe.As it happened Valderrama on the Costa del Sol won that particular contest but having been overtaken to that prize PGA Catalunya is coming into its own, a PGA European Tour Courses venture with a cracking, if somewhat unusually designed, hotel.
There are two courses, the Tour,which is wider from the tee and more inviting, and the Stadium, the more difficult.
Naming one course the Stadium is a nod to towards the Tournament Players’ Club in Sawgrass outside Jacksonville, Florida,where The Players Championship is staged on a course of that name each summer.The Stadium, where Thomas Bjorn won the 1999 Sarazen World Open,was recently named third best course on the Continent of Europe by a golf magazine the name of which escapes me and was chosen as the venue of the 2009 Spanish Open.To get an idea of the challenge the two courses present think of Woburn with more elevation changes, Sunningdale with more trees and water, Swinley Forest with the hum of traffic in the distance.
Neil Coles and Angel Gallardo, two of the senior statesmen on the European Tour,were responsible for designing the courses,which are testing and self contained.The visitor is struck by two features: the first is that most of holes on the Stadium and some of the holes on the Tour are self contained. It is not possible to see many other holes from them.
What is also striking is that on the Stadium course almost every tee is raised, thus giving you the encouraging prospect of a fairway that falls away from as you prepare to hit down it.Very few holes on the Stadium course are uphill; perhaps only the 6th, 16th and 18th.Many of the holes are doglegs.
As well as Gary, my golfing partner, I was playing with Enrico Lopez, a smiling young man who was a pro in the making. Enrique had a slow swing and bent his left arm in a way that was reminiscent of Calvin Peete.
As I slashed and hooked around the Stadium course with an exaggerated use of my hands, he saw it as his job to offer advice.He did not want me to go home in a bad frame of mind or to harbour grievances about the course.“Keep hands still” he commanded me again and again.“Then turn body forward and turn it back.”When I executed a swing that pleased him he was in the habit of saying:“more better,more better.”
So it was that after our golf,Gary and I found ourselves in Girona itself on an autumnal afternoon. If you don’t know Girona, you ought to. It is pretty, old and historic having had Roman,Arab, Jewish influences down the years .Napoleon conquered it in 1809.
Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist, lived in an apartment down a narrow street when he was racing for a local team.The local cuisine combines fish and meat to an unusual degree. For example a local favourite is “Niu”, a dish made from cod, cuttlefish, pigeon and sausage. But you can also eat chicken with spiny lobster, goose with pears or pigs trotters with snails. El Bulli, one of the world's most famous restaurants, is only a short drive from the hotel. If you want a table you had better book now for, oh, say, 2011.
When you go to Girona, make sure that as well as walking the ramparts of the ancient city (shades of Chester) you climb the steps leading to the cathedral and wonder how many people have driven a car up and down them.
“Travel instead of broadening the mind lengthens the conversation” someone said, somewhat world wearily.Play golf at PGA Catalunya and amble around Girona and you will find that to be partially true .Travel does lengthen the conversation but in this case it broadens the mind, too.You will be the better for it, having learned about life in another country and in another millennium.And you don’t even have to believe in the Immaculate Conception.