Girona comes alive after dark. At least that’s what we found when we stumbled from the restaurant, our bellies stuffed after an amazing dinner of duck and pears, to find the streets and bars crowded with students. Eclipsed by its larger, gaudier neighbour, Barcelona, Girona is often used as a launching pad for nearby resorts, which is a pity as this is one university town worth visiting.

At the heart of Catalonia, Girona is an enchanting town. Colourful old houses painted in pinks, oranges and magnolia hang over the river Onyar. A magnificent Gothic cathedral forms the town’s centrepiece with an impressively steep baroque staircase leading to the entrance. Inside you can gaze upon the widest single Gothic vault in the world. The cathedral’s own Museu Capitular is worth a peek and is home to the famous 12th century Creation Tapestry, depicting the elements and seasons of the Earth.

Of course, part of Girona’s appeal is its location: only half an hour’s drive to the Costa Brava and a couple of hours from the Pyrénées. No one should visit Girona without hiring a car to check out some of the surrounding attractions. Within easy reach is the pretty lakeside town of Banyoles or the medieval town of Pals. Culture vultures won’t be able to resist visiting at least one corner of the ‘Dali Triangle’ – the three towns in the area which were significant to Salvador Dali, the surrealist artist, and which are now home to museums celebrating his work.

The moustached eccentric with a bent for painting melting clocks and elephants on insect-leg stilts was born in Figueres in 1904 and gave his first exhibition in the town when still a teenager. He died there in 1989 and is now buried in the museum he helped to create in the ruins of the old town theatre in the early 1960s.

While Figueres is nothing to email home about, the museum itself is a work of surrealist art: deep red and studded with yellow baubles, with a roof adorned with giant eggs and a glass dome. It’s the most visited museum in Spain after the Prado in Madrid and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The collection inside is a testament to both Dali’s prodigious output and his sense of humour and includes a clam-shaped bed, a portrait of Beethoven which was painted using the black ink of an octopus (reportedly still alive at the time!), and a spooky room-sized installation of Mae West’s visage with a red sofa for her lips.

But art aside, those hoping to discover the wilds of the Costa Brava may be disappointed. The resort town of Palamos, with its build-up of unattractive apartment blocks, typifies the charmless coastal towns of the area. Once a simple fishing village, Palamos is still an active fishing port and it was here we found the Musea de la Pesca (Museum of Fish). It sounds dull, but if you skip the perfunctory 10-minute introductory spiel you can happily while away half an hour marvelling at the massive whale harpoons and various other implements from fishing days of yore.

Most interesting were the models depicting the various fishing methods still used on the coast. Sounding particularly romantic (although, not for the poor fish), pesca de la traina, or fishing with lights, involves a ring of boats going out at night with lamps and laying a net around a central, illuminated boat. Blowfish, sardines and anchovies are attracted to the lights and are snared by the nets that encircle them.

Coincidentally, we emerged from the museum just in time to see modern fishing practices in action as boats returned to port to unload their catch of the day, and watched with fascination as one fisherman gutted and filleted a blowfish. The rest of the fish were sorted into colourful crates before being shunted off to the enclosed market only metres away. Inside, the crates were paraded on a conveyer belt and auctioned off to restaurateurs and supermarkets, a nice little reminder that beneath the veneer of tourism, local industry still thrives here.