Girona's magical history tour
A heady mix of Spanish, French, Moorish and Jewish cultures, combined with flavour-packed gastronomy and friendly locals, gives Girona an air of mystery, writes ADRIENNE CULLEN
TOURISTS visiting Girona in northeast Spain often base themselves in Barcelona, less than two hours away by train, and explore the ancient hilltop city on a day trip. Personally, I’d do things the other way around – because while Barcelona is certainly cool, Girona is cool and mysterious.
Let’s face it, there’s not much mystery left in travel nowadays. Cheap flights, international hotel franchises, travel websites packed with clients’ reviews, and the world and its mother tweeting, posting and texting as they go – it doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination.
Yet Girona is mysterious. And the source of that mystery is without doubt its quite remarkable history – a heady mix of Spanish, French, Moorish and Jewish, all combining in its open and friendly people, its sophisticated culture, and its subtle yet flavour-packed gastronomy.
Girona has been besieged 25 times and captured seven times by various armies. Its ancient cathedral was once a Moorish mosque. Its Jewish ghetto was home to the single most important school of Kabbalistic studies in Europe in the 12th century. And in the 19th century the city actually became part of France – for four years at any rate.
So when you touch down at Girona Airport (also known as Barcelona Girona Airport, and Girona Costa Brava Airport) just seven kilometres away, you’ll know that quite a few foreigners of various nationalities have been here before you, not always with the best of intentions.
Not the least of those foreigners, by the way, was seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who moved to Girona from Nice in 2001, though his intentions at least were understandable – to escape the unending controversy in France over whether or not he and his US Postal Service team were involved in doping.
Various members of the Armstrong team – including George Hincapie and Floyd Landis – also lived here at various points, and apparently they all got together regularly in one of the Irish pubs, McKiernans, to watch big-screen cycling on a Sunday afternoon.
Though they can be as nonchalant about celebrity as the Irish, the locals loved having the big name cyclists drinking coffee on their terraces, eating in their restaurants, and whizzing through their streets.
Secretly, they loved the media attention too. They turned Girona into a cycling city – and there’s even a 58km circuit in the hills outside the town known as “the Armstrong loop”.
IT’S NOT ALL hills and blazing saddles though. Physically, Girona – spelt Gerona in Spanish – is a city of two halves, divided by the River Onyar.
The old quarter, called Barri Velle, is on the eastern bank of the river, while the more modern part was built on the plain opposite, where it had space to spread out, and the two are connected by no fewer than 11 bridges, the majority of them pedestrian and one actually designed by Gustave Eiffel.
The real heart of Girona is the old quarter. Everything about it is unique, colourful and, at times, almost like something from a fairy tale.
And because the best views of the old quarter are from the towering and fabulously preserved Carolingian walls – so called because they were started when the Emperor Charlemagne seized the city from the Moors in AD 785 – that’s where you should start your exploration as well.
There’s no doubt that after this leisurely tour of inspection along the Passeig de la Muralla, the next place you’ll want to see is the spectacular Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona, built between the 14th and 17th centuries and dominating the entire landscape. Not only can you see it from the wall – you can see it from miles around.
Like everything else about the city, this grand cathedral is a remarkable mixture of eras and styles: its imposing facade is Baroque, its tardis-like interior is Gothic, the cloister is Romanesque and the bell-tower is . . . neo-classical, of course.
There are 86 steps to the front door, and the experience is well worth it, not least because of all the calories you’ll burn off. This cathedral has the widest Gothic nave in the world at 22.98m, and the only nave wider in the world is in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
This building is a treasure-trove of architectural history, and not just for ecclesiastical anoraks. Art lovers should keep their eyes peeled for the Tapestry of the Creation, an 11th-century textile considered to be among the masterworks of the Romanesque era.
Just below the cathedral and running right down to the banks of the Onyar sprawls Girona’s most important tourist attraction: its ancient Jewish quarter, known as El Call, the oldest and best-preserved of its kind in Europe.
The first Jewish woman who is known to have lived here was named Doucerella, according to the oldest existing paperwork, which dates to AD 963. The quarter itself was built gradually during the 13th and 14th centuries, and today it’s a veritable rabbit-warren of narrow cobblestone streets with high houses on either side – full of history, mystery and allure.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that the Jewish quarter today remains the biggest attraction – and presumably source of income – for Girona, given that the relationship between the city and its Jewish community ended in tears and persecution. In 1492, they were finally expelled from all of Catalonia on the orders of the King Ferdinand, and there are few Jews living in the town today.
By the way, as yet another example of the layers upon layers of history which make Girona the magnetic city that it is, it’s also worth noting that Carrer de la Forca was once part of the Via Augusta, the endless stone road that connected Rome, the centre of the Empire, to its far-flung outposts.
It’s also worth a visit to the 13th-century Arab Baths or Banys Arabs, which in fact have nothing to do with Arabs but are so-called because they’re in the style of Muslim architecture. Inspired by the Roman baths, this was a public bathhouse for the city, with a frigidarium, a tepidarium and a caldarium – cold-, tepid-, and hot-water rooms – which are all utterly fascinating. The kids will love it.
By now you deserve some shopping, so head to the wide pedestrian Rambla de la Libertat, the main shopping thoroughfare in the old town, which hugs the riverbank for the most part, with shops and restaurants on the ground floors of the colourful buildings.
The good news is that the Rambla was renovated about a decade ago, with strict planning guidelines, so that under the beautiful stone arcades you’ll find hawkers selling vegetables, flowers, spices and nuts, you’ll find antique stores, book shops and furniture shops.
What you won’t find are postcards, T-shirts or any sign of the usual chain stores.
GIRONA IS a university city, so it’s buzzing year-round. In fact, it’s arguably at its most beautiful after the summer rush when most tourists have left and the “real” Girona re-emerges.
In September and October, temperatures fall from intolerable summer highs of 40 degrees back to the balmy 20s that most Irish holidaymakers find more comfortable. The autumn is also an ideal time to visit the Parc de la Devesa, the largest urban park in Catalonia. Just west of the old city, the 40-hectare park is very much a part of the city’s social life and the venue for numerous fairs and festivals and concerts throughout the year. Nine walks planted with 2,500 150-year-old banana trees provide some very exotic shade.
The Festival of Saint Narcis (or Saint Narcissus) is held in the Parc de la Devesa in late October. This is an international trade fair with a funfair atmosphere, free concerts every evening and a gala last evening when the whole of the Barri Velle joins in the celebration named for the city’s patron saint.
Girona is not a wild town, but for entertainment after dark the best place in my experience is Plaça de la Independència, a colonnaded 19th-century square on the eastern side of the city, just across the river from El Call. It’s the ideal place to people-watch.
They make a mean coffee at the Café Royal, in the southeast corner of the square. Pretty much all the restaurants are good because Catalan cooking is always delicious – especially the exquisite local tapas and the region’s tasty wild mushroom dishes.
A stone’s throw from the Café Royal, there’s the Sala de Ball, a Gironese institution which is part ballroom of romance and part hip nightclub.
You’ll often find four generations of the same family here. What a way to experience Spain!
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Girona from Dublin. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Barcelona from Dublin, Cork and Belfast.
Girona where to...
Value:Apartamentos Historic, 4a Call Bellmirall, 00-34-972-223583, hotelhistoric.com. These are really chic apartments attached to the Hotel Historic, at the top of El Call near the cathedral. They offer more independence than a hotel, and the more people there are the better the value. For instance, an apartment sleeping five costs €150 a night, plus 7 per cent VAT.
Mid-market: Hotel Peninsular, 6 Avenida Sant Francesc, 00-34-902-734541, hotel-peninsular.com. This bright and modern little three-star is friendly and good value. The standard rate per night for a double room is €91, but the internet rate is often as low as €64. Well situated just five minutes across the river from the old town.
Upmarket: Hotel Carlemany, Plaça Miquel Santaló, 00-34-972-211212, carlemany.es. This four-star does pretty much what it says on the tin, and has a guestbook signed by a host of Spanish celebrities. It also has a piano bar. However, it’s pretty central and undeniably good value at €90 a night for a double room, including breakfast and taxes.
Value: La Creperie Bretonne, 14 Cort Reial, 00-34-972-218120, creperiebretonne.com. The French owners have managed to squeeze an old school bus into the building to act as a kitchen, so full marks for trying! Menu includes crepes, galettes and salads, with a selection of local meats and cheeses. Not haute cuisine, but tasty, relaxed and fun.
Mid-market:Restaurant Bonay, 13 Plaça de les Voltes, 00-34-972-634034, bonay.com. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, this traditional little Catalan restaurant is packed with atmosphere. Run by the third generation of the original family, it specialises in typical stews and roasts. It’s popular locally, so you may need to book.
Upmarket: El Celler de Can Roca, 48 Can Sunyar, 00-34-972-222157, cellercanroca.com. The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, published every year by UK Magazine, Restaurant, voted El Celler second-best restaurant in the world this very year. Usually at the top youll find names such as El Bulli, The Fat Duck and Noma. The three Roca brothers run the restaurant, which has built some dishes and desserts around celebrity perfumes such as Calvin Kleins Eternity.
The main shopping area is called Mercadel and radiates out from Rambla de la Llibertat, into streets like Carrer Nou and Carrer de Santa Clara. Youll find the big brand names such as Massimo Dutti, Benetton and Mango, and endless quantities of high-end shoes, handbags and accessories. For something more off-beat though, pay a visit to Colmado Moriscot, an old-fashioned deli which opened in 1908 and still rings your purchases up on a 100-year-old National cash register.
Sala de Ball, Paseo de la Devesa, 00-34-972-202889. Youll notice that this night spot has no website, and thats because the Sala de Ball is a legend in Catalonia, a Geronese institution, and not about to join the internet age for anyone. Youll often find tango and cha-cha-cha in one room for the older dance-addicts, with salsa for the younger ones upstairs, and maybe a university band somewhere else. A modest entry charge usually includes a drink.