Girona is “not Barcelona”, a reputation earned in recent years by the fact that budget airline RyanAir considers Girona a Barcelona airport, leading to many people arriving and being miffed that they are a whole hour away from Catalonia’s capital.
In my case, I’m glad not being in Barcelona, the crowded, dirty, geared toward tourists city that makes me feel nervous and constantly scammed is not planned in this journey. Girona, by contrast, is bright and airy, much cleaner, and more relaxed. While tourists will do just fine on their own, the city doesn’t make tourists the center of the universe.
Founded by the Romans, inland from the rugged Costa Brava and surrounded by northern Catalonia’s soft, green hills, Girona was ruled by the Moors for two centuries, controlled by the French and besieged so many times it earned the nickname “immortal” or “the city of a thousand sieges”. Its heart is the ancient walled city, Barri Vell, sitting on the right bank of the river Onyar, where colourfully painted homes line the waterway. Here rows of red, orange and yellow buildings line the banks, backed more often than not by a crisp azure sky for a full-on colour assault.
As a crucial center of Catalan culture, also due to its close proximity to the border with France, Girona, in its old part, offers a series of fascinating paths of coaster-like rolling alleys, views of medieval details, and high sand-colored stone walls: elements that made it immediately appealing among the Spanish sets of the HBO show Game of Thrones. As the spirit of independence rides high in the region, Catalan flags hang from balconies, lending a defiant air to the city. Vivid red and yellow reminders of Catalonia’s fierce independence they may be, but such is their number, they really bring the streets and alleys to life, like there’s some national celebration going on, every single day.
The towering spire of the cathedral at its northern end provides an easy landmark to orientate in the maze of the ancient city, I venture for a stroll around the bustling Plaça de la Independència, the heart of the city’s social scene. It’s November, a month after the referendum for Catalan independence and the following riots. I speak Spanish, and despite the rumors that in Catalonia people speak only Catalan, a group of students talks to me. “We were here when the police came,” says Nicolau, a pro-referendum university student, pulling back his hair to show a healing cut at the top of his head, “The police shoot rubber bullets to stop us, but they will never succeed in repressing us.”
My walk continues to the distinctive rust-coloured Pont de les Pescateries Velles, built by Gustave Eiffel before his more famous Paris creation. Girona has an unpretentious, livable quality that I seek out in cities that I visit. The bars are fun and casual. And no matter how busy an area is, you could turn a corner and find tranquility.
I descend into the claustrophobic labyrinth of cobbled streets that make up “El Call”, the Jewish Quarter, one of the best-preserved in Europe. In the 9th century the Jewish community arrived in Girona, a move encouraged by the authorities impressed by their diplomacy and financial skills. But by 1492 the Jews we expelled from Spain as Christianity took over.
Now the narrow, cobbled alleyways of the Jewish Quarter are beautifully preserved, making for one of the city’s main attractions and an interesting afternoon stroll under the cooling shade of the tall medieval buildings.
“Girona is an amazing city to live in, a little cosmopolitan, as there are many attractions luring an international audience,” says Rosa, a waitress at La Fabrica Girona, a must cafe for foodies and cyclists just outside the Jewish quarter. “Bikes are really popular here, the cafe is run by Christian Meier, a former Canadian racer for the Orica-GreenEDGE team, but the food is a protagonist too: El Celler de Can Roca made it to the World’s Best Restaurant with three Michelin stars and all the surrounding restaurants are trying to keep up the pace.”
The restaurant run by the three Roca brothers has prohibitive prices for a student, but Rocambolesc Gelateria is Jordi Roca’s fun and quirky side project and having the chance to run into him is a perfect window of opportunity. The place is small, but bright red and white columns help to spot the ice cream shop. To my great surprise, the pastry chef is in the house and he is exactly as I imagined him: with a prominent nose, a great sense of humour condensed in the few words he can pronounce, due to a illness of the larynx.
“This isn’t a place serving hundreds of gelato flavors; we usually make only six or seven, depending on the season and on the availability of the ingredients,” explains with a raspy voice and with big gestures, “today I made this chocolate, do you want to try it?”
The treat is a scoop of chocolate I can smell from behind the window, covered in sugared cocoa beans, fudge, and chocolatey pop rocks. “The beans come from a small farm in Guatemala, I care about fair trade,” says Jordi,
“I don’t speak much, my sweet kitchen does it for me.”
Food orientation of the city can be seen in its restaurants: influences of the French cuisine and the Mediterranean merge in the menu of the Mimolet restaurant, where a degustation menu is only for 35 €. Squid, cod, pidgeon, truffle, delicate flowers are the protagonists of the 5 course dinner, and in the end, the chef, Marta, comes out for a chat. “I’m inspired by the unicity of the territory,” she says,
“I want to put Girona in my dishes, we are not France, we are not Spain, we are Catalonia”.
The next day I’m ready to explore the walled ramparts of the old city behind the impressive Girona Cathedral. A mix of styles, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona boasts an imposing baroque entrance atop 90 steps, a Romanesque cloister and the widest Gothic nave in the world. The spire of San Felix Church also pokes into the skyline, and is perhaps prettier than the Cathedral tower. The two buildings can be easily confused.
Both spires can be admired from the top of the city’s Roman walls, the earliest date from the time of Charlemagne, a great spot to look out over the lush greenness of Costa Brava and the autumn foliage of the Pyrenees, along with the terracotta rooftops of Girona itself.
Girona is a city of myths and folklore, uniqueness and legends, possibly the most quirky of which centres on the statue of the small (and rather disturbed looking) lioness climbing up a pillar in Plaça de Sant Feliu. As I’m ready to depart, I’m looking at the statue when a old man approaches me:
“Did you fall in love with the city?”
“I did, yes.”
“Then, jove, climb the three steps and and kiss the little feline’s bottom, so the tradition will make sure you’ll come back,” says the old man, “Adéu!”