Often overlooked in the Barcelona rush, Girona, the medieval second city of Catalonia, is a bustling cultural centre with a lively and creative attitude
Tourists heading for a sun, sea and sangria holiday on the Costa Brava or to the bright lights of Barcelona often bypass the sleepy medieval city of Girona, in the north east of Spain. For most of the year, the pace of life in Catalonia’s second biggest city is determined by its residents and is very sedate. Twice a year, however, Girona erupts into frenetic activity: in May, when every nook and cranny of the old town is filled with flowers — both real and symbolic — during the annual Flower Festival, and in October when fire-toting ‘devils’ take to the streets in celebration of Girona’s patron saint Narcis.
While these events inevitably add an extra touch of sparkle, the city is the perfect destination for a weekend break at any time of year, being small enough to walk around, while offering an array of cultural and gastronomic attractions. Girona’s real gem, the Barri Vell or old town, lies just minutes away from the train and bus stations and is separated from the modern city by the River Onyar. The river can be crossed by one of several footbridges, including the Pont de Ferro — designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
On the other side of the river, the Cases de l’Onyar, a row of tall narrow houses painted in different colours, offer an iconic view of the city. They form a final barrier to the Barri Vell, a compact medieval quarter with a maze of cobbled streets, twisting alleyways and well-worn steps leading to shady little plaças. These old streets are full of specialist shops, selling everything from designer clothes and jewellery to children’s toys and food.
The main thoroughfare of the old town however, is the Rambla de la Llibertat, a tree-lined street filled with street cafes that runs from the Pont de Ferro to the Pont d’Isabel II, better known as the Pont de Pedra or stone bridge. This is the perfect place to people-watch while enjoying a drink or ice cream and is also the location of the town’s main tourist office where you can pick up information about events and places to visit. Wander down one of the arched passageways leading off the Rambla and you can find yourself alone in a street virtually unaltered for hundreds of years.
It is easy to get a feel for what Girona was like during its somewhat turbulent past, when it was besieged and captured on numerous occasions. The streets leading off Carrer de la Força were home to the 1000-strong Jewish population for some 600 years before they were expelled in the 15th century. Girona’s Jewish quarter is considered to be one of the best-preserved in Europe, with the history brought to life in the Centre Bonastrucça Porta and adjacent Museu de Jueus.
If you carry on up the hill from here you will arrive at the bottom of a flight of some 90-odd steps leading up to Girona’s Gothic cathedral. First built in the 11th century and added to over the years, it boasts the widest Gothic nave in the world. Out through the city gates are the Arab baths – a 12th-century Romanesque building inspired by Roman thermal baths. From here, you can walk around the outside of the lofty city walls to the Portal de Sant Cristofal, where steps lead onto the Passeig de la Muralla. This is a walkway along the top of the old city walls, providing fantastic views over the city to the mountains beyond. There are various vantage and exit points en route but if you stay on until the end you will find yourself near Plaça Catalunya from where it is a short walk back down to the Rambla or across the river into the new town.
Here the streets of Carrer Nou and Carrer Santa Clara offer more shopping opportunities before you reach Plaça Independència, a square lined with restaurants including the well-known Boira with its river view and typical Catalan dishes, such as pig’s trotters and veal’s cheek. Catalonia prides itself on its gastronomy and Girona has a wide range of restaurants serving good quality food. One of the most famous is the Michelin-starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, run by three brothers in the suburbs of Girona. Here you can enjoy a set menu of between three and nine dishes plus dessert for between €75 and €115.
Back in the old town, a perfect place to go for dinner in the summer is the Palau de la Mercè on Pujada de la Mercè, where you can have a candlelit meal in the garden surrounded by flowers and trees. Alternatively, on Carrer Cort Reial you will find a concentration of tapas bars, creperies and restaurants, including the Basque bar Zanpanzar, which serves pinchos, and La Creperie Bretonne, where you might be lucky to get a seat in the old Citroen van at one end of the restaurant. In the summer, you can while away the evenings in one of the many street cafes, or on a cold winter night, the perfect refuge can be found in the Sunset Jazz Club, a cosy bar with live music.
Where to stay
The Hotel Historic and Apartments
, in the heart of the old town, offers a range of stylish individually designed double rooms and suites or apartments.
is a modern four-star hotel in the centre of the new town. It has rooms and suites as well as bars and restaurants and is just a few minutes walk from the train and bus stations.
is a former 14th-century mansion that has been transformed into a mid-range hostal just two minutes from the Cathedral.
Pensió Margarit is a homely pension overlooking the River Onyar, just a few minutes walk from Plaça Catalunya.
Where to shop
Colmado Moriscot, a Modernista shop on Carrer Ciutadans, is a gourmand’s treasure trove filled with biscuits, dried fruits and llonganisa (Catalan sausage) as well as wine.
The craft shop Recorda-te’n on Carrer Calderers is a good place to pick up gifts.
Els Tresors de La Barca on Carrer Barca is a gallery-cum-shop selling beautifully-crafted contemporary jewellery by a host of different artists.