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Historic city in Catalonia north of Barcelona

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      07.07.2010 21:52
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      A wonderful city in the shadow of Barcelona

      The number of destinations served by budget airlines from my local airport has rapidly declined, leaving us with fewer options for short breaks. In 2009 we spent a few days in Barcelona, flying to Girona Costa Brava Airport; this airport is often billed as Girona-Barcelona even though it's about 100 kilometres north of Barcelona. Landing at Girona, half the passengers head for the bus to Barcelona, the others pick up hire cars and head for the coast. In 2010 we decided to use the airport again but to see what Girona itself had to offer. It would be a short trip - arriving late afternoon Wednesday and flying home mid-afternoon on Friday.

      The airport is situated ten kilometres from the city centre and a bus service connects the two. It terminates at the main bus and train station in the centre of the new town. The centre is quite compact and the main hotels are within a ten minute walk of the stations.

      The history of Girona is a colourful one and it is reflected in the architecture of the stunning old town. In the twelfth century Girona had a particularly important Jewish community and the "call", or Jewish ghetto, is at the heart of the Old Town. The old city walls have been partially reconstructed and make an excellent walking tour. The attractive ramblas are a less hectic but no less appealing version of the one in Barcelona and the city has a miniature boqueria in the form of the Mercado Municipale. Throw in some elegant art nouveau buildings and you should be getting a picture of a micro-Barcelona; indeed, Girona is very like Barcelona but it's not on the coast and it is a much more relaxing place to visit. In Barcelona I always feel I don't have enough time to see what I want; Girona doesn't come with that kind of pressure.

      When we originally booked our hotel we noted that it had a good location, handy for the bus station but only a two minute walk to the Old Town. Our location and it's proximity to the Old Town was particularly pleasing when it came to our first view of the colourful houses that overlook the Onyar River. It was a little cloudy when we came around the corner and took in this unexpected sight but the next day when the sun shone this colourful row of higgledy-piggledy teetering houses looked magnificent. Himself thought it looked like an Iberian version of the Byker Wall; I thought it looked quite Venetian. Behind the houses, the Church of Saint Feliu and the stunning cathedral tempt you to cross one of the many footbridges (there are also a couple of road bridges) and enter the Old Town. One of the footbridges was built by the Eiffel Company (of Parisian tower fame).

      We enjoyed a short stroll that evening but first we headed to the ramblas where the nightly passeggiata (Is there a Spanish word for this?) was in full swing. We took a seat at a pavement cafe, ordered a couple of beers and watched the world go by. This is the most expensive place to drink in Girona centre, however, and we soon moved on to back street places in the Old Town. Unfortunately many restaurants only allow diners to sit outside so if you just want a drink it's best to find somewhere that is just a bar otherwise you are compelled to sit inside (even if it's not very busy).

      Unless you want to explore further afield or you are staying on the edge of the city there is no need to use buses. The city is compact though the old town does have lots of steps and hills. There is nothing you can do about that though, buses can't get into this part of town, although a small road train does provide guided tours so there is an option if you can't walk around that well. Girona runs a cycle hire scheme; you need to register at a tourist information office and then you can pick up and drop off bikes at several stations around the city.

      We didn't have firm plans about what we wanted to see in Girona and decided just to wander and stop whenever something appealed enough. We started by heading for the beginning of the city walls walk but got distracted by the signs of the central market and made a detour. This mainly indoor market is very similar to Barcelona's Boqueria in that it offers the very best fresh, local produce and is as much a tourist attraction as a shopping place. We watched amazed as the women on the fish counter rapidly beheaded and gutted one fish after another with barely a glance at her fingers. We were offered a taste of some gleaming sweet red cherries and bought half a kilogramme. Then we chanced upon a stall selling local wines but it was the display of locally made artisan beer "Moska" that made us stop. We had tried to find somewhere selling it the night before without success. The proprietor spoke no English and my Spanish was not good enough to ascertain the different types of beer - I tried using references to well known brands as a comparison but this guy was a wine specialist and only sold the beer for someone else. We bought one of each to be on the safe side.

      At the start of the city walls walk stands the entrance to an underground shelter which was used during the Spanish Civil War. The walls, of course are much older. Some date from the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century while other parts are from the fifteenth century. Throughout history Girona has been under siege something like twenty-five times and during those many assaults on the city the walls took quite a battering. What you see now has been reconstructed from the small sections that escaped but you get an excellent idea of how the city would have been defended. One of the best things about the wall walk is that there are a series of view points at which you can get some terrific views of the city skyline and, as you move round, individual buildings. At the far end of the walk you can drop down into a shady park and from there down further to explore some of Girona's most splendid buildings.

      Our first stop was the cathedral. It was originally a Romanesque building dating from the eleventh century, but heavily altered and added to over the centuries. The Gothic nave was added in the fifteenth century and in the seventeenth century some Baroque additions were made including the imposing set of seventy-six steps on the approach to the entrance. I would have liked to see inside the cathedral as I'd heard it has the widest Gothic nave in the world but there was an admission fee and a long queue and I wasn't sufficiently interested in either to warrant the cost.

      Instead we descended the steps and went to explore the Arab Baths which are nearby. Arab baths is something of a misnomer as these remains are actually a Romanesque building from the twelfth century and the moors were long gone by this time. Entrance was what seemed like a reasonable Euro2 each and we were given a leaflet which turned out to be little more than a diagram of the layout and some photographs of the exact places we were standing. There was no offer of a tour and no information once inside. It was however very atmospheric and if you're interested in this kind of thing it will make sense. In spite of the lack of information I was able to see how the place would have worked. I wouldn't have wanted to pay any more but it was a pleasant enough diversion for ten minutes.

      Not far away is the church of Sant Feliu (Saint Felix) which is notable for its abbreviated gothic spire (the upper part collapsed in the seventeenth century and was never restored). The church was built on the city of a former burial ground where the remains of Saint Felix are said to have been found. We went inside this church and I was impressed by the austere gothic interior and the beautifully coloured windows filtering in the light but it was too gloomy to see the side chapels properly. There was no charge for entrance to this church.

      I'm not much of a shopper unless it's to do with speciality items that I'm really interested in so I was delighted to find an old fashioned grocery and wine store just behind the ramblas. This museum like establishment had two sections each selling similar items but seemingly separate enterprises. The tills were magnificent Victorian monsters and the wooden shelves that ran wall to wall, floor to ceiling groaned under the weight of speciality products from all over the world. In a dark corner on the bottom shelf we found a wonderful array of beer from all over the world and Himself pounced for a Namibian beer he'd never seen before. I asked whether I might take a photograph (this is one of my stock phrases in Spanish) but the assistant silently pointed to a sign on the door which indicated that this was prohibited.

      Lunch was taken in bar that claimed to offer tapas, which it did - but with a difference. All the dishes that we ordered from the menu were prepared with a strongly Chinese/Thai flavour that, while unexpected, proved to be a successful novelty.

      There are plenty of bars and some of them serve pinxtos, the Catalan version of tapas. Pinxtos are pieces of bread topped with different savoury toppings, a bit like a bruschetta but more exciting. The pinxtos is the name for the little stick that spears the topping to the bread. To reckon the bill, the barman tots up the number of sticks on your plate.
      We stopped at a great little place on the way to dinner, but be careful how much you have because they are filling and there are so many attractive looking titbit that it's hard not to be tempted. Out favourite was one with a topping of Serrano ham, asparagus and a tiny fried quail's egg. Round the corner we stopped for a drink at a wine shop that stays open in the evening serving local beer and good cheap wine to locals who stand outside in the street. There's a party atmosphere and the place is buzzing; somehow I don't think Brits could be trusted to drink like this.

      There's no shortage of places to dine in Girona and most places offer good value set meals. While this may sound restricting, the choices are extensive. In the evening you can expect to pay around Euro10 to Euro13 per head for starter, main and dessert in an averagely priced establishment. On our first night we paid Euro24 for the two of us including a bottle of reasonably good white wine. That night I started with a stew of broad beans and Spanish ham, went on to Girona sausages with fries and finished with Crema Catalana, a local version of Creme Brulee. The next night we paid Euro11 per head but had to pay for wine. Here I started with delicious potato tortilla and salad, had squid as a main and Crema Catalana again for dessert.

      Although our visit was short we were able to get quite a good feeling for Girona. It's a friendly and attractive city which is often overlooked by Brits who pass through on their way to somewhere they consider more exciting. We packed quite a bit into our short stay and had we stayed longer we might have visited some of the city's museums: art, culture and the history of the Jews in Girona are all covered (among other subjects). Many visitors to Girona also make the short trip to the nearby town of Figueres where there is a museum dedicated to Dali's theatrical works. Lots of visitors come for the day from Barcelona or from the coast but I would suggest that you need to t=stay at least one night to get a flavour of the eating and drinking scene which is important to the city.

      That said, Girona is the sort of place that encourages unhurried wandering. There are lots of squares and shady porticos to sit and have a coffee or a beer, or hidden gardens that are cool and quiet where only the sound of a modest fountain breaks the silence. When the sun shines on Girona it looks quite stunning and the narrow lanes and crooked alleys make you want to explore more of this picturesque place.

      I thoroughly recommend that if your local airport flies to Girona, you come here instead of Barcelona. It's more than Barcelona in miniature but if you like Barcelona but find it too busy, Girona is a great alternative.
      There's a strong Catalan feeling that is easily missed in Barcelona because it;s more cosmopolitan and you'll find that fewer people here speak English. In big restaurants, hotels and bars you'll find it spoken but in smaller places less so. Lots of signs are in Catalan and you may see menus in Catalan too but most we saw we easy enough to translate if you know a smattering of Spanish.

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