The gorgeous Onyar River in Girona, Spain // © 2012 Regina Winkle-Bryan
Girona stands in the shadow of her older, more popular and glitzier sister city, Barcelona. And yet Girona deserves more attention. Sure, she’s a bit quieter than her sister to the south, but her beauty is more natural and less in-your-face. She’s got depth, too, and secrets to be told to those willing to wander her cobblestone alleyways and private gardens. A river runs through her, and bridges crisscross her like a snug laced bodice. She’s political, patriotic, artistic and full of surprises. And while she has long been overlooked, this year, Girona was named by many a travel rag as one of 2012’s must-see destinations. In just 48 hours, it’s easy to fall in love with Girona.
You have either flown directly into Girona’s airport or you have caught an occasionally on-time Renfe train from Barcelona. If coming north from Barcelona, the trip has taken you about an hour and a half and has cost you roughly $12.50 ($20 roundtrip). Driving is another option, but expect many tolls on the freeway between Barcelona and Girona, plus high gas prices. Despite these drawbacks, a car is preferable to see the countryside around Girona.
Grab a simple coffee and croissant by the Onyar River along Rambla de Llibertat where many cafes offer tasty snacks. The photogenic will want to pose for a snapshot on the bridge Pont de Pedra which connects Rambla de Llibertat to the other side of the Onyar. Below in the murky riverbed, you can glimpse sizable moving logs. Look closer and you will see fins and gills — these are carp. They are enormous and make swimming less desirable. You might also spot ducks, gulls and, come spring, bright patches of ruby-red poppies.
From Pont de Pedra, head up the other side of the river along Santa Clara Street and then cross over the river again on Pont de Sant Feliu. Crossing here will put you in the right place to start uphill to the Torres del Passeig de la Muralla or The Wall, once a line of defense for the city. It’s best to walk The Wall in the morning, as this is an ascending, slightly strenuous experience that is not much fun in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun. There are many points in the old city where you can enter The Wall, but the closest point from Pont de Sant Feliu is just off Santa Pau Street.
From The Wall, you’ll be able to observe the bundled city of Girona on one side and countryside and parks on the other. There are some excellent lookout points and photography spots along The Wall featuring secluded patios and flower gardens. Walking The Wall will take about an hour, depending on how fast you tread and how often you stop. It’s worth coming off The Wall to poke around the gardens Jardins de la Francesa and Jardins d’Alemanys.
If you walk the whole of The Wall, you will be let out at Passera de l’Alferes Huarte which crosses Rambla de Llibertat. Cross the river once more on Passera de l’Alferes Huarte and head south into a newer part of the city for lunch at La Calendula. Here, you will find a creative menu featuring Mediterranean ingredients at mid-range prices. A four-course tasting menu goes for $56; otherwise, entrees are between $12 and $25.
From lunch, proceed north once more along Joan Maragall Street and then along Gran Via Juame I. Girona offers excellent boutique shopping on both sides of the river, so keep a look out along these streets as you stroll. Your destination is the Parc de la Devesa, the ideal place to burn off dessert. Filled with plane trees and aquatic birds, this is one of the largest parks in Catalonia. If you happen to be in town on a Tuesday or Sunday, note that the Mercat de les Ribes del Ter (Riverbank Market) happens at the park on these days in the morning.
If rain thwarts a riverside wander in Devesa Park, then make for the other side of the Onyar to take in a bit of religious history. The Cathedral is the result of many architectural styles. The Cathedral’s Arxiu Capitular (Archive) contains a medieval manuscript from the 10th century to which a woman is said to have contributed. Up a steep flight of stairs, arresting views are provided from the Cathedral’s main entrance.
Sant Feliu Church is at the very northern end of the old city center and is also worth visiting. Here you will be able to ponder the chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Sant Narcis. The slightly unsavory legend has it that flies were seen flying out of his tomb. It was these very flies that drove the French away in 1285. Most will agree that the fly is not a particularly attractive city mascot but, nevertheless, its likeness is seen all over the city. You can buy a fly-clad souvenir in many Girona shops.
For more fly-fun, pop over to La Terra (Ballesteries 23), a cafe and restaurant with views of the Onyar River. Here the local beverage is Moska Blanca, a microbrew beer from Girona with a fly on the label. Moska, as you may have guessed, means “fly.” La Terra also serves quiche, hamburgers, veggie burgers, salads and coffees and teas. The fare is simple, inexpensive and tasty, which is why La Terra is popular with young locals. For dinner, try any of the restaurants along Ballesteries Street and Forca Street.
On day two in Girona, you may want to stay put and see the museums and sights, or you may want to grab your rental car and head to the town of Figueres to the north for a visit to the decidedly trippy Dali Museum. Keep in mind that a jaunt to the Dali Museum by car is about a 40-minute drive from Girona, so most of your morning and afternoon will be spent there. The drive is worth it for Dali fans, as are his other museums and houses in Roses and Portlligat (also not far from Girona).
There is plenty more to experience in Girona if you decide to pass on Dali. On the top of the list should be El Call, or the former Jewish Quarter of Girona. The first dated reference to a Jewish person in the city is from 963. The Jewish Museum, Museu d’Historia dels Jueusm, has ample information about what the lives of Jewish citizens were like in Girona up until 1492, when they were made to leave. This stout, cobblestoned area is perhaps the most charming part of the city.
The Arab Baths or Els Banys Arabs de Girona, are also impressive. The baths were built in 1194 and offer an interesting glimpse into a medieval spa. Not too far from the Banys Arabs, you will find the Archeology Museum and the Art Museum of Girona. Both are found just south of the baths near The Wall. The Art Museum of Girona houses pieces from the Romanesque period to the 20th century and charges a modest $2.50 entrance fee.
Try lunch or dinner on your second day at L’Est, which serves fusion dishes with artistic flair. Expect creative salads, sushi, and whatever the chef feels inspired to create that day. L’Est is in the city center right in front of the Cinema Museum. There are many eateries to choose from in Girona, and it’s almost impossible to go hungry here. Perhaps this is another one of Girona’s many charms: she’s a good cook. She’ll make sure to get to your heart through your stomach in case you weren’t head over heels at crossing Pont de Pedra.