A fabulous medieval town with a fascinating history and steeped in Catalonian culture
Heathrow was the usual scrum at Terminal 3 but it was good to taste some English chocolate! Our next flight was out to Barcelona from where we would be heading out to Girona, 65 miles northeast of Barcelona.
The most exciting part of the trip to Girona was at the very beginning when we were picking up the rental car. As I was waiting in line a very irate customer pulled up in his car and started shouting at the Europcar staff – he threw the car keys at the girl behind the counter where I was standing. She left to see what was going on with the customer and Karen went over to intervene when she saw the girl was being verbally abused. Eventually, the guy left but the poor girl was extremely rattled and in a flood of tears.
Our journey was not very exciting apart from having to reacquaint me with a left-hand drive manual car. The countryside was very boring and the auto-pista took us past some very ugly industrial areas. As we pulled into our hotel in Girona it didn’t look like a very promising place for a stop-over. We checked into our room and headed out with instructions for the old part of the town.
Girona is a compact little city with around 100,000 residents and a long and turbulent history. It was founded in 79BC by the Iberians but was later conquered by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and finally in 785AD by Charlemagne. The Moors, who obviously loved the place, re-conquered it in 793 and stayed there until 1015 – but in that 200 year period, it changed ownership 5 times, with the Moors continuously coming back. It was during that time, my favourite ruler Wilfred the Hairy (Guifré el Pilós) incorporated Girona into the County of Barcelona. I assume the “Hairy” name came with his facial hair – but on the depictions of him, he does not look like someone with excessive body hair. His contemporaries included King Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer; obviously naming conventions in those days we not as politically correct as we have them today, otherwise, we could have “Donald the Fuckwit” as an official title for the present POTUS. Anyway, the legend has it that Wilfred was recovering from his injuries after a battle with the Normans … or possible the Moors … when he was visited by the follically challenged King who asked how he could thank him for his endeavours on the battlefield. Wilfred was obviously a humble man, so he asked the King for an insignia to decorate his shield (what the heck man! Ask for a castle or an island or something useful).
Anyway, the bald King, obviously jealous of Wilfred’s excess hair and flowing locks and is a leading graphic designer of his age, dipped his fingers into poor Wilfred’s wounds and drew four vertical red lines on Wilfred’s golden shield. Thus was born the Catalan flag, the Senyera.
As we ventured out into modern-day Girona things have been stable now for a number of centuries but there is still a revolution in the air with the Senyera proudly hanging from the balconies and windows throughout the streets.
Girona is located right in the centre of the Catalan region, where the Catalonians fiercely defend their own language (similar to Spanish but with other influences, including French). At the time of writing the Government of Catalonia is planning a deeply disputed referendum on independence on October 1st, 2017 (which is being challenged by the Spanish Federal Government). The last referendum on this subject was only back in 2014 – with an 81% voting in favour of “yes” with a 42% turnout. It didn’t really matter because the Spanish Government deems independence to be unconstitutional.
Things to do in Girona
1. LA PLAÇA DE LA INDEPENDÈNCIA
Designed by Martí Sureda on the site of the old convent of Sant Agustí, this is Girona’s most popular square. A porticoed square in neoclassical style, Plaça de la Independència is a busy place due to a large number of restaurants here. In the centre of the square stands a monument (1894) commemorating the 1809 defenders of the city of Girona, created by the sculptor Antoni Parera.
Speakers of Spanish might have noticed the use of “La Plaça” rather than “La Plaza”. This is the Catalan spelling.
2. THE JEWISH QUARTER
The Jewish quarter, known as “El Call”, is one of the most interesting, emblematic areas in the city of Girona, both in terms of architecture and history. It is part of the old town next to the banks of the Onyar river. It dates back to the 12th century and is one of the most well-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. It was inhabited by the city’s Jewish community until 1492, the year in which the Jews were expelled from the country.
It is made up of a labyrinth of narrow streets, robust houses, staircases, arches and patios. There is a Jewish Museum in Girona if you wish to find out more about the history of Jews in Girona.
3. WALK THE OLD CITY
Taking a walk along the city walls is a must-do when visiting Girona. This trail along the walls is also known as Passeig de la Muralla. The city walls span the eastern border of the old town of Girona.
The walk took us past several old lookout towers and there were fabulous views across the city as it descended into darkness.
4. CHECK OUT THE BRIDGES ACROSS THE ONYAR RIVER
It wouldn’t be a medieval town if there were not a bridge or two. Girona on blessed with 11 unique bridges over the shallow Onyar River. The most well-known of these is the Pont de les Peixateries Velles, also known as the ‘Eiffel Bridge’ as it was designed by Gustav Eiffel before he worked on his famous tower in Paris. The distinct metal frame painted red makes this bridge stand-out.
5. THE ONYAR RIVERSIDE BUILDINGS
The most classic pictures of Girona are of the brightly coloured building that line the Onyar River, seemingly hanging over its banks ready to topple in. It was photos of these buildings that inspired me to organise our trip to this city.
6. ONE FOR FANS OF HBO’S GAME OF THRONES
I am a huge fan of ‘Game of Thrones’ so it was very exciting to discover that Girona has been used as one of the filming location in season 6. The twisty, narrow streets were ideal as the sets for Braavos and King’s Landing, and the interior of the monastery was used as the Citadel in Oldtown. The Cathedral also played a major role. There are tours of Girona that take you to all the GOT filming locations!
7. COMPLETE THE CLIMB UPTO GIRONA CATHEDRAL
As I mentioned the Cathedral in Girona played a big part in series 6 of ‘Game of Thrones’ so afficionados to the series may recognise these steps.
We started our visit at the top of these steps. Luckily for us, the doors were open so we could go in and explore, and largely had the building to ourselves.
The Cathedral, or to give it the full name the Cathedral of St Mary of Girona, was established in 1015. It is not the prettiest of Cathedrals but an interesting one (well perhaps not … unless you are a nerd of Gothic architecture) it does have the widest Gothic nave in the world, with a width of 22 metres (72 ft). The front entrance of the Cathedral is approached by an imposing set of stairs, which we climbed our way down and got some more pictures.
8. WALK THE STREETS OF THE OLD CITY
Beyond the tourist sites, Girona is a colourful and charming city to just wander the streets. Here you’ll find quaint shops, cosy cafes and an array of excellent & characterful restaurants.
In summary …
- Girona is a great place to visit from Barcelona as a day trip or stay for a day or two
- The city is very compact and walkable – lots of great restaurants and cafes to enjoy
- For Games of Thrones fans take a tour to see the filming locations used in Girona!
Planning your visit
Getting to Girona
By air: Located about 8 miles from the city centre, Girona has its own local hub: the Girona-Costa Brava Airport (GRO). This airport is serviced by Ryanair with flights from many destinations in Europe, including several airports in the UK. From Aeroport de Girona Station to the city center (Estació d’Autobusos de Girona), there are a couple of buses that take about 25 minutes.
By train: There are numerous trains each day from Barcelona to Girona. The Ave (fast train) takes about 40 minutes and the regional train takes about 1 hour 40 minutes. These trains leave from the Barcelona Sants station which is in the centre of the city.
By bus: Barcelona Nord is the only bus station with trips going from Barcelona to Girona. The Estacion Nord is the biggest bus station in Barcelona and is found on the Carrer d’Alí Bei. The bus will arrive in Girona’s Estació d’Autobusos. Alsa is the leading bus company in Spain that provide rides to Girona from Barcelona. Busses depart every day from around 7:30 am, and there are around 5-6 busses running daily.
By car: Taking a private car from Barcelona to Girona is a great way to get to know the local areas en route. The trip will take an hour and fifteen minutes, and you’ll be able to stop wherever you like along the way.
Best time to visit Catalonia
The best time to visit Catalonia is from May to June when balmy temperatures in the low to mid-70s mesh with a flurry of festivals that trumpet the advent of summer. The actual summertime is sticky with humidity – locals leave their beloved city in droves to catch a breeze somewhere else. They come back for the fall when the average highs drop back into the 70s. Winter is mild compared to other Spanish destinations, with highs in the high 50s. And while coming during the spring may seem like a smart idea for avoiding crowds, April sees frequent showers, which may put a literal damper on sightseeing plans. Keep in mind that no matter what time of the year you’ll visit, there will be tourist crowds.
Places to visit close by
Barcelona is a beautiful city set on the Mediterranean sea. It embraces its Catalan heritage and extols its cultural diversity.
There is a lot to do in this city. You can enjoy the beach and stroll the promenade. Alternatively, you can enjoy the culture of the museums, the medieval historic centre and the works of Antoni Gaudí, including the stunning Sagrada Familia and Park Güell.
Barcelona is about 100km from Girona.
2. FIGUERES: TEATRE MUSEU DALÍ
The Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres houses a fabulous collection of Salvador Dalí and is also the site of his burial.
The museum itself was originally a theatre that had fallen into ruin after it was burned during the Spanish Civil War. In the 1960 Dalí and the town mayor decided to rebuild it and dedicate it as a museum to the town’s most famous son.
Figueres is about 45km from Girona.
3. SALVADOR DALÍ’S HOME – PORT LLIGAT
Salvador Dalí purchased a run-down fisherman’s hut in the small Catalan fishing village of Port Lligat. He developed this into a stunning and quirky (not that surprising) home and studio that he shared with his wife, Gala, for over 40-years.
Today, you can visit this home / museum in small group tours and experience the unique, creative genius of Dalí through the design and decorations of his private residence.
Port Lligat is about 80km from Girona.
Where to stay?
1. HOTEL NORD 1901 SUPERIOR
This family-run hotel is a 5-minute walk from Girona Cathedral. It offers a garden terrace with a small swimming pool, and rooms with flat-screen TV and free WiFi.
All the elegant rooms include climate control, a safe and kettle. Apartments also have a kitchenette. Bathrobes, slippers and a professional hairdryer are provided in the modern bathrooms.
At Nord 1901 Superior’s reception staff can arrange room service or massages. They can also provide information about Girona and the nearby Costa Brava.
Nord 1901 Superior is just 350 feet from the coloured houses of the River Onyar. Plaza Independencia is a 2-minute walk away and has a range of popular restaurants and cafés.
2. HOTEL ULTONIA
Hotel Ultonia is located in the centre of Girona, 3 minutes’ walk from the Old Town, Cathedral and Arabic baths. It offers air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi, flat-screen TV and minibar. A special bicycle storage area is available free of charge in the hotel.
The hotel offers a buffet breakfast and a cafe-bar where you can enjoy a drink or snack. On weekends, from May to October guests can access the roof terrace with impressive views of Girona Cathedral and its surroundings. There are also a variety of restaurants and bars within a 5-minute walk.
Private parking is available on site for a surcharge.
Hotel Ultonia is situated next to Devesa Park, and just 10 minutes’ walk from the bus and train stations.
3. HOTEL BESTPRICE
Featuring 1-star accommodation, Hotel BESTPRICE Girona is located in Girona, 2,300 feet from Girona General Treasury of the Social Security and 2,650 feet from Fira de Girona. This 1-star hotel offers a concierge service and a tour desk. The accommodation provides a 24-hour front desk, airport transfers, room service and free WiFi throughout the property.