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 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 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. It was only a short walk and we were soon in the La Plaça de la Independència, a bustling square with busy and somewhat expensive restaurants surrounding it. Speakers of Spanish might have noticed the use of “La Plaça” rather than “La Plaza”. 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.
Coming back to Girona, it 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 in 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. We were quite hungry but decided to defer eating to make the most of the end of daylight. Very typical of a European town, Girona is blessed with beautiful buildings lining a web of narrow cobbled streets. The old town is compact, and we work our way past the Cathedral, through an old gate in the city wall into a park that overlooks the newer part of the city. From here you can climb up onto the old city wall, which has partially been restored. The walk along the wall takes you past several old lookout towers and there were fabulous views across the city as it descended into darkness.
By now we were completely famished and at that point where hunger makes it really hard to decide what we wanted to eat. Passing by many inviting little tapas bars serving tempting delicacies and wines, we settled on eating Indian food. Why not? And it was amazing. They had some of the best naan bread we had ever eaten. A great way to end the evening!
On our second day in Girona the morning was somewhat cloudy but we decided to head out and explore Girona a bit more before heading out to our destination for the day, Figueres, about 35 miles north. We again made our way down to the La Plaça de la Independència and crossed over the Onyar river back into the old town. The buildings lining the river are iconic to Girona; they reach right to the banks of the river, and in some cases overhang the banks.
It was early in the morning, at least for the Spanish, so it is quiet with few people yet venturing out. So, we are largely alone trampling narrow alleyways, our peace occasionally was broken by a crazy local travelling down the hilly, rain-slickened cobbled streets at break-neck speeds. We retraced our course up to the Cathedral of St Mary of Girona, established in 1015. Luckily for us, the doors were open so we could go in and explore, and largely had the building to ourselves. 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.
The cafés of Girona were calling our name, and it was starting to drizzle, so we found a cute little café complete with an impressive collection of ham joints hanging from the ceiling. Karen at this time was still clinging to the hope of keeping to her Isogenix diet, so whilst she drunk her shake (which to be fair are not horrible) I tucked into my mini ham baguette and supped on a very strong cup of coffee.