Street life is upmarket and stylish. Walk through the Placa de la Independencia and admire ochre-coloured buildings, iron balconies and a walkway, fringed by elegant cream parasols. On balmy evenings, soft lighting reflects the honey hues of medieval walls in ancient back streets where the café culture comes into its own. Diners at pavement tables enjoy good food and great wine.
At the small, urban-feel Restaurant Occi, in the heart of the old town, we savour sublime starters of Iberico ham, carpaccio of beef, wild boar terrine and local cheeses, and then to follow, we choose from duck with pasta or monkfish and crab risotto. We also join in centenary celebrations of Girona’s speciality confection, xuixo xuixo (pronounced shoo shoo!). It’s a deep-fried, sugar-coated, oblong roll with a crema Catalana, vanilla cream filling – delicious but full of calories, so I take merely a bite!
But, for me, pintxos is the number one dining experience. At the Txalaka restaurant, there must be 100-plus hot and cold, savoury, spicy and sweet pintxos, like tapas, but mainly served on bread or on sticks. Sharing a long table with locals and drinking a glass or two of regional wine is right up my Catalonian street.
I’m always up for a challenge. So, in Girona, arriving at the workshop of the Marrecs de Sale – a human tower- building group – I summon up my courage. No other volunteers in our press party. Traditional castell or castle skills, performed at festivals and competitions, are a passion in Girona. I wind myself into a tight, wide red waistband which protects the core and gives bare-footed climbers a foothold. Then, along with numerous, ground level castellers or castle-makers, I provide base support for the climbers. Like a Catalonian sardine, I pack in near the back of the circular row. Strong hands on my back force me to lean forward, head and arms down, as in a rugby scrum. Adrenalin pumping, the central human tower begins to build, in silence, apart from the leader’s loud instructions in Catalan. A small child climbs to the top before applause signals success and the dismount, leaving me rather pleased with myself.
The 14th century Gothic-Renaissance castell or castle which surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, presented to his wife, his obsession, muse and raison d’etre, Gala in 1968, is now a museum in Pubol, just a short drive from Girona. Inside, the spirit of the eccentric artist is conveyed via objets d’art, plus frescoes and paintings. There’s also collection of Gala’s designer gowns. The tranquil Italianate gardens include an ornate fountain pool. Statues of long-legged elephants appear to stride through the trees.
In the garage, Dali’s old, dark blue Cadillac with Monaco licence plate, rests in peace. Gala’s tomb lies in the basement mausoleum at the castle but Dali is buried in Figueres. It is rumoured that Gala required Dali to make an appointment, following an invitation to the castle. The same went for her many visits from younger men. Sounds like an ideal arrangement to me!
It’s easy to get around in the compact, medieval city of Girona, situated about an hour’s drive from Barcelona – 40 minutes by train - where you can walk the 9th century city walls. The jewels of the city include an imposing Gothic cathedral which houses the exquisite Romanesque Tapestry of the Creation in the adjoining treasury museum. At 22 metres, the nave of the cathedral is the widest of its kind in the world.
The usually calm, serene Girona was invaded when scenes for Games of Thrones’ series six were filmed here. The 90 steps up to the cathedral supported hundreds of actors’ feet and also the hooves of a horse, which was trained to trot up the steps. One of the main characters, Arya Stark, begged in the streets of the city, renamed ‘Braavos’, was attacked by a many-faced god, and ran for her life. Temporarily blinded, she hid in the glorious 12th century Arab Baths, enclosed with 12 Romanesque columns, where she took refuge. Don’t suppose she thought to take a few photos while she was there, though.
A total of 11 bridges across the River Onyar separate new and old Girona, enabling stunning views of the city. Colour-splashed houses hanging over the water on either side make for a favourite photo stop. Girona’s Eiffel Bridge was constructed by Gustave Eiffel just before the completion of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
A museum on the site of a former synagogue, located in the Force Velle, reveals the way of life in the old Jewish Quarter, a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets, winding alleyways, archways and courtyards. Mainly, craftsmen lived here, along with some aspiring astronomers, cartographers and physicians.
At the start of the Spanish Inquisition, in 1492, the Catholic king issued a harsh choice to Jewish people – to convert to Catholicism or to pack up and leave. It was known as ‘the expulsion’. Those who didn’t make a decision were killed. The former Jewish properties are now inhabited by modern day residents of Girona.
Because of relatively quiet, smooth, flat roads, laid back Catalan culture, year round warm climate and low rainfall, plus easy access to Costa Brava resorts, Barcelona the French border and Pyrenees, near perfect conditions make Girona a magnet for cyclists. Lance Armstrong and other pro cyclists own properties here. Dedicated cycling fraternity cafes and other watering holes include such as La Fabrica, Federal and the Mafia Café.
Designated a historic national ‘property’, picturesque Besalu is one of Catalonia’s best-preserved medieval towns. The Viejo Romanesque bridge has a mid-point gateway over the Fluvia river. In the centre are arcaded streets and squares, a restored 11th or 12th century mikyeh, a ritual Jewish bath and the remains of a medieval synagogue. At one of the souvenir shops, I buy each of my two small grandsons a painted wooden sword and shield. A fellow travel writer jokes about my decision to buy these for children.
Looking back, he had a point. I gave the swords and shields to my grandsons who attacked each other,
immediately. The weapons were confiscated.
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