Girona – Not Barcelona

In the geographically dysmorphic world defined by airlines like Ryanair the typical visitor from northern Europe may conclude that Girona Airport exists purely to serve tourism in Barcelona. Now I love Barcelona as must anybody who has visited the Catalan capital, but over the years I’ve absorbed a drip feed of accolades about Girona and now, with my home from home a mere 30 minutes drive away, it’s time to right a wrong. Our first post-lockdown trip to a big city will be Girona – not Barcelona.

Our drives throughout Spain have gone smoothly most of the time and Google Maps takes a lot of pain out of our travel, although it cannot do much about the lamentable standard of driving here. People don’t generally speed but neither do they signal, look where they are going or show the merest courtesy toward other road users. Today’s drive is mercifully uneventful.

Girona is a great sprawling city and we have to pass through most of it to reach the compact old town. It is market day and this means that precious parking opportunities are at a premium. Many drivers have creatively invented parking spaces where none actually exist. Coming from the old school of motoring I cruise around until I see a car sized space between 2 painted lines.

Colours of autumn

If it wasn’t clear where the market was one only has to follow the groups of people trailing towards the park. And what a park this is! After weeks of short fluffy green pines these towering lines of deciduous trees provide quite a contrast. The long straight path of crisp golden leaf-fall might be the prelude to some fairly tale.

There is such a thing as too many nuts

The market feels familiar with the kind of stalls you would expect to find. Regional produce has arrived by the lorry load. There are barrels full of freshly harvested nuts which sound great until you consider the effort of shelling them. We pick up some bags of oranges for juicing and drop them off at the car.

Pilchards and the ubiquitous salt cod

You can’t visit Spain and not enjoy freshly squeezed oranges!
My assumption is that every Spanish kitchen is equipped with some form of motorised juicer given that the long-term alternative is chronic wrist strain.

My daily intake of olives!

A pleasant stroll over the river brings us to the medieval centre. Every building is hewn from stone. The streets packed between the river and hilltop are narrow and windy. The gothic looking cathedral looms from a distance yet becomes obscured by tightly packed buildings until we are right next to it. This town is a film makers dream, indeed a reality. I would recognise the scenes from Game of Thrones that were filmed here, if I had watched any of it. That’s one more for my watch list.

Built to last

We loved the many and varied shops and stalls selling artisan produce and hand-made goods. A scattering of covered stalls dot the streets and we stop to buy a hand made scented heat pillow from a stall on one of the bridges over the river. The lady who hand crafted all of these goods is generous with her time and we are unsurprised to learn that Covid has badly affected tourism and sales. The hope is that Christmas markets will be allowed to go ahead and rescue at least some of her income.

It’s time for refreshment and boy do they know how to make coffee here! I’ve seen several tempting looking independent coffee shops and am finally seduced by the heady aroma of a roastery situated beneath the stone arches. For the first time I heard not one but many foreign voices.

Life in the old town

Girona has a large student population and there is a cosmopolitan vibe that would be fun to embrace with a longer stay in non-covid times. I envisage myself spending an evening sipping wine and discussing philosophy with worldly types at a nearby book-cafe/jazz-bar, at least until I let my mask slip with some ghastly non sequitur. With most premises only offering takeaway service I’m left to hold onto that thought for the time being, taking scant consolation with one of the many craft-beers that have gained immense popularity in Catalonia.

Supporting local businesses

I have a frustration. On one hand I don’t like the Christmasification of November. On the other hand I really wanted to visit a Christmas Market while we were here. It seems the markets don’t start until mid December. Specifically I wanted to pick up a truly unique souvenir specific to Catalonia – the Caganer.

The Caganer is traditionally the figurine of a peasant taking a crap amidst the nativity scene. Why? This is too wonderful to require an explanation, but if you really must have further details…

Caganers on the throne

Nowadays you can buy all variety of famous people depicted as Caganers. Lionel Messi, Gandalf, even Queen Elizabeth is depicted squeezing one out “on the throne”. I need one – but I can’t get one. Remarkably they are not generally available. The tourist office suggests they are only available at Christmas markets. This is the same tourist office that has a website that fails to mention the dates of any Christmas markets. The Costa Brava is really backward in many ways, for good and for bad. Why would a visitor want to know about events? Why might a visitor want to buy a unique regional memento outside the last fortnight of December?

A colonnade encloses this beautiful square

Like everywhere else we have visited on the Catalonia the shops close between 1:30 and 4:00pm. I pity the shop worker who starts work at 8am and finishes at 8pm, with this awkward long gap in the middle. Presumably this stems from the siesta days but it’s not clear what shop workers do in this break. You can only spend so long over lunch.

Something to catch your eye around every corner

The mandatory break from retail poses no dilemma for us as we seek to explore more of the old town. We pause awhile on another of the bridges that span the river Onyar. The clear water is busy with large carp. Various birds of interest wade around the shallow banks. Old flats line the river sides. I can see colourful wooden shutters, some with laundry airing in the window. It all feels a little Italian for some reason.

The banks of the Onyar

I’m keen to walk the city walls and enjoy some spectacular views. I can see them on the hillside above, but where are the entry points? As we ascend the steep narrow streets they become steeper and narrower stone stairways. It becomes apparent that the entry points to the tall city walls are all blocked off. A covid measure? A frustration. Regardless, the views would be great even without the sunset. No trip to Girona would be complete without walking randomly through the ancient streets on this hillside. Nothing much appears to have changed in 100s of years.

Game Of Thrones

We are pretty high up even at the base of the walls. The sun is setting through the early evening haze and I hear a church bell clang bluntly from some close quarter. The gothic setting feels timeless and evocative as the evening draws in.

Remains of the day

I leave Girona Caganerless yet buoyed by the sights, flavours and smells of the old town. When we see a return to less restrictive times I will surely stay for longer. Maybe I’ll also fit in a trip to Barcelona. If there’s time.

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