The one-hour bus ride from Olot to Girona was a tedious journey along dual-carriage motorways or straight-cut regional roads. As the bus plied east through the A26 to Besalu, the verdant mountainous landscape of the Garrotxa Natural Park soon gave way to gently sloping lowlands, lush with vegetation and crop fields at first but surprisingly barren as the road took a sharp turn south to Banyoles. From here to Girona, the motorway sloped down gently towards industrial areas and commercial suburbs before it linked to the city’s main thoroughfares.
Girona’s bus and train stations are near each other on Placa d’Espanya, southeast of the city centre. Riu Onyar, a trickling tributary of Riu Ter, divides the city roughly into two from north to south. The area between the train station and the river is almost devoid of attractions but it is nonetheless a pretty welcoming spot containing more than an adequate share of shops, restaurants and hotels. East of the Onyar and linked to the west side by a number of sketchy red-painted footbridges and several other wider road bridges, a warren of steep narrow atmospheric streets converge on the medieval Old Town centre, a veritable open-air museum of Romanesque constructions and antique furnishings.
I had been to Girona quite a few times before, mostly on a stopover for a Ryanair flight to another destination, Girona – Costa Brava airport being an excellent Ryanair base to reach a good number of cities in Europe. This time I intended to prolong my stay, wishing for more leisurely sightseeing, more hours of sidetracking and discovery. So, I walked north for a few minutes on Carrer de Barcelona, Girona’s main thoroughfare, a road infested with traffic day and night. The first side street west of the main road, Carrer de Sant Antoni is a direct shortcut to the river. Humming with activity, it is a place full to capacity with shops of all sorts. If La Rambla represents Barcelona’s most vibrant shopping and entertainment scene, then Carrer de Sant Antoni is Girona’s top arena for trade and business.
Between the extreme edge of Carrer de Sant Antoni and the west bank of the river, a vast stone-tiled piazza bordered by a leafy enclave becomes the venue of a daily colourful fruit-and-vegetable market, a good place to stock on a fresh supply every morning. Behind the open-air stalls, the Mercat del Lleo Aula Gastronomica is a closed market hall that provides the best assortment of fare in the city. Odourless fish displays and meat stalls rub shoulders with exquisite cheese counters and special-ingredients shops. Food is fresh and tempting, quality is first-class.
The section of the river in front of the market square becomes a deep concrete gutter in summer, completely dry, barren and inanimate. But further north than Pont de Pedra, the river widens, its concrete base disappears under a shallow quantity of water and its sloping side walls turn into a verdant lawn of grassy bushes. Further north as it becomes wider and deeper and as its flowing currents speed up, the river turns into a lively watercourse, an elongated pond where shoals of carp abound and river creatures thrive within its reedy bordering edges.
If one follows the river north on Passeig General Mendoza, one will soon reach Placa Catalunya, a modern square that sits right on a roofed section of the river and provides access from the west side to the east side of the city.
Any street you take from here leads to the Old Town quarter. Walking aimlessly at leisure along this section of the city is an encounter with shops of all sorts, most being small traditional establishments that deal in handicrafts, (see the maker of wood-and-wicker articles on Placa de l’Oli) religious artworks of high quality (see the angel’s shop on Carrer Ballesteries) or authentic antiques and fine arts (see the antiquarian on the edge of Carrer de Peixetories Velles). Thrown here and there between shops are restaurants and cafeterias, some dating back to time immemorial, others refurbished with style and panache.
Rambla de Llibertat, the street parallel to the river’s east bank and the city’s most tourist-frequented place is lined with first-class restaurants, ice-cream parlours and fast-food outlets. It has become one vast dining area, pleasant, delightful and entertaining. In winter, the arched passageway is filled in to capacity with scores of side-by-side tables; in summer, several additional tables are put on the street, making it impossible to find out to which restaurant a particular table belongs. Shouldn’t they use colour-coded tables or at least specific table covers as an indication?
After I chose my dinner out of the day menu that was conveniently posted on an easel-supported board on the street, I sat at an empty table and waited patiently for my turn. The menu handed down by the waiter in attendance was unlike the posted menu.
"Can I have a menu similar to the one on the board?" I enquired courteously, pointing towards the board on the street.
"Oh, sir, excuse me, but that’s not our menu. That belongs to the restaurant further down".
I had no other option but to stand up and walk away.
Rambla de Llibertat and its narrower continuation Carrer de Argenteria take a sharp turn east before they head to the oldest and most characterful section of the Old Town quarter. Fully pedestrianized and dominated by its principal ascending walkway Carrer de la Forca, it is known as El Call, a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets, stepped winding alleyways and atmospheric lanes with ghostly features and an out-of-the-world appearance. Home to Catalonia’s medieval Jewish community, El Call is a well-preserved architectural heritage of centuries-old Jewish homes, shops and buildings where medieval Jews worked and lived as a semi-isolated society. To come face to face with the actual details of five centuries of Jewish history in the city, one has only to visit the Museu d’Historia dels Jueus, conveniently located half-way on Carrer de la Forca. The building where it is housed is itself an extreme example of a medieval Jewish home, probably owned in the past by a rich Jewish merchant.
Carrer de la Forca reaches its physical peak and its climax of attraction on Placa de la Catedral, a small graceful square that lacks a cathedral. Girona’s grand Cathedral deserves a more elevated position, a strategic standpoint from where its architectural eloquence could be enjoyed from all corners of the city. There it is however, rightfully above Placa de la Catedral! From the square, ninety imposing steps climb up to the Cathedral’s surging baroque façade. I counted the steps on my way up (yes, ninety) and after exploring its white hard-stone façade embellished as it is with larger-than-life statues and ornamental stonework, I made my way in to find a gargantuan interior, a huge single nave surrounded with twelve chapels, each being a small museum of art in its own right. I couldn’t inspect all the altarpieces and the artefacts within, since the Cathedral is somewhat gloomy and dark, the light penetrating through the windows not being enough to illuminate such a colossal space.
The adjoining Cathedral’s treasury is a veritable treasure-trove of rare sacred artworks, exhibiting more than a fair share of hand-sculpted wood statues, gold-plated ornamental work, hand-painted manuscripts, church vestments and artistic tapestries. Worthy of mention for its historical value and uniqueness is the Romanesque Tapestry of the Creation. The twelfth-century Romanesque cloister that adjoins the treasury is a masterpiece of medieval Catalan architecture, comprising rows of arches resting on double colonnaded supports, their capitals embellished with fine carvings.
On the north edge of Placa de la Catedral, a medieval covered gateway that splits the city’s former bastions to allow access to the centre runs downhill to two places of attraction. On the west side, one finds the Esglesia de Sant Feliu, Girona’s second church, architecturally rich containing a blend of thirteenth-century Romanesque and fifteenth-century Gothic features. Its bell tower with unique stone decorative projections is one of the city’s landmarks. On the east side, a short stroll along a winding passageway leads to Girona’s Romanesque Arab Bathhouse. Restored meticulously, it is a large stone structure complete with all the facilities formerly found in Muslim and Roman bathhouses.
In the neighbourhood of the Arab Baths, several gravelled passageways and stepped walkways climb uphill amidst a leafy area of landscaped woodland. If you keep on your tiresome ascent to the top, you will reach one of the towers of the Muralla, a look-out point formerly used to watch over the city. A narrow walkway over the old city walls allows for a half-hour outing along exceptionally good spots (more look-out towers on the way) from where the houses and streets of Girona turn into a veritable montage of colours and stunning picturesque beauty.
A stone’s throw from the Cathedral’s entrance, Girona’s Art Museum contains an outstanding exposition of marvellous church paintings and sculptures. Entrance is through the arched doorway on Pujada de la Catedral.