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Well-preserved Girona

Tony Watts
Tony Watts • 4 min read
Well-preserved Girona
If you’re in Barcelona, treat yourself to a day trip to this charming historic city.
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If you’re in Barcelona, treat yourself to a day trip to this charming historic city.

It is easy to get to Girona from Barcelona with as many as 16 high-speed train departures a day (check for details). The trainswhich comfortably dispatch the 100km journey in less than 40 minutes.

Because of their proximity, the temptation is to compare the two cities, and while there are some pleasant similarities, the smaller town has its unique appeal. Just being 100km away from Barcelona’s notorious pickpockets is a good start, and Girona’s compact and well-preserved historic centre is a charming and easy place to explore on foot in a day.

Girona traces its roots back to Roman times, and has been occupied by the Visigoths, Moors and French in the intervening millennia. These days, the warriors are more likely to be seen wearing multi-coloured Lycra — professional cyclists have gravitated to Girona for its clement weather and mountainous surrounds.

Most of Girona’s inhabitants have left their mark in some way. The Romans built a citadel here, which still largely defines the limits of the old town. The Força Vella is the perimeter wall built in the first century BC, and parts of it remain visible today — restored sections of the fortifications around the south- and northeast of the old town are open to the public, and feature a narrow path along the ramparts.

Unsurprisingly for an ancient European city, the cathedral is also an attraction. Built between the 11th and 18th centuries, Girona cathedral boasts Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectural flourishes, and apparently the widest Gothic nave in the world. Climbing the steps to the entrance is the first challenge, though it is well worth the effort.

Visitors can see the nave, the cloister and also a small museum of artifacts for the €7 (about $10) entrance fee, which also covers entrance to the smaller — and slightly anticlimactic — Basilica de Saint Feliu, located in the narrow streets below.

In the shadows of the cathedral’s walls are the Arab baths, which offer a rather different aspect of the town’s history, even if they were built in the 12th century in the Arab style. The Moors had ruled over Girona on and off in the preceding centuries, so the baths are likely the Moorish influence at work. While the building is largely in the Romanesque style, there are obvious Islamic references in some of the architectural details.

Surprisingly, Girona was also home to a large Jewish community from the ninth century until the end of the 15th century, when the Catholic monarchs expelled practising Jews from Spain. There is a Museum of Jewish History covering the history of the community in Catalonia. The museum is in the centre of the old town, and wandering the narrow alleys of the Jewish quarter is one of the highlights of the visit.

While the town has endured several millennia of varying degrees of religious tolerance and intolerance, there is one religion that almost every Spaniard seems to indulge in today — gastronomy.

Gastronomes from around the world make the pilgrimage to Girona, as it is home to El Celler de Can Roca, widely regarded as — and frequently awarded the title of — the world’s best restaurant. Whether or not you subscribe to the notion that restaurants can be ranked in such a way, the veneration of the names at the top of the list means that advance bookings are essential — 11 months ahead in the case of the Roca brothers’ establishment.

As my decision to travel to Girona was made that morning, there was obviously no chance of obtaining a table there, but Girona is hardly a culinary desert anyway. Michelin awards stars to two other restaurants in the area, and I would be surprised if Mimolet does not score a mention sooner or later.

Attentive service — the lack of other customers during my visit may account for that — and a lot of imagination in the kitchen added up to a pretty impressive five-course lunch. More impressive still was the €30 per head price.

After several hours lingering over lunch and a very nice bottle of Catalan wine, a pleasant stroll through the shopping district and past the picturesque bridges over the Onyar River back to the train station was a perfect way to end the day. Perfect until the couple opposite me on the train pulled out their souvenir menu from El Celler de Can Roca. Maybe next time I will plan ahead.

When not reviewing cars and bikes, Tony Watts enjoys the good things in life

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 745 (Sept 12 ) of The Edge Singapore.

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