“We have the best restaurant in the world here in Girona. Can Roca. You know it? And the Roca brothers also own that ice-cream shop over there. You like ice-cream?”
It was 11am and the leafy street was drenched in sunlight. The sky was cloudless, a pale cool-blue and professional dawdlers sauntered from café to café with newspapers tucked under their arms.
Inside Rocambolesc Geleteria, Margarita pointed out the different flavours, picking up a book to show me a photo of the two Roca brothers.
“They’re nice boys,” she said affectionately.
I tried the hazelnut and turon ice-cream and realised that it was the first thing I’d eaten all day. Every breakfast should be like this, I decided.
“You might not be able to afford to eat at their restaurant,” Margarita laughed, “but you can always try their ice-cream!”
I asked if it was always so quiet in Girona, so pleasant. I had taken the AVE train from Barcelona to Girona that same morning and was astonished at the contrast, especially considering that it had only taken 40 minutes.
“It gets busy, but it’s not like Barcelona. There aren’t so many tourists. I like it that way, you know. I like Girona as it is.”
We crossed the iconic Eiffel Bridge, which Margarita explained was built just before the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I stopped to take photos of the terracotta and mustard-yellow apartment buildings that back on to the river. The bell-tower of the cathedral towered in the background and the sound of ducks quacking and skimming across the surface of the shallow water echoed between the river banks.
“It’s important to notice the signs in Girona,” Margarita told me, “this one says that the bridge was built for 22,500 pesetas, around €9000. It used to be common, you know, to include how much things cost to build.”
“And when is the famous flower festival?” I asked.
“You just missed it. It was a couple of weeks ago, but everybody knows about that. But not so many people know about the music festivals we have here, too.”
Stepping off the bridge on the other side we found ourselves on Rambles de Girona, a long street with low hanging arches housing little craft shops and fashion outlets, as well as cafes and restaurants. People were sitting under umbrellas, drinking coffee and reading well-thumbed paperbacks.
“And today is the market. You can see the stalls selling local produce. It’s also the inundation art show, so we’ll see lots of art in the street, too,” Margarita explained.
There were shoppers lining up to buy bags of sugar-coated nuts and thick wedges of cheese, as well as packs of meat and bulging tubs of glistening olives. Margarita stopped at each stall, filling my hands with tasters and explaining that it had all been produced nearby.
“This is the street where the artists are allowed to show their paintings. And here is a local market that sells vegetables, fish and meat from the surrounding areas, as well as wine from the local Empordà wine region.”
She was constantly stopping to wave hello and goodbye to people she recognised in the street. “Girona is a little place. We say that here you cannot live a private life.”
We walked up a little backstreet and she explained how it was the original Roman road that connected the city to Cadiz. I stopped to take it in, it was like travelling back in time.
“It’s important to remember how well situated Girona is. That’s why the Romans built it here, to protect the route from France down to Cadiz in the south of Spain.”
In the Jewish Quarter, or El Call as it is known, I noticed that the buildings were made from thick slabs of stone, as if they had been there since the beginning of time. Inside the Jewish Museum, Margarita told me how many people were incredulous that Jews had lived in the area – there is no synagogue after all.
“But these stones, these are tombs that were excavated from a field close by, proof that the Jews were here,” she assured me.
In a little souvenir shop I picked up fridge magnets and t-shirts that were decorated with flies, apparently with a somewhat bewildered expression on my face. Flies?
“Don’t you know about the flies? In 1286, during the French invasion, the army were looting and destroying parts of the city, attacking the locals and disrespecting the religious landmarks. One day they opened the tomb of Sant Narcís and a swarm of flies came out, biting the soldiers and their horses, killing them all and saving the city.”
And throughout history, Girona was attacked many times, leading to its nickname: The City of a Thousand Sieges.
As somewhat of an architecture fanatic, I noticed that the city felt “French” in its design.
Margarita smiled, “Yes, because we are very close to France, so there is a strong influence in the city’s design. Sometimes they film here for films that are set in France. And do you know Game of Thrones? They will film here in the summer, too!”
Inside the city’s symbolic cathedral, we stood in awe at the Tapestry of Creation.
“This section shows Eve being created from Adam’s body. Here is the sun and the moon and the stars. And it’s all meant to show the creation of the world in a simple way, for people who couldn’t read. It’s thought to be around 1000 years old,” she said casually.
Standing in the nave of the cathedral I was struck by its stillness. “It’s unique,” Margarita continued, “because it doesn’t use any columns, which gives it a sense of openness, of space. It’s simplicity is beautiful, isn’t it.”
I agreed, totally dumbfounded by its scale. It’s no surprise that it took some 400 years to build. The sun was high in the sky now and I was burning up. Margarita explained that at this point most people turned around and went back to the city, but we could still get higher above the cathedral and get excellent views of its exterior and the city in the background.
“This is a secret garden,” she whispered, “a French woman lived here. They say she was the bishop’s mistress.”
The plants and trees were lush and green and they gave off a soft, sweet pine aroma that revived me. We stopped to drink water from a fountain and look at the cypress trees.
“In Girona, you’ll see cypress trees and olive trees everywhere. And they’re in many of Dalí’s paintings, too.”
We climbed the narrow Roman walls that traverse the slopes of the hills and looked out over the city below. I could imagine soldiers patrolling up and down, looking out into the distance towards the Pyrenees.
“It’s not such a small city, is it?” I thought out loud.
“People are always surprised how big Girona is. It has a population of about 100,000 people and you’ll find everything you need here. As I always tell people: it’s a big-little city.”
I was starving now and my stomach was rumbling. I had a reservation at Occi, which Margarita told me was one of her favourites in the city, and I was looking forward to eating seafood rice dishes and sipping on wine from the Empordà terroir.
“But before we say goodbye, you need to kiss the lion’s ass,” Margarita said nonchalantly. “It will bring you luck and make sure you return to Girona.”
I didn’t hesitate for one moment, running up to it and kissing it firmly. Twice on each cheek.
Ben stayed at the Hotel Ciutat de Girona in the centre of the city. Visit the tourist board websites to find out more about the stunning Costa Brava and the rest of Catalunya. For transport links from Barcelona and the Costa Brava to Girona, see sagales.com
Flights to Girona
- Ben Holbrook