Just over an hour away from Barcelona by train sits Girona. This beautiful and ancient city is found high on a hilltop where four rivers, and even more cultures, meet.
A brief back-story
Since its first inhabitants arrived several thousand years ago, Girona has survived 25 sieges and seven captures. Its eventful history has resulted in it becoming a hybrid city, containing a mix of people and cultures. From its Jewish Ghetto (home to the most important European school of Kabbalistic studies in the 12th century) to the city walls built when Charlemagne seized the city from the Moors in AD 785, there are clues revealing the Spanish, French, Catalan, Moorish and Jewish influences which have made their mark over the years.
The waters of the Onyar River divide present-day Girona into two parts. The Old Quarter, or Barri Vell, is perched on the eastern bank. The other side of the river, the newer part of Girona, sprawls in the opposite direction.
Where to start
As it’s relatively compact, most visitors will find the city’s Old Quarter easy enough to explore on foot. Start your tour on the Passeig de la Muralla, where you can walk by the ancient city’s huge stone walls, and climb to the top of its tall towers. From this privileged position you can enjoy impressive panoramic views of the city and its charms, such as the the ever-present Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona, which reins majestically over her subjects, casting her long shadow across Girona’s old town.
When you have caught your breath after climbing the 86 steps to the city’s Cathedral entrance, step inside to the world’s widest Gothic nave (the central part of the Church). At almost 23 metres wide, the only nave wider anywhere is that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the Cathedral’s Museum you’ll find the Tapestry of Creation, an 11th-century textile masterpiece. Despite its age, the tapestry’s colours still bleed bright reds and aqua blues, drawing the eye to detailed illustrations of the Christian creation story skilfully woven into cloth.
Another must-see is the Church of Sant Feliu. As you approach it, make sure you get pictures of the bell tower surrounded by eight pinnacles, one of the most distinctive sights in Girona. When inside, you can examine Roman and Paleo-Christian burial chambers set into the church walls themselves – try and find the one dating back to the 2nd-century A.D. showing the Roman god Pluto carrying poor, unwilling Persephone to the depths of the underworld.
Pay your respects to the city’s Romanesque architecture at Sant Pere de Galligants, a beautiful Benedictine Abbey. There, history-buffs can explore Girona’s past at the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia, housed in the Abbey’s former church and cloister.
El Call: Girona’s Jewish Quarter
Afterwards, take the time to wander through Girona’s well-preserved Jewish quarter. This is widely considered the best-preserved medieval Jewish quarter in the whole of Europe and a major tourist attraction in its own right, which is ironic at best considering the fact that the Jews were forcibly (read: violently) expelled from Catalonia in 1492. At Bonastruc Ça Porta, learn about Jewish history and daily life in Girona and check out an extensive collection of tombstones inscribed in Hebrew from the Jewish cemetery at Montjuïc.
Before you go
Later, take a relaxing stroll along the Onyar River. Keep to the riverbanks or zigzag across the river’s bridges to get different perspectives of the city. Admire the Cases de l’Onyar, traditional houses in citrusy shades of lemon and orange sitting by the water’s edge. Next go to the Rambla de la Llibertat where you can browse through local products in the shops before stopping off to sip a beer or a coffee on a terrace in the Plaza de Independencia, a square dedicated to those locals who fought against Napoleon Bonaparte in the War of Spanish Independence.
Sit back and indulge in a few minutes of people watching, made even more interesting given the historic surroundings. Go ahead; order a tapa or two (we suggest L’Escala anchovies or Garrotxa goat’s milk cheese with some pa amb tomaquet). You deserve it.