Taking time to explore Girona

Usually no more than a pitstop for flyers to Barcelona, Girona offers a storied history, wondrous architecture, and mouth-watering eats, writes Brian Canty.

Taking time to explore Girona

Chances are, if you’ve ever flown to Barcelona with Ryanair you’ll have landed in Girona airport and swiftly scurried south aboard the quickest bus.

But if you hang around a while you’ll discover a small, yet beautiful enclave bursting with life 100km north of the Catalan capital.

With its own very distinct identity and language, Girona – (pronounced ‘Hee-rona’ locally) is a delightful city of around 90,000 people.

Small enough to get around in a day, but with enough pokey cobbled laneways to get lost in; it’s hard to tire of meandering around this colourful city’s dense capillary network of streets on foot.

There’s an old and a new town divided by the lazy Onyar river which trickles through the heart of this hamlet and it’s on one of the many bridges which connect the two that the city’s most emblematic photos are usually taken.

The red, steel latticed Eiffel Bridge (Palanqes Vermelles bridge) is where all the tourists go for that fine photographic prop against the backdrop of the multi-coloured façades of the houses overlooking the river.

And yes, designer Gustav Eiffel went on to bigger and better things later in his career…

Girona has had a long and varied history that’s included the Romans, who called the place ‘Gerunda’ and used it as a vital trade route. It later became a Catholic country and in the 12th century had a thriving Jewish community which was later expelled in 1492 by the Spanish monarchy.

In the 17th and 18th centuries it came under siege many times to different armies, Napoleon the most notable of these in 1809, but by the 19th century the city walls were demolished as the city expanded. However, modern day Girona retains a rich and vibrant cultural life.

The walls — or the Passeig de la Muralla — should be your first port of call and it’s here where you’ll get your bearings and the best views of the city and its landmarks.

In winter you can easily make out the snow-capped Pyrenees — but bring a jacket if you come in December.

You’ll eventually end up at Girona Cathedral (Catedral) and as one of the city’s main attractions it’s impossible to miss.

Free to visitors on Sundays but a hefty €7 every other day, the entrance fee includes an audio guide to many of the ornate and beautiful chapels, courtyards and altarpieces so an hour here is easy to pass.

Another option might be the English-speaking tours of the city’s historical centre (April to November), available at www.girona.cat/turisme, and this is a good shout if you’re caught for time. The Basilica of Sant Feliu and the City history museum are also well worth a visit.

The Jewish quarter combines those narrow cobbled streets, plenty dimly-lit tapas bars with sweet-smelling hams wafting through, all surrounded by stunning architecture.

It’s here where you’ll get the best hand-crafted souvenirs, homemade chocolates, and no shortage of sites for a selfie.

No walking tour is complete without a visit to Parc de la Devesa. On Tuesday and Saturday it hosts a superb food market where you’ll get fruit, veg, live chickens and rabbits, nuts, plants, jams, cured meats, herbs, clothes, shoes, bags, and just about anything.

It’s a perfect place for a walk, a picnic, a bike ride, and, during the festival of Sant Narcis in October, Devesa becomes a hive of non-stop activity.

Girona is a foodie lover’s paradise and the selection of top-quality restaurants leaves those tight on time with far too many options.

One of its own, El Cellar Can Roca was recently regained its status as the world’s best eatery but the prices can be more than most can stretch to. Around €150 will get you the seven-course taster menu. The waiting time to dine here can be months at a time though, so book well in advance.

Some of the others — all in the old town (Barri Vell) — and there are just too many exquisite places to name, include Artusi (Placa de les Castanyes) which serves the best goat’s cheese salad, Draps (Cort-Reial) does a remarkable lobster cannelloni but don’t get caught out by the sharing menu, the River Café (C/de la Barca) is your spot for huge meat salads, while Occi (C/Mercaders) serves contemporary Catalan cuisine using excellent seasonal produce. Try the fixed-price lunch.

Plenty places offer a ‘Menu del Dia’ during the afternoon siesta (1.30pm-4.30pm) and the best, bar none, is La Llosa on C/ Vista Alegre. Though plenty come close, you’ll do well to beat €10 for the two huge mains, a bowl of bread, dessert, a two-litre bottle of still or sparking water, and a vat (yes!) of vino tinto.

For an aperitif, the only place is Plaça de la Independència. This arcaded cloister is always clogged with locals and tourists and the bars here are the perfect place to rest tired muscles.

Konig (yes, it’s German) is among the best for tapas and the crowds spilling onto the street here underline that.

The patatas bravas here are unparalleled and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a free open-air concert too.

After dinner, the suggestion is skip dessert because no matter what you get it won’t rival the ice-cream or frozen yoghurt in Rocambolesc, an award-winning ‘gelateria’ just off Placa de la Independencia.

Owned by the Roca brothers, there’s a choice of 34 toppings – and no matter how nicely you ask, they will NOT give you all these.

Try the strawberry sorbet crammed into a tub with mini chocolate cookies, toasted nuts and chocolate beans. The grilled ice-cream burgers are meant to be awesome too!

Finish it off with a ‘cortado’ at La Fabrica (C/de la Llebre). This newly-renovated coffee joint, ran by Canadian Amber Meier and her pro cyclist husband Christian is the hottest place in town now.

These coffee-nuts serve only the highest grade produce in the most amazing underground cavern right in the old town. No visit to Girona is complete without a visit here.

With all this indulgence, it’s just as well Girona is a sports mad city with football, cycling, hiking, mountaineering, and watersports being among the most popular.

Bike Breaks Girona (C/Mercaders) are the market leaders in the area for guided cycling trips and they cater for small and large groups of anything up to week-long adventures on the road or in the mountain trails.

If you’re coming to Girona it’s best to try and tie it in with a visit during a festival. May sees the arrival of the Temps de Flors festival — a 10-day feast of art installations and floral shows throughout the city.

Saint Narcis in October brings a week-long festival of street markets, fairs, all-night parties, the ‘parade of the giants’ as well as musical performances. The parade of the three kings (January 5th), Holy Week at Easter, and Christmas week are others worthy of mention.

How to get there: Fly to Girona from Dublin with Ryanair every Sunday and Wednesday up until November or from Cork every Tuesday and Thursday during summer. One-way fares can be as low as €36 but could be as much as €130 Aer Lingus offer three flights weekly from Cork while there’s a daily service from Dublin.

Shopping: The designer shops that line La Rambla offer huge selections on shoes and bags, while there’s equally great variety in the new town.

Where to stay: If you want the heart of the historic centre look no further than Hotel Historic (http://hotelhistoric.com/) where three midweek nights with breakfast for a couple sharing will cost around €400. A five-minute walk from town is the AC Hotel Palau de Bellavista, a well-concealed five-star hotel up a hill behind the Barri Vell. A cheaper, more convenient option is Hotel Europa in the centre of town.

Nightlife: One of two Irish bars in town, McKiernan’s, is one of the busiest on La Rambla and the most lively around. Celtic Bar is the other but has far less of an Irish feel. Others include Doll and Catalana Taverna is where the noise is loudest, especially when Barcelona play. If you’ve still got some energy check out Blow, Paparazzi or the best of all, Lola’s cafe.

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