Girona, a small city just an hour north of Barcelona, is a much-overlooked place full of history, culture and stunning mediaeval streets. This is a perfect place to enjoy a relaxed long weekend or as a stopping-off point for those touring the beautiful Costa Brava.
How to get there
For a small town of just under 100,000 inhabitants, Girona’s airport is impressive: regular flights connect the city with destinations throughout Europe. Buses to the city centre from the airport are frequent and reliable and taxis should charge about €20 for the same route.
If you are travelling from the centre of Barcelona, the train is probably the best option. Trains depart approximately every hour from Sants station, with a variety of options including high-speed AVE (approx 35 minutes and €15) and cheaper regional trains from about €7 – but watch out! The less you pay, the longer you will be on the train – up to 2 hours on the Regional service.
For those travelling south from France, the Paris-Barcelona train also stops off in Girona.
When to go
Girona is a reasonable place to visit year-round – as with much of Spain it tends to get very hot in summer and snow is not unknown in winter. But if you’re a hardy type and happy to adapt to local customs (i.e. take a siesta if it’s very hot and, for the love of cake, don’t climb the city walls in the blazing midday sun) we say go for it at any time of year.
The Parade of the Three Kings (January 5th), where the three kings roll into town and dole out gifts to the sugar-crazed kids of Catalonia, is always a winner. February sees the prestigious biennial Girona Gatronomic Forum, swiftly followed by March’s Gastronomy week. As with much of Catalonia, the St George’s Day celebrations (on the 23rd April) include book markets and flower stalls in the street, taken one step further in Girona with a week’s buildup in the form of the Spring Festival. May sees the unmissable Temps de Flors (flower festival), a riot of colour and foliage that takes over the whole town, while September hosts the quirky Napoleonic Sieges Festival (complete with Peninsular War-era re-enactments) and the Girona film festival (but sadly not in the same place at the same time).
What to do
Take a walk around the city walls, a relic of the medieval period and an excellent way to take in some stunning views over the rooftops of the old town and the hills beyond. Follow this up with a visit to the cathedral which boasts an imposing facade at the top of 86 stone stairs as well as a wonderful gothic interior and a vast nave, said to be among the widest in the world at 23m.
One of the biggest draws for visitors is a wander around El Call, the old Jewish neighbourhood. This was a thriving community until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the excellent Museu d’Historia dels Jueus de Girona takes visitors on a journey from the very beginning of the settlement to the violence and bloodshed leading up to the expulsion.
The Museu Arqueologic de Girona (archaeological museum), housed in the beautiful Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants, has a collection incorporating artefacts from the stone age onwards and, if you would like a flavour of Girona’s more recent history including the dramatic events that took place here during the Peninsular Wars, head to the Museu d’Historia de Girona (Girona History Museum).
Serious food lovers should consider swinging by El Celler de Can Roca, a world-famous restaurant run by the Roca brothers and the proud holder of no less than three Michelin stars, but be aware that reservations need to be made at least several months in advance (tasting menu €145 – €175). If your budget is busted, try Can Roca (Carretera de Taiala, 42/Tel 972 20 51 19) instead: this is the humble neighbourhood restaurant that has been run by the Roca brothers’ parents (Montserat Fontanet and Josep Roca) since 1967, and where the boys picked up many of the best tricks of the trade. Menu del dia costs €10 and does not disappoint.