There’s more to Catalonia’s independent streak and unique customs than its brimming capital of Barcelona. 90 minutes away, the old city turned Game of Thrones film set of Girona has a deep-rooted historical charm and culture dating back more than 2,000 years. And it’s just as deserving of attention. Girona is a preserved pocket of history that is also a gateway to the surrounding region of Gironés, which unearths the beautiful patchwork of the countryside and villages of northeastern Spain.
In Girona – The Walkable, Historical City
Even if you are day tripping or just squeezing in an over-night stay, Girona is compact enough to navigate and get your fix of ‘preserved city’ feels. I spent two days in the city taking in its scenic and culinary highlights, before exploring the green that surrounds it.
Girona is easily explored by foot and the Barri Vell (Old Quarter) – also known as the Golden Triangle – is the best place to start your journey through time.
Girona is well-known for its medieval history, however it also has a Roman past. The Força Vella Fortress was built by the Romans in the first century BC, which was very well protected by a defensive rampart. It remained unchanged until the year 1,000, and today you can still see parts of the walled fortress.
The other fortified enclosure is the Medieval Quarter, which was an extension of the existing Roman walls in the 14th and 15th centuries. With newer ramparts constructed, you can also see sections of these as you get the opportunity to wander the along the city’s walled walkways.
At the heart of the Força Vella is the Cathedral. Built between the 11th and 18th centuries, this place of worship is a unique place to view a variety of different artistic styles.
From the Romanesque tower and cloister to the baroque façade and steps, the cathedral is a worthy visit to journey through the ages. Take note of the gothic nave built between the 15th and 16th centuries, the widest of its kind in the world at 23 metres.
While you are in the Força Vella, a labyrinth of narrow streets will highlight your arrival in the Jewish Quarter. These lanes and alleys were home to Jews from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Still maintaining much of its medieval atmosphere, it is one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in the world and signifies the importance of the culture in Girona.
As you wander these beautifully preserved streets, take the Cúndaro or Sant Llorenç streets to enjoy views from above. Staircases will lead you to the highest part of the city to enjoy the old city panoramas.
Another picturesque spot is to stand within the curved architecture of Arab Baths, built by Christians in 1194. Modelled on the stylish Islamic baths at the time, a siege almost 90 years later significantly damaged the baths, which were eventually restored to their former glory in 1294.
During the 15th century, the baths were sold off privately and in 1617, nuns transformed it into a pantry, kitchen and laundry. It was only in 1929 when the baths were purchased under public management and renovated, that the public were once again able to enjoy its historical surroundings.
Its most stunning elements include the entrance, once used as a changing room and relaxation area and the cupola over the central pool which is supported by ornately decorated columns. It’s good to visit in the afternoon for some welcome shade from the Catalonian sun.
Over time the city extended towards the river and a stroll across the water will transport you to the contemporary side of the capital. Girona’s well-photographed brightly painted houses hug the River Onyar, both sides of which are accessible by its 11 bridges.
However, the Peixateries Velles Bridge steals the limelight. The Eiffel Company built the red iron bridge in 1827, and it will be easy to see the resemblance when you stop to admire those picture postcard views.
Girona – World-class cuisine
Wandering the historical sights, there are plenty of places to stop to refuel and Girona is the ultimate place, known for its world-class cuisine.
To truly unearth the culture behind Spanish cuisine, we spent an afternoon at the Girona Culinary School, or Escola d’Hostaliera de Girona. Held within Girona’s indoor market ‘el Lleó’, chefs cooked up a range of signature tapas dishes using fresh local produce.
Our tapas lunch included grilled vegetables (escalivada), a delicious salted cod salad (esqueixada), sweet sausage with apple, as well as a variety of seafood, which we paired with local wines. A proper foodie’s delight, the culinary experience finishes up with dessert, including traditional curd with strawberries.
Of course, we made room for some ice cream – the very famous ice cream of the city. Rocambolesc is owned by the Roca brothers who produce the finest iced flavours you will ever experience, and that’s coming from a huge ultimate ice-cream enthusiast. A rainbow of colours and flavours, with toppings to match, and you might find yourself having cheeky seconds.
The brothers are well-known Michelin chefs as part of their restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, which was voted the best in the world in 2015. Needless to say, a divine experience awaits at both.
Girona’s Long-standing Tradition – The ‘Catalan Towers’ or ‘Human Towers’
Another notable visit and a true Catalan icon are the Human Towers. A long-standing tradition from the 1700s, the towers are often performed as part of Spanish celebrations, festivities and competitions. Requiring lots of training with many generations taking part in the custom.
In Girona there are more than three formations that are performed, so try to time your visit for this fascinating sight in the city. I was lucky enough to learn how it’s done at the Marrecs De Sel, taking part in a training session to see how everyone works together and plans out these spectacular formations. It’s a skill you cannot master in a few hours alone, but one that gives you a high as you join the ranks on the ground in helping to balance the tower.
Explore Gironas Country – The Wider Landscape From the City
To break out of the city and explore what the countryside has to offer, Gironés country has lots of offer in its 5000 years of settlement. It’s where the inland countryside plains and villages meet the sea and the mountains. The most popular areas include the Costa Brava and its secluded beaches (30 minutes away) or the Albera mountain range and the Girona Pyrenees at the foot of the mountains.
Rent a bike to discover the green fields between the Pyrenees and Costa Brava, following the route of a disused railway line. If you plan on a walking trail, the Santiago route reveals the unique characters of the outlying villages of Aiguaviva, Bordilis, Madremanya, Sant Marti Vell and Llagostera.
I took to a Segway instead, for a speedy thrill in Sant Julià de Ramis. We booked with Livetour Segway, and toured along the River Ter before trekking up Sant Julià Mountain. In addition to the spectacular panoramas, the area conceals the remains of the Iberian Castle – ‘Castellum Fractum’ – also known as Broken Castle and the mountain’s natural caves are believed to be the mythical home of fairies. Both are great vantage points to the wide views of the country and out towards the Costa Brava coastline.
While exploring the countryside, we stopped for a picnic, provided by the culinary experts at Local Market in Girona old town, whose ethos is to experience gastronomy, landscape and culture all at once. Our sumptuous lunch of local foods included fresh breads, cheeses, seasonal vegetables and artisan sausages, which we washed down with a locally crafted beer from Sarrià de Ter and Wine from D.O. Empordà.
To truly get to the heart of Gironés nature, a water trek in the village of Canet d’Adr with Aventura Girona gets you there. Trekking along the river, before exploring the forest paths of Canet Creek and its volcanic landscapes, we splashed, swam and took giant leaps along the water pathways, mostly in a fit of giggles as we trundled along. Arduous only in small parts, water trekking is a perfect way to get stuck into the stillness of nature and get completely off-track from the forest pathways in “Canet Creek”.
Followed by lunch at La Sala restaurant, combining the gastronomy of the Llemena Valley, known as ‘Remença’ with the landscape, we then ended our stay in the region with a magical trip to the ‘Gavarres Astronomic Observatory’ in the Gaverres Mountains for some stargazing. Also home to the Starlight Rural Hotel, make the most of your visit and stay the night as it maintains a fascinating history and was a firm favourite with Salvador Dali.
Girona might be a compact city, but the capital and its surrounding countryside offers a huge contrast of things to see and do from its historical beginnings to its flourishing outdoors. From city to landscape, above ground and below, I really got to see Gironas from all angles, and not in the shadow of the region’s capital.
Things to Know
Getting to Girona
- Girona is well-connected to neighbouring cities and regional hotspots. I booked a local bus from Barcelona’s main bus station on the day of departure.
Getting from Girona to Gironas Country
- Even if you are short on time, there is a City Train (citytrain.es) that takes you through town and into the wider country… for a taste of the scenery.
Activities in Girona and Gironas Country
- Trying your balance at a ‘Catalan Towers’ training session is a creative way to immerse yourself in local culture and long-standing tradition. More information can be found at the Girona Trips website.
- The Segway and walking tour with Livetour in Sant Julià de Ramis is a great introduction to the wider area.
- For the adventure explorer, Aventura Girona will get you from forest to creek as an alternative means of crossing the countryside.
- For further information check out the Costa Brava Tourism Website, who helped facilitate my adventure in both Girona and Gironas Country.