I knew nothing about Girona. I didn’t even know it existed, even though it’s the capital city of the Costa Brava, Europe’s oldest beach resort. After getting up at 3:00 a.m., flying to France, spending an intense day in fabulous La Cité de Carcassonne, finding a bed in a big city seemed too much. When the Barcelona train stopped in Girona, I hopped off on an impulse. I’m glad I did.
After a quick look at an information board, I happily discovered it had a medieval old town, Barri Vell, complete with surrounding walls. After Carcassonne, I couldn’t get enough of mysterious medieval cities. On the way to Barri Vell, La Rambla tempted with plenty of life and laughter from many outdoor cafes, but I needed a place to crash. I had a choice of going to the right for a hostel – or to the left for the cathedral and a choice of up-market hotels. It was 11:00 p.m., my legs went to the left all by themselves, ending in the Hotel Historic, a costly decision, to the tune of 100 euros, but they were tired legs, so they must be excused.
The cheapest option, an apartment was huge, large enough for a family. I was so lonely in that enormous space, I immediately requested a change to the more expensive room – nicer, with a shower worthy of a special mention. Two people could easily lie down and stretch out in the shower. It had three heads: one high up on the wall (the world’s tallest man wouldn’t have had to adjust it), one massage and four smaller mounted at slanting angles, hip-and-shoulder height. I tried to ajdust it so all three settings would go on simultaneously, but I never figured it out.
Playing with the showers amused me for a good half hour. After that, I was much too tired to go out, decided on red wine and peanuts for dinner, always a winner. I started working on my Carcassonne story – accompanied by South Park dubbed in German on television and promptly fell asleep on top of my notes. How’s that for a global village – a Norwegian writer in Catalonia, a stone’s throw from the French border, writing in English while watching German-dubbed Spanish television – six languages!
The next morning, September arrived and summer was officially over. In the early hours, the sun was barely visible over the rooftops, the air was nippy. Leaving the Historic, the sound of church bells pointed me to the imposing Catedral de Girona. A door was open on one side attracting me with its warm light. A sign on the door said access was for religious purposes only. I wondered if my visit could be deemed religious. I'm awed by the sheer size and physical presence of cathedrals. That’s slightly religious, isn’t it?
Peeking in, a vast silent nave of sombre, grey stone met my eyes; the widest Gothic nave in the world, I was later to learn. Not a soul was in sight, but the sound of deep voices chanting in the distance drew me in. Crossing the nave towards the sound, I noticed a priest and an elderly couple in a smaller room. Close up, the voice of the priest resonated and seemed to come from everywhere, in an eerie voice of God-effect.
Back in the nave, a sign pointed to the treasury. Now, I don’t know if this is true of the one in Catedral de Girona, but treasures were often amassed by violent and criminal means, in complete disregard for human rights. The least I could do was not ogle the objects. Leaving through the main entrance, an arrow pointed to another door for cultural visits. I went over to confess my sin, pay a fee or whatever. No one answered.
Meandering down the narrow Carrer Bonaventura Carreras i Peralta, with the street to myself, I decided Barri Vell deserved more time for exploration. Narrow alleys and medieval stairs appeared around every corner, as did Portal del Colleccionista, an antiquarian bookshop. The smell of dusty library shelves has a magnetic effect on me. I was thrilled to see old books and manuscripts everywhere. The proprietor, Señor Cortés Lopéz, was happy to chat and let me photograph his wonderful shop (he didn't mind my taking pictures of him and his shop). He dug out books in Russian, English, French, Spanish and Catalan. Holding a leather-bound parchment manuscript from 1792 was like transgressing the boundaries of time.
Cortés Lopéz said a majority of visitors to his shop were Russian. We briefly discussed whether Russians were more well-read than others. Much great literature has emanated from Mother Russia. During the oppressive years of communism, the Russians were at least spared mind-numbing television programming. Books were what counted. Have the Russians held on to that noble tradition?
Further along, Cerveri de Girona, the hostel in the old city, had a bright and airy reception area, livelier than my chic hotel. I regretted not having chosen it last night, both for the price (15 euros) and for computer access. Outside the old walled city, there are more hostels.
I stopped for breakfast at the Xocolateria Antiga, mostly because chocolate spelled with an x fascinated me. It was a sweet little café. My croissant was sugar-glazed, my orange juice sweetened and the house special – hot chocolate Catalan-style – strong, thick and, of course, super-sweet. A sachet of sugar was provided with all this, as if it required further sweetening.
Girona was awakening. The tables were filling up with people enjoying their morning xocolatas. At the table next to me, three generations of local women, perhaps 60, 35 and 11, were dressed in bright turquoise, orange and pink, chatting in animated Catalan, gesticulating wildly. The two older puffed energetically on long, slim cigarettes. It could have been the set of a Pedro Almodovar drama – women on the verge of a nervous breakdown or something.
Interesting as this scene was, time to move on, in search of the Barcelona train and some protein. Few spoke English, but they were eager to help. I pretended not to speak Spanish, asked for directions in English. They would invariably reply in Spanish or Catalan. With pointing, general body language and the above-mentioned helpfulness – even the most novice traveller, who can barely manage a gracias, will be fine. Don’t be in a rush.
Twelve hours in Girona, actually four in a state of alertness. It was so interesting, I almost forgot I had to be in Barcelona to catch a flight. Of course, there’s much more to see and do here. The Costa Brava beaches are a quick bus trip away. Halfway up a medieval flight of steps, the restaurant, Le Bistrot, in the old city comes highly recommended, as does Fontana d'Or Cultural Centre (website in Catalan only). An Andy Warhol exhibition was on when I visited.
Those of you from Nashville, Tennessee, may be interested to know Girona is about to become your twin city (pending agreement).