Girona: a Medieval City in the 21st Century

Culture — 29.05.24

Writing & Photography: Atorina Saliba

North of Barcelona, just over an hour’s drive from Sants Estacio, is Girona — a medieval city on the Costa Brava. The cobblestoned streets, high medieval walls and the stores built into the ancient infrastructure may remind you of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, but without the need to elbow your way through hordes of tourists. Girona is a relatively quieter city, although just as beautiful and inspiring as its neighbor in the south.

Driving through the picture-postcard streets, we realized Girona felt more like a large town than a small city. We parked on a quiet tree-lined street alongside the River Onyar, which flows through it. Overhead, leaves rained down in a burnt orange, bright yellow, and earthy brown palette. The winter sun spilled through the branches onto our cold faces as we headed to the old town.

Like many European cities, Girona is centered by a cathedral, a dominating structure with great walls that wind around the neighborhood of Força Vella. You could spend a half day leisurely walking around the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona and its grounds, sipping coffee, and having a bite to eat in the surrounding cafes. We followed the pathways leading to the Muralles de Girona, the 9th-century city walls. On our way, we spotted small groups following the English-speaking tour guide, students on their way to lectures, and more tourists lining up to catch a glimpse of the Arab Baths.

Continuing through the grounds of Girona Cathedral, we discovered Jardins de la Francesa (‘The Gardens of the French Woman’), a treasure trove of partially restored ruins and a lush green overgrowth. Here in the enclosed gardens, as though a secret only for those willing to explore even further, there were quiet moments where one could sit and read or catch their breath from all the walking. The Força Vella Fortress features some of the more lasting influences the Roman Empire had left on Girona. Although built as a defensive barrier, the fortress hasn’t changed much structurally, but its perception and functionality have changed over time. Tourists now lazily walk along the walls, where once soldiers past patrolled and safeguarded the city’s inhabitants.

Further up along the medieval walls, we surveyed the city’s landscape, across the cathedral, the winding roads, and the sprawl of clustered rooftops. We climbed up spiral staircases leading us higher, and, in the distance, the snowcapped Pyrenees mountains.

Midday crept up and our long walk had us heading back down looking for something to eat. Deterred by café chalkboards offering menus in English and determined not to fall into the expensive and underwhelming tourist traps, a local running a tobacco store in Barri Vell gave us a tip. Cafe le Bistrot, a unique Catalan restaurant, sat halfway up a grand staircase built into the city. Girona, we learned, is a city made up of several staircases, but this one – with the forking paths, the tiny balconies hanging above the archway, and the scattering of small round tables – was the most charming. This would serve as the perfect spot to take in medieval architecture, but it was the interior of Cafe le Bistrot that appealed to us more. The moment we stepped inside it felt as though we’d been drawn back into the forties: the large wooden bar lined with bottles of local wine and spirits, the smoky mirrors hanging throughout the bar and dining area, the tall classical windows overlooking gardens and the uniquely tiled floors, it was like a time capsule inside a time capsule: the mid-twentieth century tucked inside the Roman Empire.

We walked off the meal by heading up the stairs, and back to the River Onyar. A bridge connected the old town to the new, from Barri Vell to Devesa-Guell. But before crossing, we stopped to marvel at the multi-colored houses by the river. Several cafes, bars, and restaurants framed the Plaça de la Independència, the neoclassical town square, where more trees sprinkled the town with autumn leaves, leaving puddles of sunset colors. White umbrellas sprouted around the tables and chairs slowly filling with tourists; university students tumbled through, loud, rowdy, and laughing; a stand bursting with newspapers, magazines, and toys, its attendant periodically dusting off the displays; and inside bakery windows sat rows of xuixo, fat fried pastries filled with cream.

Our day in Girona was nearing an end and we were off to our next destination further up north. But as we left, we’d hoped to have another day here, to slow down, enjoy, and explore it further.