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Capital of the Costa Brava

Riverside houses in Girona

Frequent Ryanair connections from around Europe to Girona airport have translated into a lot of visitors to Barcelona passing through this attractive little city on the Ríu Onyar; and as one of Catalonia's star attractions, with its evocative medieval quarter and pretty river it deserves at least a half day if you can pull yourself away from the Big Noise to the south.

The Catedral de Santa Maria

Squeezed between the hills, walls and river, Girona’s medieval quarter, the Barri Vell is as evocative as they come, and crowned by the Catedral de Santa Maria +34 972 427 189, open April-Oct 10am-8pm, Nov-Mar 10am-6.30pm, adm €7; students and over 65 €5; under 7 free. Adm includes audio guide).

Few churches anywhere enjoy such a pedestal, set atop an 18th-century stair of 90 steps that is nearly as grand (and as convivial for sitting on) as the Spanish Steps in Rome. The massive, nearly square façade, with its asymetrical single tower and rose window, was also added in the 18th century and recently cleaned: all the figures were destroyed by Anarchists during the Civil War and are copies, except for Faith, Hope and Charity.

The Cathedral’s single nave is the widest in Christendom—after St Peter’s in Rome. Originally three smaller naves were planned in 1347, before work came to an abrupt halt with the Black Death. Finally in 1404, when Girona was ready to start building again, the new master builder, Guillem Bofill decided to save time and money by reducing the planned three naves to one. The bishop of Girona had his doubts and summoned all the leading architects of Aragón to a council to decide whether or not such a building could possibly stand. Nearly 600 years later, it still does.

Held up by interior buttresses, the Gothic vault, known as the ‘Canopy of Heaven’ rises 75ft above the floor, nearly perfectly matching the 72ft of the nave. It is packed full of singular treasures, among them the 11th-century so-called Throne of Charlemagne, the 11th-century alabaster high altar and the beautiful 14th-century tomb of Countess Ermessenda, sculpted by Guillem de Morell.

The unique and lovely trapezoidal cloister dates from an earlier, 12th-century version of the cathedral: the capitals on the double columns have a fun array of secular and sacred designs.

Tapestry of Creation

Admission includes the excellent treasury, starring the 11th-century Tapestry of Creation, illustrating the Book of Genesis in fascinating, literal detail and rivaling the Bayeux Tapestry as the best surviving 1000-year old textile work in the West. Another gem is the Código del Beatus, a commentary on the Apocalypse dating from 974, filled with fantastical miniatures. Save your ticket for the Basilia de Sant Feliu (see below).

Museu d'Art de Girona

Next to the cathedral, the former Episcopal Palace houses the Museu d’Art de Girona (+34 97 220 38 34, open Tues-Sat: Oct-April, 10am-6pm; May-Sept 10am-7pm; Sun 10am-2pm year round, adm €4.50) with a first-class collection of Romanesque and Gothic art, and 19th and 20th century Catalan paintings upstairs.

Sant Feliu and the Banys Arabs

Back down the cathedral steps, and turn right to reach another, slightly less daunting set of steps: these lead up to the Basilica of Sant Feliu (Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm, Sun & hols 1pm-5.30pm), which like the cathedral only has one of its planned towers, and even it was shortened by a bolt of lightening.

The church stands over the tomb of the city’s first bishop and patron saint, St Narcis ‘of the flies’: during the siege in 1285, the French got in and started to desecrate his tomb, only to be attacked by a swarm of giant man- eating flies. It was a lesson the French never forgot: they would besiege Girona another 24 times, but left St Narcis strictly alone. Pastry shops around town sell chocolate flies in his honour.

Besides the famous fly tomb, Sant Feliu is also known for the Roman and Palaeochristian tombs with vividly sculpted scenes embedded in the walls. Outside the church in Plaça Sant Feliu is a copy of a famous statue of a lioness, the 12th- century Leonessa, of which the saying goes:

No pot se veí de Girona

qui no faci un petó al cul de la lleona.

or "You can’t live in Girona/Until you’ve kissed the lion’s arse".

Nearby on C/Ferran el Católic are the 12th-century Banys Àrabs, the best preserved Moorish baths in Catalonia, with a beautiful tiled pool lit by an octagonal oculus. It was in use until the 16th century +34 972 19 07 97, open Apr-Sept, Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-2pm; Oct-Mar daily 10am-2pm, adm €2).

Monestir Sant Pere Galligants and two walks

Across the little Galligants river from the baths, the 12th-century monastery of Sant Pere Galligants on C/de Santa Llúcia, 8 has a bold tower and a charming Romanesque cloister. The monastery itself now houses the city’s Archaeology Museum with finds dating back to Neolithic times (+34 972 20 26 32, open June-Sept Tues-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-2pm; Oct-May Tues-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 10am-2pm, adm €4.50).

From here you can stroll amid medieval walls and towers on the Passeig Arqueològic (archaeological walk) along the Galligants to the Vall de Sant Daniel, site of convent founded by Countess Ermessenda, who funded the building of the cathedral.

Along here there are several chances, including the 11th-century Torre de Charlemagne, to ascend to the lovely Passeig de la Muralla, following the narrow walkway once used by soldiers to patrol the medieval walls, overlooking the rooftops of the Barri Vell.

Museu d’Història de la Ciutat

There’s one last museum in this part of Girona, the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat on C/Força 27 (+34 97 222 22 29, Oct-Apr, open Tues-Sat 10.30am-5.30pm; Sun 10.30am-1.30pm; May-Sept, Tue-Sat 10.30am-6.30pm, Sun 10.30am-1.30pm; adm €4) with 14 rooms of exhibits in chronological order, from Roman mosaics to relics of the Civil War.

El Call and the School of Jewish Mysticism

Street in the Call

Carrer Força also marks the border of Girona’s Jewish ghetto or El Call. Its steep narrow streets housed around a 1000 souls at its peak in the 12th century, who supported one of the most important schools in the West, led by the great scholar Nahmanides (1194-1270).

As in Barcelona, the Jews of Girona were under the direct protection of the Count Kings, who notoriously used them to meddle in local affairs, exacerbating tensions and leading to persecutions and murders. The Call eventually became a near windowless warren with only one entrance; after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, it was built over and rather astonishingly, completely forgotten by the Gironas.

In the 1970s, a local restaurant-owner bought up some of the buildings and in his excavations found the yeshiva, or school, now the Centra Bonastruc Ça Porta (C/Força 8, +34 97 221 67 61, open July & Aug Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun & hols 10am-2pm; Sept-June Tues-Sat 10am-6pm, Mon, Sun & hols 10am-2pm, adm €4, under 16 free), a Jewish cultural and medieval study centre, plus the Museu d’Història dels Jueus a Catalunya — the history of Jews in Catalonia.

Elsewhere around Old Girona

From El Call, take C/Peralita south to the picturesque Pujada de Sant Domènec, where steps fork off under a Renaissance palace; at the top of the right branch of steps is the 16th-century church of Sant Martí, and beyond that a Dominican convent, now used by the University of Girona.

Head down C/ dels Ciutadans, lined with stately medieval mansions: one of the biggest, the Fontana d'Or, has a charming garden courtyard. At the end of the street, the Ajuntament or city hall occupies the arcaded Plaça del Vi, the old wine market, along with the 19th-century Municipal Theatre housing two paper maché gegants or giants, who are allowed out on holidays.

Along and across the River Onyar

Girona's favourite street, the porticoed Rambla de la Llibertat, is lined with smart boutiques and bars and runs parallel to the Onyar. The river divides medieval from modern Girona, and is crossed by a series of footbridges, including the handsome, net-like Pont de les Peixateries Velles ('bridge of the old fishmongers') designed by Gustave Eiffel's firm in 1876.

The famous view of the colourful houses in a dozen shades of ochre overlooking the river, however, is new: originally the houses formed part of the city wall, until the 20th century when people began to open up windows and galleries. In the 1980s, local architects fixed them up and applied colours inspired by Florence.

Girona began expanding on the left bank in the mid 19th century: the centre here is Plaça de l'Indepèndencia, an arcaded square replacing a monastery, where everyone comes for a stroll. C/' Santa Clara is the main shopping street, while south of Plaça de l'Indepèndecia you can visit the Museu del Cinema in C/Sèquia (+34 972 412 777, open Oct-Apr Tues-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 11am-3pm; May, June and Sept Tues-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 11am-3pm; July & Aug daily 10am-8pm, adm €5, students and retired €2.50, under 16 free) housing an excellent collection of equipment, props and memorabilia from the earliest days of cinema.

Also on this side of the river is Girona's playground— the riverside Parc de la Devesa, where 2500 plane trees not only provide welcome shade but shelter a lively collection of summer bars and restaurants.

Practical Info Practical Info icon

Girona has frequent train and bus connections with Barcelona and Figueres just north, making it easy to combine the two on a day trip.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by Carquinyol, dailymatador, Sebastià Giralt