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Gerona, such a lovely Catalan secret  

In the heart of Catalonia, less than 100 km from Barcelona, Gerona – Girona for the locals – is one of those jewels offered to wise travelers in search of a beautiful medieval city that has successfully preserved all of its character while growing in time and space over the last centuries. Gerona is a lively and thriving city without the stress of major cities, a place where you will want to appreciate the passing of time and where one feels good.

A brief story of Genona

Located at the junction of three rivers and a stream at the foot of a rather steep hill, this strategic site was chosen by the Legion of Pompeii to build a city named Gerunda surrounded by solid defensive walls, part of which have survived until today. Gerona has expanded rapidly to become an important economic centre. This growth brought richness and opulence but also regularly attracts episodes of great hardship. Nonetheless, the city has always bounced back thanks to the unshakeable determination of its inhabitants.

At the fall of the Roman Empire, Gerona was included in the Visigoths’ kingdom. Later on, following the conquest of Spain by the Moors, it fell under their iron rule before being “liberated” by Charlemagne who took it by force in 785. Many years later, in 1285, Philippe III le Hardi (Philip the Bold), King of France attacked the city and plundered it mercilessly. The legend, still alive nowadays, says that when the roughneck soldiers ransacked the cathedral and Saint-Narcisse, the patron saint of the city, buzzing flies swarmed over the French troupes, killing thousands of them to the point that they had to flee for their lives from the city. The King himself died from fever when he reached Perpignan. The feast of Saint-Narcisse is always fittingly celebrated on March the 18th in Gerona.

Centuries go by and wars go on. Gerona was attacked many times during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1809, Napoleon, after a siege of many months, seized the city. Despite those vicissitudes, Gerona was still thriving and in the 19th century the city extended its limits with new neighborhoods that added a note of elegance and charm.

At a first glance

The actual city is literally cut in half by the river Onyar. On the east bank, the medieval city and its ramparts hang on the hillside and on the west riverside plain, the elegant district built in the 19th century extends to more contemporary neighborhoods.

When you arrive in Gerona, you can’t miss the huge, free outdoor parking within walking distance to the city centre. Gerona is a city where it feels good to walk. Of course, the medieval city with its network of small narrow streets and flights of stairs is totally pedestrian. But on the opposite bank, cars have also been banned in a large zone. Many footbridges have been built, allowing pedestrians to cross from one pedestrian bank to the other. The most famous one, the Palanques Vermelle, was even designed by Gustave Eiffel himself.

The 19th century neighborhood

However, before crossing the river, take time to discover the west bank. Take in the beauty of the Central Post façade, explore Santa Clara Street, the main pedestrian street of the city, where trendy boutiques and small traditional shops line together, and enjoy a coffee at one of the many terraces offered by restaurants on the beautiful Plaça de la Independencia where you have front row seats on the sober elegance of facades with their long rows of arcades.

In an angle on the square, under the vaults, a passageway leads to one of those footbridges from which you have a stunning view on the colored facades of the houses built along the opposite bank dominated by the mighty size of the cathedral. Day and night, blinded visitors activate their cameras. Why not join in for some great memories?

The eastern shore: the medieval village 

Crossing the Onyar on one of the passageways, you can’t miss the façade of a building that stands out. It is the Casa Maso, the house of Rafael Maso (1880-1935), the architect, who was one of the leading actors of the Noucentisme, the artistic movement that developed in Cataluña following Art Nouveau and Modernism. Rafael Maso, who lived and worked all his life in Gerona, designed a great part of the modern city. A visit to the Casa Maso is a real must.

It is almost impossible to get lost in the old city: the two main streets are parallel to the river and linked with narrow alleys and shady little places. A city map could, however, be useful to guide your steps to points of interest you will not want to miss. They are numerous, and should you want to see the most interesting ones, a private guide might be just what you need. A professional association offers French or English speaking guides who will be more than happy to share their passion for Gerona with you.

A few musts: the San Féliu Basilica, easily found with its slim tower bell, the Moorish baths, the Sant Pere de Galligants church with its marvelous double-colonnade cloister. A visit to the cathedral and its treasure is not easily done; like many treasures, you only discover it after climbing 90 stairs. However, the view you get of the city and the surroundings is stunning. From there, the ramparts are easily reached to walk on the ancient patrol way, circling the city over 1 km before going down to the river.

There is also the Call, the old Jewish district from the Middle Ages that kept all the charm of the old times with its patios and alleyways. The San Doménec Convent, now housing university facilities, has kept a lovely cloister. Down further towards the river, the Rambla de la Libertad and the Plaça del Vi are animated areas with nice buildings, such as the Maison Norat or the former head office of the Generalitad de Catalugna.

Take your time to stroll the old medieval city. Everywhere, you will discover lovely houses, palaces, small elegant restaurants, welcoming bars, tempting terraces and winding stairways leading to who knows where…

More?

It would be strange to hide another aspect of Gerona: its gastronomy. Gerona can take pride in homing in its neighborhoods the “El Celler de Can Roca,” the Roca brothers’ restaurant, 3-star in the Michelin, considered one of the three best restaurants in the world.

For those with a more reasonable budget, and even for those who can spare only some change, you can always visit “Rocambolesc” the tiny boutique by the third Roca brother where you can enjoy a delicious ice cream cone.

Apart from that symbol, Gerona is a city where gastronomy, simplicity and pleasure are a good match. Everywhere, you will find small restaurants with inventive chefs offering tasty cuisine made with local products for incredibly low prices.

A stroll in the local street market and alleys of the Devesa Garden on Saturday would be a good occasion to appreciate the variety and freshness of the fruit and local vegetable production.

Many wineries grow in the Gerona region, producing excellent wines, mostly reds, as well as Cava, the local sparkling wine to be enjoyed cool. Local beers are also excellent and inexpensive. And of course, tapas bars are always close by with their warm and friendly atmosphere. Those with a sweet tooth should not miss the "xuixos", lovely doughnuts filled with cream, a specialtly of Gerona.

Savor Gerona in many ways and you will understand why it consistently tops the list of best Spanish cities for its quality of life.

Travelling to Gerona

Often, Canadians or North American travelers crossing the Atlantic to Europe choose to visit a few countries during their stay. Most of the time, they will favor a flight for their liaisons between countries, or a car. But there is a much better and enjoyable solution, often cheaper and much more comfortable: the high-speed train.

Let’s choose Paris as a starting point for Western Europe. After the City of Light, you will want to show London to your loved one: the Eurostar takes you there in 2 and a half hours. If Belgium intrigues you, Brussels is only 1 and ½ hours from Paris with the Thalys that can also take you to Amsterdam and the Netherlands in 3 ½ hours. For Switzerland, the Lyria TGV links Paris to Geneva in less than 3 hours.

Gerona is among the happy few cities, since the Renfe-SNCF TGV (affiliate subsidiary of the Spanish and French railways) operates the high-speed liaison between Paris-Barcelona stop in the new underground station of Gerona. From Paris to Gerona the TGV ride is 6 hours. Comfortably seated in large first class seats, you will appreciate the ride from one city centre to another without air pockets, without “fasten your seat belts”, without all those hours lost in airport security controls carrying luggage or in a traffic jam. And you will realize that in the end, it would have taken you longer to get to Gerona for a much higher price. And you probably would have arrived there more tired…

 

Frédéric de Poligny

This trip was made possible thanks to an invitation from Renfe-SNCF.


 

In the old Gerona

The Cathedral with its 90 stairs

Side entrance of the Cathedral

Plaça de la Independencia

An old bakery

A small restaurant

xuixos

 

   

 

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