I have to say, in all my travels through Spain, France and Italy searching for that heart-stopping medieval-European aesthetic magic, the place where I really finally found it was in Girona, Catalonia. I’m talking in a solely sensorial sense, and I should specify that this post speaks only of the old town, on the east side of the city. The Barri Vell. Though other places have won me over in a more holistic way (the geography, the culture, the history, the people), Girona is the stage I want all the world to be. It’s labyrinthine layout, the majesty of its Jewish quarter (said to be the best preserved in Europe), and an abundance of churches, monasteries, chapels and gardens that is breath-taking. It’s what I wanted Italy to be.
More specifically, it’s what I wanted Verona, Italy to be. Verona dissapointed me (here), but Girona’s stepped plazas, cantilevered twin cathedrals, and ivy-covered walls, are straight out of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no tacky modern art sculptures, high-end stores, or locks on their monuments. And Catalonians are quieter. Another factor of the visual impact that Girona has is the fact that it’s shockingly free of tourists, and we were there in August! Someone told me it’s because all the people who would know about it, the vacationing French and Germans, always go to the beaches. To the rest of the world it’s just a medium sized city in the middle of a strange place called Catalonia. But I have never walked around a European old town and found myself completely alone. To stumble upon something that touches you deeply and have that moment to yourself is priceless, almost revelatory. Nearly the entire stretch of its defensive wall has been preserved, though parts have been reconstructed. And we had it to ourselves. We walked the entire outer limits of the town, way up on top of the wall, which is like a miniature Great Wall of China and climbed the lookout towers to find silent panoramas awaiting us. Where were the people? It was like being in a museum before opening hours. Everything becomes realer without the hoardes of pleasure-seeking tourists that reduce the scenery to a parody of itself. Alone, you can take all the time you need to soak up the enchantment that only a minority of travelers go looking for. Besides the wall, there is a terrifying cathedral towering the skyline, which happens to have the widest Gothic nave in all of the world, a couple monasteries, the arabic baths, the Jewish quarter, and the river, with it’s long stretch of painted houses and thin stone ribbons of footbridges. The colors are more Italian too. Provence’s castle and cathedral towns, like Avignon, are so clean and grey, almost white, they come off as very dainty, you can’t imagine that any blood was shed or that Romans walked there. Girona’s old town is different, it’s bold, mighty, musty, and a little mis-matched. Sun-bleached ochres, rusty greens, and the sandy-black stone color of Barcelona abound.
The other thing about Girona is its steps. It is truly the city of steps. It reminded me of Venice, in that it would be nearly impossible to traverse by bicycle. It catches you off guard because, from above, Girona doesn’t appear to be very hilly, it’s certainly not nestled in the mountains, it’s on the bank of a wide, flat river. But once you enter the old town, you enter a maze where stairs go every which way, intersecting, veering off, and elongating shallowly to cover whole passages. It holds your attention endlessly. But be prepared for a workout and wear your most comfortable shoes. I’m sure my pictures won’t convey the playfulness or mysteriousness of the place, so you’ll have to spend a day there yourself, you’ll find you feel like a character in a 1200-year-old play that’s never changed it’s set.