Tuesday 16 June 2015

High on the ancient walls of Girona ...

Girona is our local big town out in Catalonia. It's a fab little city that gets a bit overlooked, standing in the shadow of its big brother, Barcelona, just down the Costa. But if you're looking for somewhere with a history that predates the Romans, with fortified city walls that have lived through 25 sieges over the course of their long history, good food (we've got El Celler de Can Roca, the world's number one restaurant in town), loadsa' museums and architecture to swoon over - well, this little city could really hit your sweet spot.

It's a place that's bustling with life and activity where Emi, the Wonder Dog and I spend many a leisurely afternoon strolling around, people watching, imagining the past, admiring the present and all the while enjoying a good ice-cream. Weight-watchers beware: they make some seriously good ice-cream in this part of the world.

We start off on the banks of the River Onyar that flows through town. Crossing the bridges over the Onyar gives you some of the best views of the city, and we love the old houses that cluster along its banks with their first floor rooms leaning out over the water. To my untutored eye they don't look that old, but I'm reliably informed that they are medieval in origin. They were originally built to face the street that runs along the river, and their backs were attached to the city walls that used to skirt the river bank.

It's a funny thing how people's perspective and outlook changes with the times. When peace finally came the good folk of Girona chose not to live, locked in behind the ramparts, with their backs to the river. The importance of the city walls as outer fortifications declined, and little by little, matching houses appeared on the opposite bank, chinks in the walls were developed into houses that sat at odd angles to the uniform defensive facade of the other houses, shops and workrooms sprouted out of first floor rooms, and the people began to turn around and enjoy their lovely river.

These days we like to idle on the bridges and spot the river carp. There are hundreds of them darting about in the sun-dappled water.

We wind our way through narrow streets, where the sun never shines ...

... passing through the gate in the old city walls ...

... which is now guarded only by the Virgin in the alcove on the inner side of the great gate. 

We climb the 90 steps up to the doors of the great Cathedral of Santa Maria. 

And then we climb some more steps that lead us up to the gardens that are built into the old city walls.

These gardens have names that are like ripples through time: the French Lady's Garden, the German's Garden, harking back across the centuries to the individuals who first tended them.

On a sunny day they make pleasant places to sit in the shade and contemplate the sturdy bulk of the great cathedral.

After a while we climb the walls themselves, and peer out of the many windows and arrow slits at the world below us. 

At this point Emi usually can't resist pulling on his imaginary bow string and sending a few arrows flying out from the colourful world of his nine year-old imagination at the baddies beyond. They're always generic, cartoon-type baddies. I gently steer him away from notions that any one of the many historical besiegers were baddies. As L.P. Hartley said in the Go-Between: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. I think it's important to look at what's gone before with an objective detachment, and not get too self-righteous about which side one's own ancestors may have been on. 

We spend some time thinking about the Romans, who built the first walls around the old city, creating a citadel, which they called Gerunda. They weren't wildly imaginative with this name: they appropriated it (along with the city!) from the people who first lived here, the Ausetani, a native Iberian tribal people who'd made this their home long before the Romans showed up.  

When the Roman Empire fell, the city was conquered by the Visigoths, and they held it until the Moors showed up. The Catalans call their country a terra de pas, a place that people pass through, a thoroughfare. The Moors, however, didn't pass much further. Girona was one of their most northerly outposts, until Charlemagne showed up in 785 to besiege the city and reconquer it for Christendom. His victory wasn't totally decisive, and it wasn't until 1015 that the Moors were finally pushed back. 

This part of the world became known as the Spanish Marches, the buffer zone between the Islamic Caliphate to the South and the Christian world of the Frankish Kings to the North. 

With all this turbulent history you begin to appreciate the importance of the great city walls. Emi delights in explaining the strategy behind the way it's all been designed. There are great holes built into upper parapets where the defenders would have dropped boiling oil and all manner of other nasty surprises down on the besiegers below. Arrow slit windows built into corners gave the defenders a firing range of at least 270ยบ, and then there are watch towers, way up high, where a sharp eyed look-out could have seen the enemy coming from miles away across the plain. 

It's best to go up there when there aren't too many tourists in town. Some of the tight spots that half-starved medieval defenders were able to wriggle in and out of can get a bit uncomfortable when there's an invasion of modern day besiegers clad in sports clothes and armed with cameras and selfie-sticks. Somehow in the clamour it's harder to hear the echoes of the past, and the very special atmosphere of this place can get a bit lost. 

But we were lucky. We more or less had it all to ourselves. 

And it was hard not to feel just a little bit like Mary Poppins up there above the terracotta roofs with only the chimney stacks for company. 

All the best for now,

Bonny x


  1. What an interesting part of the world you live in. I can't imagine those narrow roads (do people drive there at all?) - I love the roof tops, and the cool architectural features of the buildings there.

    1. Thank you, Ida. Yes people drive, but they tend to buy quite small cars that are easy to manoeuvre around the narrow streets. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  2. Girona looks stunning, Bonny! :) The ancient cathedral and the old fortifications are such a lovely sight.