Girona, Spain was one of the first trips we took outside Barcelona after we moved abroad. We had three reasons for going:
1. Girona is one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Spain.
2. A high speed train runs from Barcelona to Girona. Our son is obsessed with fast trains.
3. Tumble listeners told us to go.
Yes, we crowd-sourced our first destination from our Patreon supporters! Apparently, we're not the only ones taken in by trains and history. We've been to Girona several times now, and each time, we learn more reasons to love it.
Our trip to Girona was also our first experience at Barcelona's train station, Sants Estacio. That's where the mystical high speed train departs from. It's called the AVE [pronounced AH-vey]. It stands for Alta Velocidad Española, which translates to "Spanish high speed". But it's also a play on words: Ave means bird.
You can buy tickets ahead of your trip online. Even though we bought ours at the kiosks at the station, I recommend making sure that you're leaving on schedule. We've run into problems with sold-out trains for other destinations.
The AVE is truly fast. It reaches speeds up to 310 kilometers/hour, or 193 miles per hour. On the "slow speed" (read: normal) train, you get to Girona in an hour and a half. On the AVE, you'll be there in 40 minutes. That's faster than it takes to get across Barcelona on the subway.
The train is sleek and modern, with an aerodynamic nose. It pulled up to the platform and we rushed to jump on our assigned car. As we headed out, we were surprised by how quiet and smooth the ride is. The best part? There's an electronic sign in each cabin that tells you how fast you're going. Once we got out of Barcelona, we were flying up to 200 km/h!
The countryside rushed by. The track runs parallel to a highway for most of the route. We raced past cars, trucks, and buses. We'd packed sandwiches, and in the time it took for us to admire the view and eat our lunch, we were pulling up to Girona's train station!
From the train station, Girona appeared to be a thoroughly modern European city. Shops, restaurants, and hotels line the streets. The day we went with Emmett, we walked smack dab into the starting line of a road race!
Girona is divided by a river. Once you cross over it from the train station side, you'll start seeing more signs of the city's medieval heritage. The streets get narrow, and the stone walls begin to show their age.
We were on our way to the old town to meet with Silvia Planas Marcé, the director of Girona's History Museum AND the Museum of Jewish History. They're right next to each other, so it's convenient to have just one director. If you visit Girona, make sure you stop in! There are many impressive artifacts that give you a sense of the history. You can even sit in a reproduction of the throne of Girona, like Marshall did!
Silvia is warm, friendly, and funny. She's a treasure trove of information when it comes to Girona's medieval history. She fills us in on how a city came to stand right beneath where we're sitting. (And yes, Lindsay recorded her!)
Girona got its start as a Roman crossroads, in the second century AD. Set back from the Mediterranean Sea, the city lies on the Iberian Peninsula between the water and the Pyrenees mountains. It's close to what's now Southern France, but centuries ago Europe was divided up into many more small kingdoms.
Silvia told us Girona was known as the "key" to its kingdom, because it opened and closed the border. When the kingdom was at war with France, it was on the frontier - the last line of defense against invading armies. During peace time, it was a meeting place.
Not much is known about Roman times in Girona, because the occupants left few documents behind. But the wall they built is still standing, nearly two thousand years later. Archeologists can tell that the city was set up like a military camp. It was small, and enclosed. The most important feature you'll still see today is Via Augusta. You know the saying, "All roads lead to Rome"? In Spain, Via Augusta was THE road.
The history museum displays the remains of this Roman mural, one of the only depictions of life in Girona during that time.
Girona had its heyday during the Middle Ages. In the 13th and 14th centuries, it was a thriving melting pot of trade and cultures. It had a partnership with a town on the coast, making it a very important port - unusual for a landlocked city. Artisan goods flowed through, passing into the mountains and up the coast.
What was even more unusual was that three very different religions lived together peacefully, for a time. One of Girona's most beautiful districts is the old Jewish quarter. One of its most remarkable buildings is the Arab baths. And you can't miss the Catholic cathedral. Today, it isn't unusual to see churches, synagogues, and mosques in the same city. But back then, the cultures were very separate, and often violently persecuted each other. This balance only existed for a relatively short time, called the La Covivencia.
In 1348, the Black Death (also called the Bubonic or Black Plague) struck Girona. The disease carried by rats wiped out an estimated of 30 - 60 percent of Europe's population at the time. It was the beginning of Girona's decline in importance.
Today, Girona is still one of the major cities in Catalonia, the northwestern region of Spain. It has its own language, Catalan. It has fantastic modern culture - it's the home of one of the most famous restaurants in the world, and it's a popular spot for professional bicyclists who train on the hills surrounding the city. And, you can still step back into history in the old city.
COUNTESS ERMESSENDRA - A POWERFUL WOMAN IN HISTORY
One of the best ways to understand a period in history is to examine the real lives of real people who lived during that time. Silvia explained to us that she and other historians revive these lives by looking at documents - or primary sources - from history. Letters, legal forms, and even store inventories can help historians paint a portrait of a person or a place.
Silvia's favorite historical figure in Girona's history is Countess Ermessenda of Carcassone, who lived around 1000. She was responsible for the gorgeous cathedral in the center of town. Fun fact: Ermessendra was a common name during the Middle Ages in Catalonia. (Silvia told us she wanted to give the name to her own daughter, but her husband didn't like it. They went with Sophia instead.)
Ermessenda married the heir to the count of Barcelona, as part of a political move by her family. But she became a force to be reckoned with, in her own right. Her husband died long before her, and Ermessenda took over his rule. She was friends with the Pope, which gave her great influence. She wrote to him asking his help to build a cathedral. A cathedral would glorify the Church, and also her power.
The cathedral you see today does not look as it would have during Ermessenda's time. It went through several periods of construction, and the beautiful facade you see today was added only a few centuries ago. But many of the details inside are much older. Including, Ermessenda herself.
Silvia told us it was very rare during the Middle Ages for a woman to have so much influence. But Ermessenda's story is not completely unique. Many women overcame the challenges of their assumed place in society to gain power. But their stories are less known, because historians have traditionally focused on the roles of men. Silvia wants to change that. The key, she says, is in those historical documents.
"It is not true that women are not in the documents," she told us. "The problem is, we don't ask the right questions. We must make the correct questions, and the documents will answer."
- THE ARAB BATHS: This was our first stop! Built in the 12th century, these baths were both for socializing and getting clean! It's like an ancient spa.
- THE CITY WALL: Unquestionably, the best thing to do with kids (or without!) is to walk along the city walls. You can imagine yourself as a soldier, peering through the ancient arrow slits to spy on sieging armies. You'll also stumble upon hidden gardens and climb up guard towers for incredible views. It's free.
- ROCAMBOLESC: If you're traveling in Europe, You've probably already had your fair share of gelato shop stops. But we tell you, this place is a cut above! (And worth the wait, if you're there during high season.) It's created by Jordi Roca, who owns the second best restaurant in the world (also in Girona). The inside looks like Willy Wonka's ice cream shop, and they sell the most delicious treats - including a popsicle in the shape of Jaime Lannister's hand (for the Game of Thrones fans among you - a few memorable scenes were filmed in the old city).
- TURRONS: Turrons are a delicious nougat candy, traditionally given during the winter holidays. We stopped in at Turrones Candela, which has two beautiful sugar-filled shops near the center of town. Our visit was the basis for Lindsay's NPR article on Caga Tio (read it!) and everyone in our family got to try it out for Christmas.
- PLAZA DE INDEPENDENCIA: This large plaza in the center of town has a huge number of eating options. Sit outside and enjoy the sun after your trip into history!
We hope you enjoy Girona as much as we have loved learning about it!