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Surprising Girona

I knew nothing about Girona. I didn’t even know it existed, even though it’s the capital city of the Costa Brava, Europe’s oldest beach resort.
But after getting up at 3:00 a.m., flying to France, spending an intense day in fabulous La Cité de Carcassonne, finding a bed in a big city suddenly seemed too much. So when the Barcelona train stopped in Girona, I hopped off on an impulse. I’m glad I did.

After a quick look at an information board, I happily discovered Girona had a medieval old town, Barri Vell, complete with surrounding walls. After Carcassonne, I just couldn’t get enough of mysterious medieval cities. On the way to Barri Vell, La Rambla tempted with plenty of life and laughter from many outdoor cafes. But I needed a place to crash. A friendly man said I could go to the right for a hostel or to the left for a choice of up-market hotels. Oddly, my feet went to the left, all by themselves, ending in the Hotel Historic. It turned out to be a costly decision, to the tune of 100 euros. But it was late and they were tired feet so must be excused.

Hotel Historic's cheapest option - an apartment - was huge; large enough for a good-sized family. After walking restlessly from room to room, trying to decide where to park my little rucksack, I got so lonely in the enormous space, I requested a change to the more expensive option - a room. Much nicer. And with a shower worthy of a special mention. Firstly, it was so large, two people could easily have a lie down and really stretch out. Secondly, it had so many shower options, it took me forever to figure out how to use it. One shower head was high enough up to accomodate the world’s tallest man, in the middle, one had various massage options and further down, four smaller ones were mounted at slanting angles. I tried to work it so all settings would set off simultaneously, but I think you might need a PhD for that.

Playing with the showers amused me for a good half hour. After that, I was much too tired to go out, so instead decided on red wine and peanuts from the minibar, always a winner. Working on my Carcassonne story, I noticed South Park was on TV, dubbed in German. How’s that for a global village - a Scandinavian writer in Catalonia, a stone’s throw from the French border, writing in English while watching German-dubbed Spanish television. That whole thing involves six languages!

The next morning, September arrived and summer was officially over. In the early hours, the sun barely glanced over the rooftops and the air was nippy. Leaving the Historic, the sound of church bells pointed me to the imposing Catedral de Girona. An open door on one side attracted me with its warm light but a sign on the door said access was for religious purposes only. Could my visit be deemed religious? I was awed by the sheer size and physical presence of the cathedral. That’s slightly religious, isn’t it?

Peeking in, a vast silent nave of sombre, grey stone met my eyes; the widest Gothic nave in the world, I was later to learn. Not a soul was in sight, but the sound of deep voices chanting in the distance drew me in. Crossing the nave towards the sound, I noticed a priest and an elderly couple in a smaller room. Close up, the voice of the priest resonated and seemed to come from everywhere, in an eerie voice of God-effect.

Back in the nave, a sign pointed to the treasury. Now, I don’t know if this is true of the one in Catedral de Girona, but these treasures were often amassed by violent and criminal means, in complete disregard for human rights. So the least I could do was not ogle the objects. Leaving through the main entrance, an arrow pointed to another door for cultural visits. Oops! I went over to confess my sin, pay a fee or whatever but no one answered.

Meandering down the narrow Carrer Bonaventura Carreras i Peralta, with the street to myself, I decided Barri Vell deserved more time for exploration. Narrow alleys and medieval stairs appeared around every corner. As did Portal del Colleccionista, an antiquarian bookshop. The smell of dusty library shelves has a magnetic effect on me. I was thrilled to see old books and manuscripts everywhere. The proprietor, Señor Cortés Lopéz, was happy to chat and let me photograph his wonderful shop. He dug out books in Russian, English, French, Spanish and Catalan. Holding a leather-bound parchment manuscript from 1792 was like transgressing the boundaries of time.

Cortés Lopéz said a majority of visitors to his shop were Russian. We briefly discussed whether Russians were more well-read than others. Much great literature has emanated from Mother Russia. During the oppressive years of communism, the Russians were at least spared mind-numbing television programming. Books were what counted. Have the Russians held on to that noble tradition?

Further along, I stumbled upon the hostel, Cerveri de Girona. It had a bright and airy reception area and was much livelier than my chic hotel. I regretted not having chosen it last night, both for the price (15 euros) and for computer access.

Breakfast was at Xocolateria Antiga, mostly because chocolate spelled with an x so fascinated me. It was a sweet little café. My croissant was sugar-glazed, my orange juice sweetened and the house special — hot chocolate Catalan-style — was strong, thick and super-sweet. To top if all off, a sachet of sugar was provided.

Girona was awakening; the tables filling up with people enjoying their morning xocolatas. Next to me, three generations of local women, perhaps 60, 35 and 11, were dressed in bright turquoises, oranges and pinks. Chatting in animated Catalan and gesticulating wildly, the two older puffed energetically on long, slim cigarettes. It could have been the set of a Pedro Almodovar drama - women driving each other to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

As intriguing as this early morning look at Girona was, it was time to move on, in search of some protein and the Barcelona train.

Girona and environs have much more on offer, of course. The Costa Brava beaches are a quick bus trip away. The restaurant Le Bistrot, halfway up a medieval flight of steps in the old city, comes highly recommended, as does Fontana d'Or Cultural Centre. If you're the lazy sort, you can do a city tour on a Segway.

Those of you from Nashville, Tennessee, may be interested to know Girona is about to become your twin city, pending agreement. (That was in 2006; surely they must have agreed by now.)