The airport transport bus arrived shortly after midday and took about twenty minutes to negotiate the busy roads into the centre of Girona and drop us off at the railway station where the early afternoon temperature was nudging its way towards forty degrees centigrade.
Having been once before I thought I would remember my way around but I was completely mistaken and had to ask for directions several times before I was confident of the route towards the river and the centre of the city.
For several weeks my friend Dai Woosnam had been insisting that I read a favourite book of his called ‘Albany Park’ by the author Patrice Chaplin (Chaplin interestingly because she was married Charlie’s son, Michael) which is an autobiographical story of life in Girona in the late 1950s (actually it is much more than that but it seemed right to read it because I was visiting the city) so I started it before I travelled and finished it appropriately in the very city where the story is set.
Writing about a visit to the coast Patrice wrote: “We waded out at the edge of the sea to a fishing village and it was so lovely we promised to go back and stay. When I did go there, ten years later it was unrecognisable. Only the name remained of what was once so exquisite” and she could probably just as easily been writing about Girona because here in the commercial part of the city the roads were busy, people were rushing and the shops were brash but as we approached the river Onyar and the characteristic Jewish quarter I like to think that we came across something timeless and also something that she would certainly be able to recall.
It is a very good book and just like Dai I recommend everyone to read it.
At the first bridge we stopped like everyone else to take pictures of the coloured houses with precarious balconies with rusty iron railings carelessly leaning out over the lazy river, shallow, fringed with reeds and with huge carp prowling the bottom searching for food and as I surveyed the scene I remembered this piece of pointless advice from a tourist guide that I had read: “…don’t attempt to jump in to the Onyar River from any of the bridges across it. In addition to being difficult to get back out of, the water simply isn’t deep enough for the height and you will sustain any number of grievous injuries upon landing.”
So resisting the temptation to dive in to cool down in we walked on into the narrow streets of the old town looking for some shade instead.
The old town is packed onto a hillside alongside the river, which is spanned by a series of bridges that lead to the shopping area. We started along the pedestrianised shopping street of Carrer Argenteria then up the narrow, cobbled Carrer de la Força, which, it’s hard to believe was once part of the Via Augusta, the road that led across Spain from Rome, and from the tenth to the end of the fifteenth century was the main street of one of Europe’s most important Jewish quarters.
Climbing all the time we stopped frequently and took frequent and sometimes pointless diversions into side streets and blind alleys, up steep steps and along difficult cobbled passageways. We were grateful for the shade and I searched all the time for the Girona of Patrice Chaplin and in this labyrinth of lanes like a spider’s web I was almost certain that we were somewhere close.
Eventually and inevitably we arrived in the square in front of Santa Maria Cathedral whose Baroque façade conceals an austere Gothic interior that was built around a previous Romanesque church, of which the cloisters and a single tower remain. We found the energy to climb the steps from the square to the Cathedral but once there Kim declined the opportunity to go inside and left me to visit the interior of the building alone and see the World’s widest Gothic nave and the second widest overall after St. Peter’s in Rome.
To a certain extent I understand Kim’s opinion that one Cathedral is very much like any other and I wouldn’t be able to argue with that point of view and cite Girona as an example that she is mistaken but I enjoyed the walk around the chapels and the cloister and the museum which took about thirty minutes before I was back in the searing heat of the afternoon sunshine and it was time for a short break and an Estrella so we walked back towards the river paying attention to restaurant menus as we went because we planned to eat later and then found a little bar with pavement tables in the shade and we stopped for a rest.