When I visited the gorgeous city of Girona just north of Barcelona two Junes ago, I came into town expecting to stay just two nights before returning back to BCN and from there to Santiago. No, this isn’t one of those cliché “I just had to extend my stay!” posts—I literally thought I had only booked two nights in my hostel…but come to find out, I had actually booked (and pre-paid for) three!
Another happy surprise was that my (now-longer-than-expected) time in Girona overlapped with the biweekly (twice-weekly?) open-air market, as I found out while reading the hostel’s bulletin board. What better way to spend a Tuesday than by taking in the sights and smells of the building blocks of the local cuisine? It was a literal walk in the park to get to this market as they had moved the stalls that typically line the banks of the Ter River into a sprawling wooded park for the summer.
The handsome city of Girona in far northeastern Spain had long been on my to-visit list, becoming irresistible after a series of sensational blog posts and Instagram photos from friends I follow came across my feed.
You might think that Girona (pronounced “zhee-ROE-nuh” [ʒiˈɾo.nə]) would be totally overshadowed by its neighbor Barcelona to the south, but sitting a 40-minute train ride away lets this provincial capital carve out its own unique character and feel. And that personality is 100% Catalan, making Girona a perfect place to experience what makes the northeastern region of Catalunya so special.
As part of my final trip around Spain before moving back home, I spent three nights in this fabulous city and got more deeply acquainted with what makes Catalan culture unique than I would have otherwise as a tourist in Barcelona.
I had a couple of bad first impressions of Barcelona that almost made me want to conclude the city was one big, loud, tourist theme park.
To kick off my flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants trip around France in 2012, I took the trenhotel from southern Spain to Barcelona and spent a layover in the Catalan capital, intending to take a second night train to Paris that evening. I checked off all the main sights in the old town: the cathedral, the Boqueria market, Santa María del Mar, the historical museum, the Picasso museum, even a rediscovered synagogue. However, due to a combination of poorly-announced commuter train delays and poor planning on my part, I missed the night train to Paris by five minutes. Fortunately I was able to get a spot on the high-speed TGV leaving that morning and find a bed at a seven-euro hostel nearby…ah, the glory days.
I returned to Barcelona a couple months later to attend a concert by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós on the top of Montjuïc hill. This weekend trip was all about the arts: in addition to music, I appreciated art at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the Joan Miró museum, and I also checked off all seven of Antoni Gaudí’s scintillating buildings in Barcelona. But in between rushing from one museum to another Gaudí house, something felt…lacking.
That winter I was back in Barcelona for a layover, this time on my way to Italy. But I arrived in the evening and had to get up at 4am to catch the airport bus, so my only memories of this trip involve threading a path through the disorienting hellhole that is the Sants train station and wading through all the traffic and tourists in Plaça de Catalunya.
It wasn’t until June of 2015 that I realized Barcelona wasn’t so bad after all, but not for the reasons that most folks visit the city in droves. The neighborhood of Gràcia, far to the north of the touristy core, totally changed how I felt about Barcelona.