Travels in Spain before Covid: Barcelona and Girona Day 13

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November 10th 2020
Published: November 16th 2020
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NOVEMBER 1, 2019

Today we were booked for our move out of our BCNGotic apartment to the Abba Sants Hotel which was included in our upcoming cruise to return home. I called the hotel and asked if we could check in late in the day, they assured me it was no problem. I then checked with BCNGotic who said if we collected our bags before we left for the day, they would store them in their office where we could retrieve them when we returned. So far so good.

Having packed our bags, gobbled down food from the fridge and Teresa’s dessert for breakfast, we were off to the Palau de la Musica to meet our Viator guide Sergio for our Game of Thrones day tour to Girona. We knew the group would be small but were very pleased to see only 6 of us climb into his van for the day long trip (I got the front seat!). Girona is 61 miles north of Barcelona, taking us a little over an hour to get there going north on the Grand Via, park the van and begin our tour.

Dave and I had much anticipated touring this historic medieval city to learn more about its history and to see the sights used in filming the Game of Thrones (GOT). Although Sergio did focus on the GOT, he is an historian which pleased me greatly. The City of Girona was founded by Romans and the Old Town contains some of the best preserved historic architecture in the country. We began by walking the Bridge of St Feliu over the Onyar River with its impressive reflected views. Once over the bridge we entered the historic town through the northern gate where a festival was underway to celebrate All Hallows Day. Market tents were set up and already busy in front of the St. Feliu church.

In the creation of the GOT, Girona was transformed into Old Town in King’s Landing, and the powerful yet dark city of Braavos. We were soon off on foot to identify these locations. Sergio provided background details and photos of many scenes from the movie, each while standing in front of the location as it is now. The transformation was really quite amazing. Sergio also provided a great deal of history about each location which embellished the background references in the movie as well. Art imitates life?

The Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants, one of the most important Catalan Romanesque landmarks of Girona, was built close to the northern wall of Girona, on the left bank of the Galligants river. It dates from the end of the 10th century and in 1131, Ramón Berenguer the Great (who was the count of Barcelona) made an important donation to the cost of the construction work. The church has a basilica with three naves, the middle of which is covered with a barrel vault and the other two with quadrant vaults and has a perfectly symmetrical eight-sided bell tower. The interior of the historic monastery was used as the citadel in Old Town where Samwell Tarly, accompanied by Gilly and little Sam, came to train as a Maester.

It was November 1, All Saints Day and as we began our walk through this historic part of town, the church bells began tolling to mark the celebration. It was hauntingly beautiful and made the history of this city come alive for me.

We began our walk through the labyrinthine cobbled streets that wound through alleys, up narrow staircases, archways and passages in El Call, the Jewish Quarter, or Barrio Judio de Girona, one of the best preserved Jewish Quarters in the world, passing medieval churches and ancient fortresses and their protective walls and towers. It was easy to see why this city was chosen as one of the sites to portray the Game of Thrones story. Girona’s Jewish Quarter is located within the Force Vella or mighty Roman fortress built in the 1st century BC.

We crossed over the old stone bridge and arrived at the Plaza dels Jurats, a festival square at the base of the cathedral, used in outdoor theater scenes in Braavos. “The bridge between the Plaça dels Jurats and the Sant Pere de Galligants Abbey is used as the bridge in Braavos where the waif, masked as an old woman, stabs Arya.” In reality, the bridge itself has no water under it, and the actual scene of Arya in the water was filmed in a harbor in Northern Ireland.

From the Plaza dels Jurats we came to the impressive Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona and proceeded to climb its equally impressive 86 steps to the balcony. The 14-18th century gothic cathedral dedicated to St Mary stands at the summit of the old town on the scenic Cathedral Plaza. The Cathedral replaced a romanesque cathedral of which only the bell tower and cloister now remain. The impressive Baroque staircase rises theatrically from the plaza to the entrance to the church at its summit where, after we made the steep climb we could better see the grand public space below. This cathedral was used for the Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing where Jaime Lannister has a showdown with the High Sparrow. It was also here when Jaime tried to prevent the walk of shame of Queen Margaery.

Leaving the cathedral we went through an archway and climbed the steps up behind the cathedral to find the location where blind Arya Stark was begging on the steps on the shaded Bisbe Cartana street. Nearby, the stairs of St Marti Sacosta church is an another filming location in Girona used for the markets in Braavos. “An injured Arya fleeing from the waif rolls down a flight of stairs and overturns several baskets of oranges.” Dating back to the 17th century, the church is known for its unique carvings on its arch and a well preserved baroque facade.

At the end of our tour I paid 7 Euro to tour the inside of the Girona Cathedral where I was able to see first hand the cathedral’s Gothic style nave which is spectacularly large, in fact at 72 feet, it is the widest of its kind in the world. The impressive retable of Saint Mary Magdalene from the 14th century on the main altar is made of gilded silver and covered with gem stones and enamels depicting scenes from Christ's life. The church is massive inside but so dark and crowded I was unable to get a good photograph, but the cloister and the arched walkways surrounding the open air courtyard had me intrigued and had much better light.

Toward the end of our time in Girona we tried to explore what we could in the little time left to us. That is when I stumbled on the Arab Baths behind the cathedral. There was a small sign indicating the entrance for a cost of 2 Euro. Dave was not interested so I promised to be quick (not easy for me) so inside I went, paid my fee, grabbed a map and began my walk through the labyrinth of rooms. There were four of them, each with a different function, including the ‘fire room’ that heated the baths, a changing room, a small octagonal pool, a sauna and hot and cold rooms. If I only had more time…

The existence of these medieval public baths in Girona dates back to 1194 and had been occupied by Muslims. In the Middle Ages it was used by Christians and also, in a special room, was used as a mikveh, or ritual bath by the city’s Jews. In 1618 the baths were bought by a community of Capuchin nuns who absorbed these baths into their convent. The baths are called “the best preserved Romanesque public baths currently known.” In 1929 the Girona Provincial Council bought the baths and began the restoration until they were opened to the public in 1932. This site was also used in the GOT filming as a place where Arya hid while fleeing from the waif.

We were given an opportunity to explore the commercial Old Town, to do some people watching (Dave’s favorite thing to do), and peek in shops. I went into one touristy shop and bought a cool shirt with the famous Girona fly. Why a fly you might ask? Sergio told us about the legend of St Narcis, patron saint of Girona. Around 1286 the neighboring French had stormed into Girona and were sacking churches and stealing what they could find. When they entered the church of St Felix and opened the tomb of St Narcis, a swarm of stinging flies came out and flew all over the city attacking every single French soldier as they fled the city in terror, thus bringing peace to the city. So of course, a shirt with a fly.

As I have begun to do throughout this trip, I photographed many unique doors in Girona and was told that during the war, residents had removed their beautiful doors to keep them safe from the communists who were bombing this city. Thank goodness because these doors, like many in Spain, are so unique it would be a shame to lose them.

Before leaving Girona, Sergio had instructed us to meet at Independence Square where he had a little treat for us. When we got there we each were given The Bloody Hand, a frozen mango and blood orange sorbet (the blood) covered in gold dust and shaped in the form of Jaime’s hand. As you bit into the ‘hand’ you are reminded of the chopping off of Jaime’s hand in GOT. We were not covered in blood but instead our lips and anything that touched the hand were covered in gold.

Lunch was next on our agenda so we found our van and headed out of Girona to Blanes, located in Catalonia on the north east tip of Spain, about 40 minutes from Girona, reportedly an “attractive old town with a working fishing port. Its centre is attractive with lots of cafes and restaurants, interesting shops and it has nice long seafront boulevards” however, we did not get to see this charming part of Blanes, our restaurant was located in an unattractive industrial center. Because of this I began to be very worried. However, my fears were soon absolved.

Despite the photos of food at the door (a warning to my mind that this place is for tourists only) we went inside and all seven of us, including Sergio, were seated immediately at a long table. (We were the only customers at that time). Smiling waiters hovered, poured water and sangria and began to bring a sampling of tapas. First we were served a slice of excellent fresh bread, a clove of garlic and a small sweet tomato. We were instructed to rub the garlic on the toasted bread, followed by good olive oil, then we rubbed the tomato on the bread. It was topped with a slice of thin Iberico ham on top. I could have eaten that all day and not had anything else! Next we were served patatas bravas with a spicy tomato sauce and an aioli and theirs was the best I’d tasted in Spain. Next we had a deep fried ham and cheese croquet and a mushroom cheese croquet and a small noodle vegetable paella that was mixed with another aioli. (aioli is a Catalan word meaning garlic and oil but Sergio said they now add egg). We followed all of that with a platter to share of grilled zucchini, asparagus and broccoli. Then came the main course! A whole sea bass was presented to each of us that was so sweet and tender with an herb and oil sauce. For dessert…yes we managed…Dave had a small cheesecake, I chose Flan de mato a delicious traditional Catalan dessert much like ricotta cheese. Result: we had an amazing authentic Catalan lunch (included in the tour) at the intimate Cala restaurant.

Blanes, we are told, is known as the "Gateway to the “Costa Brava”. A longtime favorite, the Costa Brava seaside is a resort area known to locals, visitors from Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia. Besides being a resort town it is a favorite among wealthy Catalans who want to escape the city for a private seaside escape. With tightly packed upscale homes perched along a cliff, these expensive seaside residences have amazing views and the protection that residents, reminiscent of those in Santa Barbara, California, might afford.

Sergio had planned to take us up to Balafoos Castle but as we approached the base of the castle high on a mountain we were stopped by a Spanish TV crew who were filming a special about war. We summarily turned around leaving this castle misfortune and drove up to another castle ruin on the mountain of St Joan, where the 13th century Castillo de San Juan, was strategically perched. Once a strategic point for defending the city, it had been an obvious choice for defense (or now a pleasant hike) with its commanding views of the Costa Brava below. Sergio told us that Costa Brava had been a dangerous coast with pirates attacking from Northern Africa, Tunis and Algeria. Mirrors were used for warnings at night followed by a special ringing of bells to warn that the pirates were coming. Over the years these walls have seen hoards of pirates, but nothing so exciting today.

The castle is located in the Punta de Frenals, and dates from the eleventh century. It was listed as a Cultural Site in 1949. The foundations of the main tower, the eastern wall and some remains of the south side are the only thing left of the castle today. From our perch we were able to see several farms with towers from the 16th-17th century still standing. The entire area provided excellent views over Blanes, its long sandy beaches and the bay.

Nearby, the sweet little Chapel of St John the Baptist sits at the base of the lookout tower perched high above the sea with views of the surrounding mountains and the city below. Although it was closed, it provided a beautiful backdrop for the scenery around it. Blanes is best known for its renowned Jardi Botanic Marimurtra botanical gardens but, since Blanes was a side trip on tour of Girona I have found yet another reason to return.

We returned to Barcelona heading south on the coastal road C 32 with nice views of the sea. Occasional white houses populated the hillside, Sergio told us that white regulates the temperature inside the homes. He also said that due to overpopulation wild boar roam the smaller roads and here and even into Barcelona, rutting in garbage. Most of the natural predators like bear and wolves have been killed creating a large problem.

Sergio and I had conversations about Spanish history and culture on the long trip back to Barcelona. He told me about the holiday traditions in this region. Torrones, the excellent fudge-like candy I had bought, is traditionally sold at Christmas (but they now sell it year round for tourists). Children leave torrones and oranges for the camels on Christmas Eve. He told me there is a Catalonian Caga Tio or Tio de Nadal, a traditional “pooping log” a real wood log with a smiling face painted on one end, that is brought out before the Christmas holiday. When you “feed” the log with food scraps the food “disappears” at night. The log is covered with a blanket overnight and on Christmas Day children pray in a separate room, then come back to beat the log w sticks. Under the blanket they find the log “pooped” presents and candy.

Due to the castle mishap we arrived back at the BCNGotic a little later than expected and nearly lost the opportunity to collect our bags. Thankfully some people were still there and called a taxi for us to take us to the other side of the city to our new hotel. I was eternally grateful because with all of our bags and purchases (at this point we were no longer traveling light, knowing that we would be returning on a ship, not a plane), I was less careful holding down the number of my copious collections. Not having to bag drag to more than the curb was a Godsend.

Exhausted from the long day, we checked into the Hotel Abba Sants, Numancia 32, included in our upcoming cruise. I had checked the location on the map and called to ask if they were accessible to any tourist locations because it seemed so out of the way. They assured me it was fine. Not. It is closer to the cruise ships and ugly metro station, not charming and not touristy at all. We were soon to find out that the room was very dirty, there were loud street noises and the breakfast was the worst food we’d had in Spain.

Tired, and still full from that amazing lunch, we looked for a place to grab a bite near our new hotel. We soon found it was not in the best of areas, definitely not touristy, and few restaurants other than the train station around. We settled for Triki-Trac, a tiny diner-like restaurant a short walk from our hotel. The menu was not appealing and the foods on display even less so but it was a place to sit down out of the cold night air. Just to have some food in me I ordered hummus and a plate of Vietnam rolls. How bad could that be? Pretty bad, and there wasn’t an ounce of ambiance to soften the blow. The sublime to the ridiculous… I could still dream of 7 Portes.

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