Team Select's marketeer Amy recently enjoyed a stay in Girona with her archaeologist boyfriend Ruben, who originally comes from near the city, so she was able to learn more about the local secrets, and really discover a lot of the history the city and surrounding region has to offer. Read Amy's review to find out what you can discover in the surrounding region if staying in Girona for an extended city break.

If staying for a long weekend, there’s also a lot more to discover in the surrounding region, whether it’s archaeological ruins, the coast, quaint, medieval villages, or forested mountains and castles. If you’re keen to head out beyond the city walls (so to speak) on perhaps multiple trips, hiring a car would give you the freedom and flexibility to explore further, rather than being reliant on the timetables of public transportation.

charming, historic villages

Ruben’s family live in Celrà, a small village just ten minutes’ drive from Girona. The local authorities are currently building a cycle path which will connect Girona and Celrà along an alternative route away from the highway which, at least in part (from what I could see) follows along the river Ter (Girona’s second river), offering a different way to travel between the two. For those keen on cycling, or perhaps a nice stroll along a river, this could be a leisurely alternative route. Although the village has seen great expansion since his childhood thanks to the construction boom of the late 90s and 00s, at its heart, Celrà’s medieval origins can still be traced, and are easily recognisable by the sudden narrowing of pathways. The medieval part of the village is both very charming and very typical of this part of Catalonia, north of Barcelona and the river Llobregat. Known as Catalunya Vella (‘Old Catalonia’) because the villages in this area were the first to be conquered by the Franks as they made their way south from the Pyrenees, the region experienced constant outbreaks of violence particularly during the 9th and 10th centuries between competing feudal lords. To curb this problem, the church’s solution was to institute the ‘assemblies of truce and peace’, which promoted a sacred area (or sagrera) in which the nobles could not kill anybody, or they’d be excommunicated. This saw the rise of villages revolving around a church in Catalunya Vella. However, by the time the regions south of Barcelona and the river Llobregat were conquered from Umayyad Islamic rule (such as modern-day Tarragona and Leida), feudalism as a system had been consolidated, but the frontiers remained fluid, which meant that the threat of violence wasn’t so much from the feudal lords, but from outsiders, giving rise to villages in the later conquered lands (Catalunya Nova, or New Catalonia) revolving around defensive buildings such as fortresses or castles instead.

Celrà is a classic example of a medieval village centred around the sagrera, where narrow, cobbled streets wind closely around the church and its public square, although the church standing in Celrà today was renovated in the late 18th or early 19th century, showcasing a more neoclassical façade. Opposite the church is an information board explaining Celrà’s pivotal role in the 15th century Catalan Wars of the Remences, a popular revolt against feudalistic customs which saw peasants increasingly onerously tied to the land, similar to the Peasants’ Revolt in England a century earlier.

During our visit, there were a series of weekly live concerts taking place (for free) outside the Civic Centre, which is part of La Fàbrica, a complex comprising the Village Hall, Civic Centre, swimming pools, public library, a brand new chill out terrace, a multi-purpose sports centre (which, in turns, also has other additional purposes, including a venue for parties, shows, and communal meals), and second-hand books store. In many ways, this is the heart of the modern village, and it’s watched over by the looming brick chimney that was once part of the original leather tanning factory that originally stood at the site of the complex.

As a typical medieval village, Celrà may have been centred around a church, but there are several castles that can be explored in the surrounding area, some of which are within walking or hiking distance along narrow, country lanes. Similar medieval villages, such as neighbouring Bordils, Juià, and Sant Marti Vell, dot the surrounding landscapes, watched over by forested mountains, including the Pyrenes in the distance; the border to France is only about an hour or so away. For those keen on outdoor exploration, whether on foot or by bike, the area near Girona offers plenty of woody, mountainous opportunities (for me, that will be for another time, and something to look forward to, although definitely not on bike as I am not great on two wheels).

We also visited the quaint medieval hilltop village of Pals, which overlooks the Platja de Pals on the Costa Brava. It’s nearby the popular Can Padrès 2 restaurant, an institution for locals that would probably be overlooked by most tourists, but it does offer an authentic tasting of the seemingly universally loved Spanish-style chicken (and chips, although I opted for Catalan bread as my side, because I figured I can have chips at home). It seemed everyone goes there to order its famous quarter or half chicken! And as the chicken is deliciously tender and flavourful, with wonderful crispy skin, it’s not hard to see why this is such a popular dish. Like its namesake, the original Can Padrès restaurant a little down the road, Can Padrès 2 is exceptionally popular with many locals making a weekly pilgrimage to the restaurant before or after spending time at the beach nearby, so it’s often wise to arrive early.

The coast

I’m not personally a beachy person, so we didn’t plan on spending much time along the coast as such, although the Costa Brava is a popular stretch of coastline lined with beaches and nearby villages, many of which can easily be visited from Girona, some by train or bus. Lloret de Mar made a bit of a name for itself back in the 70s, which could be why it seemed to be one of my mum’s first responses to Girona, and it’s only 25 miles south of the city. A little closer to Girona, you’ll find Platja d’Aro further along the coastline. Originally a small fishing village, Platja d’Aro is now a major coastal resort, its palm-tree lined boulevards and chic apartments and hotels today no doubt unrecognisable from the humble fishing village of just a few decades ago. We went for a stroll here one night after dinner in a nearby coastal village, and found a cosmopolitan, vibrant town with a very different vibe to the rich, historic charms of elsewhere we’d visited. Platja d’Aro seems to be much younger and hipper, and this summer, there seems to be a series of jazz concerts held on the beach, which seemed to be popular.

Iberian ruins

A far cry, then, from the places we visited the following day, where we delved deeper into history than Girona’s medieval Old Town and Cathedral. Spain is an absolute treasure trove of archaeological ruins, and Girona and its surrounding area is no exception. Our time travel took us first to the Iron Age settlement at Ullastret, about half an hour’s drive from Girona. It is far more convenient to go by car to Ullastret; there are no direct connections by public transport, but you can take a train to Flaçà, and from there take a taxi, which would cost roughly between £25-30 in total. The Indigetes were an ancient Iberian tribe who settled on a hilltop above the Baix Empordà valley from the 5thcentury BC, creating a sophisticated settlement with advanced defensive features. As Ruben explained how effective and strong the defense features would’ve been, I was astounded to hear how the Iberians simply offered no resistance when the Romans arrived centuries later, around the 2nd century BC. Over 930m of wall remain today, with the most complex section on the west side (the first visitors come across upon arrival), as this was the most vulnerable part of the city. The wall was reinforced with towers, particularly on the western side, which were spaced out at approximately 28m from each other, with another tower at the wall’s most northern point, and an observation tower to the south of the city. Excavations have so far found nine gates to the interior, some of which were found filled in, showing that those gates were no longer in use at the end of their existence. Excavations began in 1948, and the walled hill-fort settlement is one of the largest and most significant Iberian finds in Catalonia, and is considered to be a true city, complete with a temple area built in the upper part of the city imitative of Greek city planning to overlook the city, and houses, most of which would’ve been one storey and containing two rooms, with one much grander exception, where a large aristocratic dwelling was discovered built around a large central patio. With Ullastret built on a hill, the settlers adapted to the irregular landscape by using stepped terraces to allow for more rational distribution of space. An audio guide helpfully took visitors around the site with an interesting question-and-answer format with an archaeologist, which was a refreshing and interactive way to present the information. Of course, I had my own archaeologist with me, who was also able to chip in with fascinating nuggets of information. The ruins of the site are impressive in their own right, but it’s also an interesting example of how archaeological excavations impact how we read the past. To my untrained eyes, the overground silos and underground pits which would’ve contained grain appeared contemporaneous to each other, but when excavations began in the mid-20th century, vertical archaeology was very much standard practice, which ruined the actual stratification of the site. In reality, people in the past were great recyclers and re-users; instead of completely obliterating any previous building structures to build something new, they would build on top of what was there before. This nuance is missed with vertical archaeology, as the archaeologists continued to excavate ever downwards without carefully recording each layer of time, losing context, effectively blurring and merging multiple periods of time into one.

The ruins also boast a spectacular setting, surrounded by stunning vistas of farmlands in the Baix Empordà valley below, and the Montgrí Massif brooding on the horizon. An onsite museum houses some of the most intriguing and important finds from the site (and some from nearby, including the Iron Age Iberian village of Illa d’en Reixac less than a mile away, and the Puig de Sere necropolis about a mile away), including impressive examples of pottery and vases, including Greek pottery from the nearby Greek trading post of Empúries, tools, and even some examples of the mysterious Iberian written language, which has yet to be completely deciphered. Perhaps the most memorable finds housed in the Museum were the skulls, especially those pierced by an iron nail, used to display the decapitated head of a vanquished enemy on a façade, porch or courtyard as a war trophy, along with their weapons.

greek ruins

After Ullastret, we headed to the coast to nearby Empúries. The sea and beach looked inviting stretching out below as we walked along a footpath to the nearby medieval village of Sant Martí d’Empúries, where we arrived at a square lined with several bustling restaurants on one side facing opposite a Romanesque church. Outside the church, a jazz trio were giving a lunchtime performance, adding to the relaxed atmosphere as we tucked into our lunch. After a quick exploration of the Medieval village, we headed to the nearby archaeological ruins, just a kilometre or so away. At a similar time to the Iberian settlement in Ullastret, Greek colonists from Phocaea – an ancient Ionian Greek city on Anatolia’s western coast – founded a trading post here in 575BC, calling the settlement ‘Emporion’, literally ‘trading post’. It’s a unique archaeological site in Iberia; Empúries and Roses (also in Girona) appear to be the only confirmed Greek trading colonies in the Iberian Peninsula, but with the site of Roses largely situated under an 18th century fort, Empúries is the only site to have been extensively excavated. With excavations on the site of the Greek settlement starting in the early 20th century, the site we see today shares some of the problems with narrative as Ullastret, thanks yet again to the prominence of vertical archaeology as a methodology. That’s not to say that the ruins we can see and admire are no less impressive. On the site, we can admire Serapieion, a sanctuary built in the 1st century BC dedicated to Isis and Serapis, Egyptian divinities linked to medicine and health. The sanctuary is a fascinating example in its own right of the mingling and interchangeable nature of ancient divinities, imported across different regions (in this case seemingly by a trader from Alexandria called Noumas), but a century earlier the site had been a previously porticoed space that’s been identified as a reception centre for the sick visiting the sanctuary of Asklepiosor as a gymnasium – another example of the ancients reduce, reuse and recycling! Much of the Greek site that can be seen and admired today dates back to the 2nd century BC: there’s the Peristyle Domus – a particularly grand house built in a classic Greek style around an open central courtyard, which the main areas of the house opened onto, surrounded by colonnaded porticoes – the Macellum, a small market with a large public tank for the city’s water supply in its centre, and the agora or main public square, dominated by the 52m long, 14m wide stoa (covered walkway or portico) on its north side. The stoa was entered through an open front with steps, leading to a monumental portico formed by a double row of 12 columns, and numerous rooms for trading and civic celebrations. Below ground level, four large vaulted cisterns were used to collect rainwater channelled down from the roofs. These different sites represent Emporion’s significant urban renewal during this period, stimulated by a period of prosperity thanks to particularly intense trade and the Roman military presence in the area. They’re all extraordinary ruins, as are the ancient salting factories (where preserves and sauces for fish were prepared), and Serapieion, but there’s something misleading here. They were not contemporaries, but vertical archaeology has excavated and presented them in such a way as if to suggest a single moment frozen in time, much like the overground silos and underground pits of Ullastret. The salting rooms were much later, dating back to the 1st century AD, when this part of the city had shrunk in importance, and was a secondary, port district of the Roman city of Emporiae.

The problematic aspects of vertical archaeology aside, the Greek site remains impressive, and boasts spectacular views of the sea (this exposed coastal position later led to the city being abandoned in the Early Middle Ages due to the threat of marauders, although they simply moved along the coastline to Sant Martí d’Empúries, where we had lunch). We can still envision a bustling trading town, and close to the museum, we can admire a Greek mosaic. A replica of a statue of Aesclepius, son of Apollo and the Greek god of medicine in his own right, catches the eye as he watches over the city. The museum itself houses many of the intriguing and significant finds from the site; tools, coins, pottery, jewellery, mosaics, and even fully articulated clay dolls. Many of these finds are well-preserved, but the piece-de-resistance of the museum is the original statue of Aesclepius.

roman ruins

While the 2nd century BC was something of a golden era for the Greek trading post, it also saw the start of the Punic Wars between the Romans and Carthaginians. Empúries allied itself with Rome, and it was from here that Publius Cornelius Scipio initiated the conquest of Hispania in 218BC, after the iconic Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Gaul from Iberia. Once the Romans conquered Hispania, Empúries remained an independent city-state until it sided with Pompey during the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Having picked the losing side, Empúries was stripped of its autonomy and relegated to being a colony.

The Romans created their city a little uphill from the original Greek trading post, and it was much larger, although to date only about 20% of the Roman site has been excavated. Excavations on the Roman site didn’t start until several decades after the Greek site began, and has benefitted from a more horizontal archaeological approach, and possibly also non-intrusive surveying techniques. There’s far more of the Roman site to explore than we did, as we were getting a little pressed for time by this point, but there were fabulous Roman mosaics belonging to a particularly important house (although only visible in spring and summer) and public baths to admire, and in the distance, we could see the Roman forum, which sometimes holds concerts or plays (including the band Texas, as part of their current tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of their debut album, Southside).

Despite the brevity of my visit, we were able to experience a lot that Girona and its surrounding area had to offer, and yet it was still only the tip of the iceberg (no hikes in the mountains or visits to medieval castles on the agenda this time around, for example). I was absolutely blown away by how beautiful the area is, both in terms of its natural landscapes, and the history and architecture. For too long, Girona has been overshadowed by Barcelona, and it is deserving of greater care, attention, and appreciation, particularly for those with a discerning interest in history and culture. For those keen on experiencing authentic Spain (or, to be more specific, authentic Catalonia), visiting Girona and its surrounding area offers just such an opportunity.

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