14 Sep Hidden gems on Girona’s left bank
The city of Girona, a 38-minute train journey north of Barcelona, is full of hidden gems. Much smaller than Barcelona, Girona is a doable size for a weekend; with plenty of good food (my favourite was Restaurant Maran), cobbled streets, medieval buildings and pedestrian bridges across the river Onyar, as well as a 12th-century cathedral.
I spent three nights at the Hotel Nord 1901 this September. I went on day excursions to 2 Michelin-starred Restaurant Les Cols in Olot, and to Cadaqués, Port Lligat and the Cap de Creus, on the Costa Brava, one of my favourite regions of the Mediterranean.
Girona – food & wine galore
My journey started in the summer, with an invitation from luxury travel blogger Mrs O Around the World to a lunch hosted by the Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava Girona in a film studio near London’s Primrose Hill. The chef was Quim Casellas of Casamar, in the Costa Brava town of Llafranc. And what a spectacle and culinary experience!
Casamar is one of 14 Michelin-starred restaurants in the province of Girona. The best known is three-Michelin starred El Celler de Can Roca, ranked twice as the world’s top restaurant. Mention must also be made of elBulli, which closed in 2011 after ranking five times as the world’s No 1 eating experience, and which is now a foundation.
These stars reflect Girona’s rich variety and quality of local produce; from the mountains that stretch to the Pyrenees, to the verdant plains of the Empordà and the coastline of the Mediterranean.
So it was that a few months later, I found myself in Girona, invited by the Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava Girona. I set my own agenda, with a few welcome deviations added by the Patronat. So here are my suggestions…
River Onyar – Girona
I have divided Girona into the right and left bank of the River Onyar. For the left bank, I’ve included the area that stretches from the Plaça de la Independència to the north and the city’s main food market, Mercat del Lleó, to the south.
For this blog post, I am focussing on the left bank… the Girona created in the 19th century, when the city tore down its walls to expand westward.
My next blog post will cover medieval Girona, on the right bank, under the shadow of the Cathedral.
Hotel Nord 1901 – Girona
My hotel, the Hotel Nord 1901, was everything I wanted, and more. It was quiet yet I did not feel alone. The decor was soothing yet ‘designed’. The rooms spacious yet homely. And the location? What more could I ask for! … On the edge of the pedestrianised old town, walking distance from everywhere I wanted to go (including the train station) and within easy reach of a car park.
The ultimate luxury was the swimming pool in the garden. Often I was not in the pool till 9pm, all alone, with no one else. That stretch, that movement, the sound of the water and the rhythmic breathing helped to reset my compass at the end of each busy day of walking, travelling, eating and drinking.
Eiffel Bridge in Girona
Leaving the hotel, I turned right and then left to arrive in under five minutes at the pedestrian Bridge of the Old Fish Shops, or the Pont de les Peixateries Velles. Sounds so much better in Catalan! The bridge’s other name is the Eiffel Bridge, given that it was built by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
Leaving the hotel, I turned left and then crossing the road to come to Restaurant Maran in under five minutes. This was my nighttime regular… after my 9pm swim (people eat late here). I find out via Raisin: the Natural Wine App.
Juanjo Marqués and Ferran Ansesa both worked at El Celler de Can Roca. That is why Girona is so good for restaurants as culinary fledglings gain experience with Michelin-starred chefs and then open their own place in town.
Restaurant Maran was never busy, but it felt like home; natural wine, good food, stylish surroundings and good company, including with the two owners of Le Baratin bistro in Paris, old friends of Maran’s who were in town that week.
Patatas bravas at Maran
At Maran, I ate the best patatas bravas ever, ever! (As in the featured image.) Patatas bravas is the ultimate comfort food. Like humous, everyone adds their secret, personal touch. I don’t know how Juanjo and Ferran made their patatas bravas. Usually the sauce is a take on aioli, the garlicky mayonnaise that I also had in Antibes, together with paprika and chilli.
My first night, I ate my patatas bravas with a glass of Pagos de Nona Sant Yuste ‘El Vallejo’ from the Bierzo region, up on the border with Galicia. Made from 100% Verdejo grapes, natural yeasts and no sulphites.
Casa Moner – buckwheat bread
For breakfast, my go-to spot was Casa Moner, even though the service is so-so. My favourite breakfast was coffee with a Xuixo, a speciality from Girona -a deep-fried, sugar-coated cylindrical pastry (like a doughnut) filled with crema catalana (the Catalan version of creme brulée).
I also bought bread from Casa Moner made from buckwheat – fajol in Catalan – to take home, as a memory of Girona and of Restaurant Les Cols, where their symbol is the humble buckwheat.
Girona Food Tours – the Market
The last time I went on a group tour was in Peru, in 2016, walking the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu. I’m naturally independent and my mind wanders easily, so I usually stay clear of group tours.
In Girona I went on a food tour with Girona Food Tours, as suggested by the Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava Girona. What a great idea! Food is the easiest and, for me, the most exciting way to learn about a culture. On the tour with me was a family from California who had just arrived in town and had rented an apartment – now they had all their shopping tips under their belt!
Patricia our guide was amazing. Among the many places she took us to was the Lleó market, where I came across the same goat’s cheese that I had found at Restaurant Les Cols, Mas Farró, from the Bianya Valley, where Restaurant Les Cols has its kitchen garden.
We also tried, across the city, local specialities such as cava (the sparkling wine from a bit further south in Catalonia), olive oil, butifarra (type of sausage) and bacalao (the salted cod), and many more, as well as eating breakfast and lunch, and learning lots about the history – modern and old.
Rocambolesc Ice Cream
Rocambolesc is the invention and fantasy of Jordi Roca, pastry chef of El Celler de Can Roca and the youngest of the three Roca brothers. I first came across this ice-cream shop in Barcelona last November. [UPDATE January 2020, for all chocolate lovers: Jordi Roca is due to open Casa Cacao Girona – a boutique hotel & chocolate maker. It will be all about chocolate!]
Jordi’s initial idea behind Rocambolesc was to use the idea of the traditional desserts’ trolley in restaurants – now a dying breed – to sell ice cream in the streets of Girona… instead he opened a store.
Enter Rocambolesc, and enter a graphic world of fantasy, fun and colour. It brings out the child in everyone – which meant I never got a decent photo.
I ordered the Rocambolesc speciality – ice cream served in a brioche bun, like in Asia and also in Sicily. I had frozen yoghurt with toppings of violet and strawberry.
The milk was from Ripollès sheep, the same local breed of sheep that I had seen in the vegetable garden of Restaurant Les Cols.
Another Rocambolesc speciality is the lolly… one of which is the (almost) naked man. I will leave it at that… until my next post on the medieval corner of Girona, on the right bank.
You may be interested in other blog posts from my trip to Girona this September…
Girona, and the medieval right bank, where I met lots of cyclists.
A visit to Cadaques on the Costa Brava, including Dali’s house at Port Lligat and Cap de Creus.