Here is a tip if you face an acute what-to-do-with-the kids emergency in Barcelona
If you are visiting the Catalan capital with teenage kids in tow who have become ever so slightly rebellious after three days of art nouveau, hallucinogenic architecture and the musty smell of museum corridors, take them to Girona (it’s a little more than 30 minutes away by high-speed train) and straight to the Great Wall of Catalonia.
This is not just a wall: it is a complex of walkways and hidden gardens, chapels, towers, stairways and bridges, a truly magical place, part medieval maze, part Indiana Jones and the Wall of Doom.
It is also enclosed by lush Amazonian greenery that emphasizes its surreal beauty, …
… and at the end, you can even get a little taster of the surrounding countryside. With all of this, it makes for a perfect contrast to the hustle and bustle of Barcelona.
Where is the Great Wall of Catalonia in Girona?
Turn left out of Girona station (the street is called Carrer Barcelona) and right into Av. Alvarez de Castro, continuing straight (through a couple of the street’s name changes) until you reach Placa de Catalunya.
Turn left here and cross the Onyar River on the Pont de Pedra. You are now entering downtown Girona. You should leave all that for later, however, although you want to cast a glimpse leftward across the river towards the colourful Cases de d’Onyar, the city’s most famous view. (Girona has its own brand of architectural modernism, mainly the work of a local boy called Rafael Maso, some sort of a Catalan William Morris.)
Turn left behind the bridge and eventually, once you reach the Old Town, right up the hill towards Girona University. Just take any stairway on your right hand side that leads you up the hill – and don’t worry: it is really, really hard to miss the wall, because the entire Old Town is surrounded by it.
The entire wall is walkable, but there are not all that many stairs that take you up to the walkway, and they are not always easy to find.
The closest stairway to the Old Town is just behind the Torre Gironella, in the back of the Jardins des Alemanys. If you stand on the top of the Gironella and face Girona, everything on your left is part of the medieval reinforcements that were built after the city had grown in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The walkway on your right belongs to one of Europe’s most complex surviving Carolingian structures, meaning it dates back to the times of Charlemagne.
This part of the wall was constructed in the 9th century, when the intriguingly named Wilfred the Hairy decided to turn Girona into an impregnable Christian fortress (before that, the town had changed hands several times between Franks and Moors). The very first bits of the wall system – near the Cathedral – are even older than that, going back to Roman times.
But it is the Carolingian section which is the most interesting and rewarding part of the structure. It is not overloaded with information panels, so you can let your imagination run riot who or what may have been locked behind these iron bars – and what grotesque medieval rites may have been performed in this dungeon or that. The less you know about actual Carolingian history, the more fun this will be.
At the end of the walkway, near Sant Pere Church, you can turn right towards the Monestir de Sant Daniel for a taste of the local landscape.
The abbey is about a 30 minute walk away from the church, but if you want, you can continue on the same quiet country road in the direction of the 15th century Castell de Sant Miquel. This walk is another 4 km long, but don’t forget that you will have to come back the same way.
Alternatively, walk back to the Old Town. The Arab Baths and the Cathedral are just two of many interesting sites.
All in all, Girona has more than enough to keep you entertained for the rest of the afternoon.
If you feel a bit peckish, we recommend a pleasant and somewhat student-ish restaurant called Le Bistrot on a picturesque Old Town stairway (called Pujada de Sant Domenec).
Or go to Placa de la Independencia, on the other side of the river, for a wider choice of eateries.
Do not forget that people in Spain eat late, not only for dinner but also for lunch, which means that you can still get something to eat at a time when everything in near-by France would already have closed for the afternoon.
Girona is easily reached by high-speed (AVE) trains from Barcelona. Trains leave from Barcelona’s Sants station roughly once every 2 hours, take approx. 40 minutes and are not terribly expensive (€ 25 p.p. roundtrip).
Overall, Montserrat remains the best day trip option if you are in Barcelona, but only if you are willing to put in a bit of serious walking. If it’s a stroll you are looking for (and have teenage kids to entertain), then Girona is the better choice.