A Return to Southern Europe: Girona
For cyclists Southern Europe is a mecca. Home to the sport's most famous races and infamous climbs. It is the land of epic views, food and roads. It is also a region I have been fortunate to frequent on a few occasions in recent years. In 2015 we hit Italia in the midst of a record breaking heatwave but the Dolomites boggled the mind all the same. To this day this stands as some of the finest riding I have experienced anywhere in the world. Last year we ventured slightly further North, to the desolate landscape of Ventoux as part of a week long jaunt through Annecy and Provence where the food easily surpassed the Dolomites but the riding fell perhaps ever so slightly short of Italy (it is a high bar to surpass).
In the early months of 2017, fresh off a memorable adventure through Medellin, Colombia, we found a free week in our schedule and with just a few weeks notice we decided to head back to Southern Europe with a jaunt through Spain and France. Girona - site of our first bike based vacation many years prior - would be the launching point of a trip that proved to be easily on par with our prior adventures as we made our way to Nimes, France before winding the trip down in our second love of a city, Barcelona.
Without further ado, a recap of our journey through Southern Europe in three parts:
Back To Girona
A half decade ago when I had an indescribably short break between two jobs Lisa and I landed in Girona for a week of riding purely on the basis of our the best bang for our frequent flier mile bucks. We were vaguely aware that Girona was an epicenter of World Tour riders but our pre-trip planning was lackluster at best and as our first journey on two years we were barely familiar with the ins and outs of navigating via Garmin route (which led to some not very friendly discussions when we got woefully lost mid-ride). Regardless Girona proved to be a magnificent destination full of empty roads, professional cyclists wandering around the city streets and a huge array of delicious dining options. In short it was one of the few international destinations worthy of a repeat visit.
For our return to my entire family was in tow which meant the journey was less about burning kJs and more about consuming calories via cold beer, fine wines and terrific food. With an overnight flight and a quick high speed train ride North (if only mass-transit options were so incredibly convenient in the US) we arrived in Girona mid-morning slightly delirious. Jet lag be damned we found a tapas restaurant for lunch where we massaged our travel induced weariness with a few local Spanish beers.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around the old cobbled streets of Girona, admiring the craftsmanship and history, before taking in the sunset from the ancient walls that still tower over the city. The view from those walls - overlooking the cathedral, the old city and modern Girona spread out in layers across the horizon - remain one of our favorite memories from the trip which at that stage was still only 12 hours long.
Following a terrific casual dining experience at Arros i Peix Restaurant where the seafood was fresh and the drinks were cold we retired to our AirBNB where the view from the master bedroom was none too shabby:
Riding Under Grey Skies
On day two we had grand plans for a long ride through the Spanish countryside. With plenty of unsupported international trips under our belts, unlike our first trip to Girona we had routes mapped and loaded on our Garmins and headed out to rent bikes from Bike Breaks Girona. As is now tradition when traveling with my parents we rented them a set of e-bikes: they have been absolutely brilliant on every occasion (particularly in France), allowing us to cover more ground at a reasonable pace than would otherwise be possible.
Unfortunately as we exited the bike shop we were greeted with dreary, misting skies. Our ambitions instantaneously faded with the weather but we were not going to abandon our ride altogether. Instead we tossed our plan routes in the garbage bin and cut a path through micro-farms on the western edge of Girona by following a delightful hard packed bike path. We meandered along rivers, through small towns and past dairy farms for what was developing into a pretty great day on the bike despite the grey skies. This was particularly true for the return jaunt where we peeled off onto some dirt roads that delightfully dipped and curved through the countryside as we made our way back to Girona's city center.
The Food, The Coffee, The City
That night we were lucky enough to clear the wait list at El Celler de Can Roca where we had a magical (if expensive) meal. And fitting for our day on the bike Simon Gerrans sat a few tables down from us. To go from an afternoon on two wheels to an evening at one of the top restaurants in the world certainly made for a day that we will not soon forget. And it was only the first full day of our European expedition.
We had another ride planned for the following day but we awoke to even worse weather with temperatures in the forties and rain coming and going throughout the morning. We debated our dedication to riding over breakfast before ultimately deciding to return our bikes a day early and instead spend the day enjoying the food, coffee and sites that Girona had to offer. While it would have been nice to sneak in one more ride the extra time to wander the city was well spent as we roamed the coffee shops well known by the cycling community and visited the highly regarded Jewish Museum in Old Girona. While we only had two full days and one partial day in Girona it was sixty-odd hours rich with experience and we had absolutely no trouble compiling a long list of favorite moments. Indeed the hardest part of the trip may have been trimming that list down to the ten that are included below.
Our Girona Top 10
- Ancient Walls at Sunset: along with Racambolesc the ancient walls of Girona at Sunset were the only two activities we doubled up on during our three days in Girona. On our last night in Girona the sunset (pictured both above and below) was particularly stunning as the sun faded directly behind the Girona Cathedral tower. If you're in Girona make sure you hike up to the walls and take in the view. It would make for a spectacular engagement spot, if you're looking to pop the question.
- Rocambolesc: El Celler de Can Roca (#3 below) may be the most famous food establishment in Girona but in our mind Rocambolesc, their gelato outpost, is perhaps the more memorable. Rocambolesc's Panet is one of the most delicious desserts we have ever had and it costs just a handful of Euros compared to the much more pricey menu at El Celler de Can Roca. Don't miss this one.
- El Celler de Can Roca: there is a reason El Celler de Can Roca spent many years as the number one restaurant in the world. You can read all about it in the most minute detail on various food blogs but we'll sum it up as utterly delicious with exceedingly creative presentation and terrific service. And for those of you who miss the reservations that book far in advance there is still hope - since we planned our trip with just three weeks advance notice we were relegated to the wait list but were able to secure a table a few days before our arrival.
- Arros i Peix Restaurant: a recommendation from our AirBNB host, Arros i Peix wound up being one of our favorite meals in Girona (and one of the most affordable). The pick-your-meal setting is low key but the seafood selection was remarkably fresh, the service was excellent and the food delicious. They have a handful of other locations including in Barcelona if you can't make it there while in Girona.
- Coffee, So Much Coffee: Federal Cafe, Fabrica: the Girona coffee scene is exploding with Christian Meier's La Fabrica catering specifically to the cycling set. Located on a quiet back street in the Old Town it's definitely worth a visit though in many ways we prefered the more complete breakfast menu on offer just a few blocks away at Federal Cafe.
- Rain Cannot Ruin Riding in Girona: our first trip to Girona featured some pretty magical days on the bike despite being much earlier in the season. This go around we missed the blue skies and didn't make it down to the coastline due to the mediocre weather but it was still delightful snaking our way along the bike path that travels West out of the city at a casual pace.
- Museu d'Historia dels Jueus: the Jewish Museum didn't make it into our initial visit to Girona when we were more focused on the nitty gritty of training. For this more casual visit however we checked that box and were richly rewarded with an immersive introduction to the history of jews in Girona.
- El Tall: a new discovery made while wandering the streets around Riu Ter, El Tall has a delicious selection of meats available at a variety of price points. On a rainy afternoon we ordered (too much) jambon and retired back to our AirBNB for a lunch overlooking the cloud covered city.
- A Room with a View: Girona has a plethora of AirBNB listing though unfortunately they do seem to be increasingly biased toward the more sterile hotel-room like model. However, despite booking our trip just three or four weeks in advance we discovered a perfect townhouse positioned close to the university and ancient walls. This elevated positioning provided an epic cityscape through giant sliding windows that opened to the cool Spring breeze.
- Bike Breaks Girona: as the Girona cycling scene continues to thrive there are a number of new kids on the block offering bike rental services for anyone loathe to fly with their bikes. For our trip we stuck with our mainstay from our journey through Girona so many years ago: Bike Breaks Girona. With plenty of merchandise from current and former pros for sale on consignment and a fleet of well maintained Cannondales for rent Bike Breaks was great (even if we got scolded for some of our off-pavement riding).