A Return to Southern Europe: Girona
For cyclists Southern Europe is a mecca. Home to the sport's most famous races and most infamous climbs.
Over the years I have been fortunate to spend several weeks exploring Southern Europe on two wheels. In 2015 it was Italia where the Dolomites boggled my mind, standing out to this day as perhaps the best riding I have ever experienced. Last year we went a bit further North, to the desolate landscape of Ventoux as part of a week long jaunt through Annecy and Provence that very nearly matched the grand climbs of Northern Italy.
Earlier this year with flexibility in our schedule and coming off a memorable week of riding in Medellin, Colombia we decided to squeeze in a last minute, hastily planned run through Northern Spain and Southern France. We had been to Girona before - in fact it was our first bike based vacation many years back - but with just a few weeks worth of advance planning this most recent trip proved to be just as memorable as any that have come before (if a bit less biked focused). So without further ado, a three part recap of 10 days in Spain and France with a few of our top recommendations from the journey:
Back To Girona
Our very first bike expedition some half decade ago landed us in Girona for one memorable week. It proved to be a terrific destination full of empty back roads, plenty of World Tour pros wandering around and a huge array of delicious dining options. For our return to Girona this Spring my entire family was in tow which meant the journey was less about burning kJs on the bike and more about consuming calories with terrific food and drinks.
With an overnight flight and a quick high speed train ride North we arrived in Girona slightly delirious but quickly found a tapas restaurant for lunch where we massaged our travel induced weariness with a few local Spanish beers. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the old town before watching the sunset from the ancient walls towering over Girona (one of our favorite elements of our stay - noted in our Top 10 list below).
Following a terrific casual dining experience at Arros i Peix Restaurant 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 big plans to get in a long ride. We picked up some bikes from Bike Breaks Girona including a threesome of e-bikes for my parents and brother (e-bikes have been absolutely brilliant whenever we travel with my family to Europe including our prior trip to France). Unfortunately the morning greeted us with dreary, misting skies.
Our ambitions faded slightly with the weather but as we cut a path through micro-farms on the western edge of Girona and followed a delightful bike path for a two hour out and back loop it turned out to be a pretty great day on the bike regardless of the weather. This was particularly true for the return jaunt where as is so often the case in Spain we peeled off onto some back roads that delightfully dipped and curved through the countryside.
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.
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 quickly 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 and much appreciated:
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).