SEPIA AND MEMORY IN GIRONA

Strange stuff, sepia. It immediately carries the implication of distance in time as well as space. But then, Girona (in Catalan) or Gerona (in Spanish) is old. It was already well established when the Romans built a citadel there and called it Gerunda. It was officially declared a city in the 11th century. Today it's very much a university town, and it really feels like one, even though the university was only officially founded in 1991 (there were fits and starts before that). Its university status is one of the things that makes it so agreeable and inexpensive: students never have much money, so there are plenty of bars and restaurants that cater to them. One of our favourite places was where you bought a sort of credit-card-sized beer token. To get your beer, you placed the beer token on a little electronic pad beside one of the beer taps that were scattered throughout the bar. You then poured your own beer until your credit ran out. When it did, you went to the bar and topped the token up with cash or yes, a credit card.


The hotels are mostly on the edge of the Old Town, which is just as well, because there's very little spare space in the warren that makes up old Gerona. The most delightful thing is that it's all on a very human scale. We parked the car on the day we arrived, and didn't move it again until we left the hotel three days later: we were just across the road from the beginning of the old town.The first shop we saw in the old town, four minutes' walk from our hotel, was a music shop. It had a lyre in the window. When did you last see a lyre for sale?

You can get all the basic tourist information you need from the fairly awful and frenetic Girona web-site. This is why I used sepia for this page: I wanted to convey that it's the sort of place you can just wander around, and enjoy, and come across bits you don't expect as well as bits you do. The two pictures here much better reflect what I remember than the city's own site: a lot of peace and quiet and yet, paradoxically, a lot of energy as well (because of the students). It really is a much nicer place than its own tourist board portrays it, and if it were any further laid back it would fall on its arse. For example, Frances was looking for a WC; there didn't seem to be one, and there wasn't a bar handy; so she just wandered into one of the university buildings and used the facilities there. On another occasion we were in a tapas bar. At one table there were what must surely have been four academics from the university, arguing (or at least discussing) with much gesticulation. At another table was what appeared to be an estate agent (realtor) all on her own, calculating prices: early 30s, at a guess. After an hour or so, she was joined by another woman of a similar age, but clearly her professional junior.. Neither table was hassled, and both were occupied by the same people as long there as we were: an hour or two.


The opening picture on the photography page was taken there, and for photographers it's a paradise whether you want to shoot architecture, history or street. One of the many great things about the place is that you can make up your own stories, histories, imaginations about everywhere you visit. The gate above: you can make up a dozen or a hundred stories about it. Once you have learned that until the Jews were expelled from Spain in March 1492, Girona was one of the great centres of Qabalistic learning, you can devise another dozen or hundred. Never mind the academics and estate agents.

The simple truth is this. We cannot know the past, or indeed the present. We can guess at them or we can try to imbibe them by visiting a place; but we cannot know them. In Girona, neither is clear in any case. Again, this is why I have used sepia. It is as if I have sent you a postcard from the past: the less I tell you, the more you can invent for yourself. And sometimes, the more we invent for ourselves, the better. We cannot live by facts alone: still less by garish hyperactive tourist-office web-sites.For Frances and me, Girona is very high on the ever-growing list of places we want to visit again, if ever we have the time and the money simultaneously.

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