Christmas time in Girona

The latest lockdown restrictions have eased and the locals are out and about in force Christmas shopping. Good job too, and Girona’s city hall has been advocating that Gironians spend their hard-earned in local shops to help the local economy. That doesn’t necessarily mean packed streets full of jostling shoppers, as the whole Xmas season is a more downbeat affair. 

Being from the UK I’m used to a more bustling, shop till you drop, last minute shopping experience. After moving here I used to look forward to returning to the UK for the Xmas break, ostensibly to be with family and see friends. But after enduring the stress of what that entailed I quickly returned to the idea of spending it being here in quiet, sedate Girona. Even the lure of mince pies, pigs in blankets and brandy butter wouldn’t change our minds.

The Christmas lights are part and parcel of it all too. Girona’s lights are often a bit of an understatement but this year’s attempt appears to be an improvement over previous years. The street lights go up during November and are switched on early December. 

Over many years we’ve sea-sawed between a home cooked xmas lunch and eating out. Well, eating out in Girona on Christmas day is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. It requires diligent research and forward military style planning. I even went to the Girona Tourist Office in La Rambla thinking they might have all the places open on the 25th. Not so simple, as lists are haphazard and produced too late. One place stood out.

We ate at Casa Marieta in Pl. de la Independencia one year, but I had to make a booking in late November. Even then it appeared to be a bit touch and go as she leafed through the diary. I was thinking please find me a table as my options were too few. 

On Christmas day it was unsurprisingly busy and while we waited to be seated a tad too long it was an acceptable, stress-free lunch. We even took our own Christmas crackers-some traditions are hard to discard. Who knows what the other Cataln diners thought of that. Other Christmas day lunches have been spent eating local fried-chicken,  and another year to an out-of-town country restaurant. Fine but no drinking and driving meant expensive use of taxis.

Homespun equivalents have just resulted in domestic food meltdowns in our tiny kitchen, and emotional explosions that I swore never to repeat the experience. I think I need to re-examine that ‘what’s open on xmas day restaurant’ list. Back we go to the tourist office.


Jazz-but don’t talk

I can never think of jazz without remembering that character, Louis Balfour in the 90’s BBC comedy The Fast Show and his catchphrase-Jazz, nice!

I’ve always been puzzled by the lack of live music venues in Girona-any music. My theory is that many suitable places are too near to residential blocks so locals would complain-which they do quite readily.

Contrast that to when the city celebrates its week long city wide festival of St Narcis in late October. What a racket then. Street bands galore and the large open area next to Devesa Park called La Carpa becomes a giant youth club dominated by a nightly blast of live music till the early hours.

In our middle-aged case we opted to go to the small but cute Sunset Jazz bar in the old town. The Saturday night music was a tribute to Billy Holiday by an American singer whose name I forget. Great, we thought, a meal first and then some sounds. First we went for a mini supper where we waited too long for our food and maybe overdid it a bit with the local vino blanco.

On entering the Sunset club we had to stand by the bar as all the seats were taken. The dim interior and bum-numbing seating makes for what you’d expect of a Bohemian-style jazz joint.

The rendition of Billy Holiday songs was a token effort and far from what we’d imagined. We were enjoying our drinks engaged in quiet conversation when the barmaid gestured ‘shoosh’ at those of us sitting and standing around the bar. We duly obliged rolling our eyes upwards.

The music progressively derailed itself from its original intention. The singer blurted out some felicitations in Spanish, which probably didn’t go down too well with the fiercely proud Catalan audience.

The shooshing waitress continued to patrol the bar acting like a scolding headmistress. To the point where we’d had enough and left. She spoke to us in unintelligible Catalan-probably saying ‘you’re barred’.

We’ve never been back since.


Beach days on the Costa Brava-2 of the best

What a dilemma to have, every time we think of jumping in the car and heading off for the coast the eternal question is ‘which beach are we going to ?’ It always seems to take ages to decide as we’re so spoilt for choice. 

Most locals have their favourites and there are plenty of smaller pretty coves and beautiful bays that not every tourist knows about. They’re usually a bit more trickier to access and we prefer the park-as-close-as-you-can approach. That’s mainly because we have so much beach stuff to carry, even with four of us to share the load. Beach chairs and umbrellas, towels, food, drinks and hold on to the dog.

Anyway, we’re always late getting up so by the time we’ve hit any beach it’s about mid-afternoon-that’s fine for us as we’ve just missed the scorching heat of mid-day and we stay until it gets dark, which in summer is close to 10pm. Locals however have a different approach, they’ll tend to go early morning, sit it out until 1-2pm and then beat a retreat for lunch or drive back home. 

For us there’s no better way to finish a beach day than have a few drinks at a beach bar (chiringuito) or pack the stuff in the car, quick change (well for me but not the ladies) and stroll down to a nearby taverna for some local seafood.

Beach No.1 S’Agaro. If it’s a quick dash to the beach you’re after then the nearest beach to Girona is St Feliu de Guixols which is nice enough. But we often prefer the nearby smaller, chic, sedate Sant Pol beach at S’Agaro. It’s very much a second residence/holiday home bolt hole for the better-off residents of Girona and Barcelona. The calibre of parked cars will testify to that.

Low-rise smart apartments, a smattering of seafront bars and restaurants facing a gently sloping sandy beach that sweeps around towards a wooded promontory. The whole picture postcard package could have been copy and pasted from a California tourist brochure. 

There’s paid parking right near the beach so no long trek to the sand. Stretch your legs and take a walk along the winding, wobbly, wooden boardwalk up to the swanky Hotel La Gavina. For anyone with added stamina you can keep going for another 25 minute push along the coastal path that will take you to another fine beach, La Conca (below). Summertime will reward you with the comforting view of a beach bar, the perfect pit-stop for a thirsty walker.

Beach No.2 L’Escala. Go early by car and you can easily fill your day visiting several different beaches here. This former fishing town comes alive during the summer months as tourists flock to its many campsites, and the modern Riells area is full of holiday homes and apartments. It’s commercial strip has the bog standard shops, cafes, takeaways and a decent family friendly beach that extends up to the marina/port area.

Alternatively jump back in the car and follow the signs for Montgo beach. It’s more protected and a better bet if Riells beach is too windy. Shallow water and a bit gravelly as you enter, small beach bar and other restaurants are just behind you.

If time is on your side grab your towel and drive up to the old part of Escala, where parking may be more of a problem. It has a couple of sweet, postage stamp size, shallow water beaches amongst craggy rocks. Platja Port d’en Perris is U-shaped and mostly gravel. A few minutes in your flip-flops will take you to a more sandy affair, Platja de Escala. Bars and restaurants are laughingly close and a top favourite of ours Grop is right here.

After recovering from lunch and partaking of the customary siesta you’ll be ready for the final leg. Still on foot, head north past Punta Romana towards St. Marti. This coastal pathway (Passeig Dr. Pi i Llusa) will take you past several very sandy beach areas or ‘calas’.

Platja Cala de la Creu is long and elongated. Next is Platja  El Rec del Moli (dogs allowed), through to Platja del Convent. All these are a bit wilder and off the beaten track but you’d have arrived in the tiny village of St. Marti with its one beach.

It’s recent claim to fame was as the place where Elon Musk’s sister got married with VIP guests like ex-President Obama. Sublime setting with its small church, stone cottages, narrow cobbled streets and close to the Greek / Roman ruins of Empuries. 

Famished or thirsty, head for Placa Petita a small triangle of eateries perched just moments from the church. A favourite sunset-stopping point for visitors at the height of summer, and the perfect place for a sundowner. How you get back to your car is your problem!


Back to bars

Bars and restaurants have reopened-well some of them have. You do feel for them as it’s been a case of long closures since March followed by a joyful summer of back to normal, then a slow decline to eventual returned closures in late autumn. Current Covid related rules say that cafes can only utilize 30% of interior space which equates to being uneconomic to open for many.

The sight of empty cafes, bars and restaurants is made even stranger when you consider how much they’re a part of daily culture here. No one lifts an eyelid or is bothered by seeing someone having a cana (small beer) or a ‘cigalo / carajillo’ (small black coffee with brandy) at breakfast time.

Sure, there’s plenty who’ll prefer a coffee too or an ‘infusion’- herbal tea. I should also mention the cup sizes here aren’t as big as ones you’re used to in the UK/USA.

People nip in and out of these places all day long. Early starters often pop in for their 1st breakfast (esmorzar), and again later in the morning for their 2nd esmorzar-nice.

I’ve used my local ones extensively in the past as a handy place to conduct my one-to-one English classes. In all parts of Spain the outdoor culture is ingrained and the norm.

Personally I can’t figure out how they can survive if they only charge about 1.70 euros for a coffee. I suppose it’s a numbers game and many are open long hours, from 7am to 9 or 10pm. That wasn’t always the case, many local to me have been taken over by new Chinese owners who stay open for much longer. 

It’s also highly competitive as there’s so many here. The enticing offers include a coffee and a ‘mini’ (a very small piece of baguette with a simple filling of cheese or ham) for 2.50 to 3 euros. 

By the way these are prices in the more residential areas of Girona. The newer, trendier cafes in the old town which cater more for the uber cyclists have a coffee menu more akin to what you’d see in a Starbucks or Costa Coffee if you’re from the UK. Fair doos, you pay a tad more, get a bigger cup and it’s not bad. One place even lets you leave your bicycle inside.

The one, continual general gripe I have is how tepid the coffee is when it’s served. So much so that I have to ask for ‘leche caliente’ Spanish for warm milk. I never order tea here, it’s just too weak and is served as a herbal tea, with a cup of hot water/tea bag or in a tiny teapot. Don’t expect to find a large mug of sweet tea with milk.

Only time will tell who keeps going and stays afloat, what appears a saturated marketplace somehow always finds its own equilibrium.

N.B. In Catalan milk is ‘llet’ which sounds like ‘yet’, ‘amb’ is with, sounds like ‘umm’ -so join it all together to make ‘cafe amb llet’-coffee with milk.


Seeing red with red tape

I like to keep my brushes with officialdom to a minimum if I can. Language issue is one reason but secondly, the almost inevitable sinking feeling of not being able to complete what is in most cases a simple task in one go. Let me explain by using one past example. 

We had to renew our empadron (registering as a resident in the city or town you live in), this is a document obtained from the local city hall ajuntament/ajuntamiento. Gironas’ is housed within a fine old building in placa del Vi. Off I went with the requisite documents I needed to show. which were all listed online. 

First step is the ‘gatekeeper’ who directs you on where to go depending on the purpose of your visit. I already know where I need to go but this jobsworth beckons me forward. Mini interrogation over I enter the section on the ground floor where gatekeeper no.2 sits. I repeat what I’ve just said to the previous drone. You’re given a numbered ticket, sit down in the waiting room and watch the small screen above. 

As far as waiting time, this is entering into the ‘how long is a piece of string’ scenario. A quick tally of others waiting is useful but not indicative. Your number eventually appears with a designated table (taula) number. This time around I fail, there’s a problem with my latest rental payment receipt. It’s missing the agency’s official stamp. No explanation on earth will change matters, off you go with your bundle of papers. 1-0 to them.

After wishing I’d rather watch the grass grow I summon the motivation for try number 2, having obtained said agency stamp. I fail again-do these people relish others misery? This time my electricity bill is too old, it needs to be a more recent one. I’m starting to wish this place had a ‘screaming room’ to let of some steam. 2-0 to them.

Third time, paperwork in order I decide to take my Catalan speaking daughter as backup. It’s a Friday afternoon so their minds are set to POETS ( piss off early tomorrow’s Saturday). We breeze in, a cursory glance at my passport, and bingo, we get to the finish line. The documents are printed and handed over. I pinch myself to check it’s really happened.

Was it due to the fact that my daughter spoke Catalan to them-I’ll never know.


Not so super supermarket

I was asked once what I thought about the supermarkets here compared to ones in the UK. The first thought that entered my head was boring and how much of my life I’ve wasted shuffling around in these places.

I tend to do most of the food shopping and we live in the Girona neighbourhood of La Devesa minutes from 4 supermarkets, so me and my shopping trolley are happy with that. Anyway, if I had to take the car I could carry more but I’d have far more work getting in all upstairs. That’s because our apartment’s parking space is underground and the block’s elevator doesn’t serve our floor. That’s another story.

Just to go back to the subject of shopping trolleys. In the UK they’re synonymous with only the elderly using them, as they trot off down the high street. After moving here and buying one I just couldn’t wrap my mind around actually using one for several months. After all, here you see both young and old pulling them around. I have even cast my inventor’s eye to imagining a suitable trolley designed for beachgoers. One that has a tardis-like space to carry everything, keep beers cold, and wide rubber wheels capable of gliding across the sand.

My local Mercadona supermarket. Leading contender for the highly competitive title of ‘Most Boring Girona Supermarket ‘. I could walk blindfold around here and still  know where to get everything. Sometimes it serves a curved ball and I get mildly frustrated when I can’t find a tin of coconut milk or some sod has bought every single pack of avocados. The product ranges remain permanently entrenched and any newly stocked item or ‘novetat’ brightens up your day. So much so that it prompts me to report on such front page news to my good wife.

The last new and welcoming thing was Sharwoods Korma Curry Sauce, a true revelation for Catalan taste buds. Sadly it didn’t last and is no more, maybe it was a novetat too far.

Some other novetats have endured and remain as part of the run-of-the-mill Mercadona family, like versions of Hummus. Any UK Tesco’s  has about 6.

It just leaves the saga of the checkout but don’t expect any help with bag filling-you’re on your own. The shop assistants could win the Olympic gold for scanning items, leaving me to play catch-up as I load my trolley. The plan of attack is simple. Heavy stuff  like bottles and slabs of coke at the bottom, followed by layers of lighter stuff as you reach the top. Never mind the next waiting customer, the assistant’s only sarcastic sounding retort is to say “parking?”

This store also has a resident beggar who sits outside the entrance all day in all weathers shaking his plastic cup at you as you walk past. If I don’t have any loose change I offer him a can of coke instead. The hard part is trying to decipher his reply which resembles more of a grunt than a clearly defined gracias! Oh well, who am I to judge.



Girona lockdown

With the latest lockdown restrictions it means we’re spending a lot more time indoors and boy is it boring.

For starters there’s a night time curfew between 10pm and 6am which forces us to remember to take the dogs out for the last time, just before curfew begins. Ordinarily that would be much later.

Bars, cafes and restaurants have already been shut for about 3 weeks, only take away allowed but that’s not enough for these owners. Some young friends who run a bar are trying to find work, any work elsewhere. The various regions in Spain have their own rules, so in Madrid you can still eat and drink albeit not late.

You can still go cycling or running , hey-ho. My preferred pastime, playing golf is banned too. Can’t see there’s much risk there but a blanket no to all sports means longer dog walks. Even weekends are affected, no movement outside of your municipality-no nice Sunday drive to the coast. That’s been annoying the last few weekends as we’ve had sunny days touching the 20’s.

Walk through the old town and it’s eerily quiet, the only places open are the ice cream shops which are doing a roaring trade. The other beneficiaries seem to be the hordes of delivery app riders zooming around.

There might be some respite towards the end of November, who knows.


We’re back!

Well the site is back, we didn’t really go anywhere ourselves. The previous site called got hacked a few years back and I kind of lost interest in trying to resurrect it all.

Of course life got in the way and stuff in general. There are always other things to do aren’t there, and it was always a labour of love. I’d started the original site over 10 years ago and added to it as time allowed.

We’re still here in Girona after almost 14 years and now I’ve got more time. My thoughts were telling me I should restart the site. As with most things and places time doesn’t stop still and Girona certainly hasn’t. 

The big boom in cycling here has meant a bigger influx of tourists and professionals alike. Cycle teams like the place a lot and use the surrounding countryside for training, mountains in one direction and beaches in the other.

The climate is a big plus too. The pro-cyclists seem to have commandeered a lot of the new cafes and coffee spots, which many have been created with them in mind. 

Unfortunately my own mountain bike has remained more of a fixed decorational piece! Golf is more my thing, or rather pitch and putt.

At the moment things are quiet here, the latest Covid rules have put a stop to a lot of things. At least the sun is still shining today, mid November and 19 degrees.

Work on the new site is ongoing and may take a while to sort out, organise content and put up photos and videos.