My Girona (and a millennial quest for vermut)
(My, my, my, woop!)
With two days free and the world our oyster (well, easyJet's Gatwick destinations our oyster) I furiously scanned the BBC weather app for somewhere easy-to-get-to that wasn't raining or snowed in.
A friend of ours recommended Girona as a great weekend break but I had only heard of it as the 'Ryanair Barcelona' and so hadn't realised it was such a lovely city in its own right.
I love a city with a river. Why? No idea, perhaps a bit of nostalgia for living in Lyon & Glasgow. Girona has the Onyar river, complete with a bridge built by Gustave Eiffel (yes, that Monsieur Eiffel). The higgledy piggledy multicoloured houses lining the river did give me strong Lyon vibes, but the river itself was pretty shallow, with dried up patches where groups of ducks were sleeping and sunbathing.
At the moment the city is probably most famous for its appearance in Game of Thrones as Essos and King's Landing, in particular the cathedral steps which was the Great Sept of Baelor where Cersei Lannister did her walk of shame.
Our first day in Girona consisted of checking into our AirBnB studio (an absolute steal at €35 a night and right in the centre of town) followed by a quick walk to orient ourselves before getting down to the real reason we were there - vermut and pintxos.
When researching the city I came across a ton of articles about the famous vermut (vermouth) of Catalunya - an aperitif that seems to be getting huge in the UK at the moment. I was pretty keen to try as many as possible and pair them with some tapas/pintxos/pinchos.
As an aside, I am ridiculously greedy and find it hard to press the pause button when eating. Trips away only amplify this. In Spain, it becomes even more of an issue as going somewhere for pintxos means making decisions about which to try, which always means trying all of them. Especially in Zanpanzar where everything was topped with an olive or an anchovy - I will never say no to something topped with an anchovy. But I'll get back to the specifics in a mo.
So, let's talk about Catalunya's famous vermouth (or vermut, in Catalan). On the plane over I read, by chance, two separate articles about the rise of vermuterias both in Spain and in the UK and I was pretty excited to get my hands on a new (to me) aperitif.
My past experience of vermouth consisted mainly of having a random bottle in the cupboard to splash into a risotto or make homemade martinis (which I like heavy on the gin, FYI) and as a kid I remember my mum drinking vermouth and soda when she was getting ready to go out. But for some reason I never made the connection between the vermouth that I was already aware of and this new exciting, and moreover, trendy vermouth that is 'the next big thing'.
Which goes to show that a bit of buzz and marketing can go a long way.
As much as I enjoyed the vermuts I tried in Girona (white vermouth on the rocks with an olive is definitely going to be my new summer tipple) I was disappointed that it ended up being a familiar taste, both literally and figuratively. It made me realise how much I (and I think it can be extrapolated to all millennials here) am a sucker for novelty, but desire authenticity - or at least the appearance of authenticity. We want the new, but we want it old.
And it's such a hipster cliche, but I really was hoping to uncover a new recipe, a new ritual, something unexplored. You could sell me an artisanal small-batch vermut made to a 18th-century family recipe and I would lap it up - not for the taste, but for the story behind it. I think the millennial obsession with traditional methods of food and drink production - the much-mocked craft beer explosion, for example - is a reaction to the way our lives are changing. Clinging on to an old-school tradition somehow acts as a counterbalance to the artificial and the superficial which makes up much of modern life. We seem to be all about the surface but are craving substance. Or a facsimile of substance that comes from something being 'old' or 'traditional'.
And to be fair, there is, of course, a long history and tradition behind vermut and it was ridiculous of me to think I could grasp it (and, I suppose, appropriate it) in 36 hours in a foreign country.
My favourite fact is that Sunday's "hora del vermut" is a post-Mass pick-me-up to whet your appetite for lunch. I am taking this tradition back with me to the UK (except the Mass bit).
Enough of my tangents, let's get to the food. Our night began at Vadevins, for the above-mention vermut (I had a red here). We walked past and it looked cool so we stopped for a drink. It was quite early in Spain-time and the place got pretty busy as the night wore on, mainly with locals in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, although I did notice a couple of tables of tourists.
I would definitely recommend this place if you want wine - they had a huge selection of wine by the glass, with bottles mounted on the wall and a brief write up of each of them below. We also ate a few tapas here, the boquerones were amazing but the croquetas de bacalao were a bit meh.
We moved on to my fave place for pintxos, Zanpanzar. It was another place we stumbled across and stumbled into. Delicious, cheap pinxtos, good wine (from what I can remember) and a friendly vibe.
Other places I'd recommend for food: Occi. We were pretty lucky to snag a lunch table here without a reservation, we basically showed up at 1pm when they opened, and had the waiter suck his teeth at us for 30 seconds when we said we hadn't reserved before finding us a table. Lots of other people were turned away so it's worth showing up early if you haven't booked. I don't remember if we had been recommended this restaurant, had looked it up online or had just spotted it, but after passing it on our first night we decided to go back the next day. We had a really good value three course set menu which had interesting combos like a cream of vegetable soup topped with a poached egg and foie gras.
The good thing is, this is Spain: it doesn't really matter if you can't get a table at your first choice, you can't go wrong with a bit of a wander and popping into places that look interesting.
Apart from eating your way around the city, another must-do is walking along the city's ramparts, the Passeig de la Muralla. The 14th-century ruins have been sympathetically reinforced with modern brickwork which makes a nice juxtaposition and highlights the age of the original walls.
On the walk along the walls you pass through the Jardins dels Alemanys, a pretty and peaceful garden where a few people were reading in the dappled shade.
From the city walls you can see the Pyrenees in the distance - somewhere I'm yet to visit but desperate to go - I'm keen to tackle the GR10 some day.
So as not to make this post incredibly long and boring, I'll leave it there. We had a full day and an afternoon and managed to fit in a lot of eating, drinking, walking, coffee-in-the-sun-ing as well as a cheeky museum visit. Being such a compact city, it's perfect for a flying visit and there's lots to explore in the outskirts if you have longer, like the nearby Dali museum.