Thinking of a cycling holiday in Girona to find out what all of the fuss is about? Let David Millar, ex-professional cyclist, owner of CHPT3 and Girona local guide you around the walled city that he claims has become the “cycling capital of the world”.
Girona is one of the major cities of Catalonia, situated 100km north east of Barcelona with a population of approx 100,000. It’s origins go back over 2000yrs to when the Romans ruled, over the next thousand years it changed hands from the Romans to the Visigoths to the Moors before eventually finding itself under long term Spanish rule. The Romans built a citadel, the Moors a mosque, while the Spanish built the cathedral we know today, all built on top of each other on the prominent position we are now so familiar with.
During the 12th century the Jewish community flourished in Girona, having one of the most important Kabbalistic schools in Europe until the Alhambra Decree of 1492 forced the Jewish people to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion from Spain. To this day the Jewish Quarter of Girona is one of the best preserved in Europe and a major tourist attraction.
That summary barely grazes the surface of the history held within the city walls of Girona, it is a magical place, and one that never ceases to amaze visitors, because somehow it has managed to stay off the clichéd tourist routes of Europe. Oddly it is cycling that is putting Girona on the international map and as a destination in its own right, that is another story entirely, needless to say the conclusion being that around 100 professional cyclists now call Girona their home.
So, why have they chosen Girona? I’ve probably been asked this more than anybody else what with being one of the last remaining early adopters. It’s quite simple really, I was looking for somewhere that would serve as the perfect home for a professional cyclist, and there are a handful of things that requires:
- Good training roads i.e. varying terrain, quiet, good quality
- Good weather (winter rarely below 0º, summer mid 30ºs)
- An airport nearby
- Other professionals to train with (not obligatory but helps…)
- A good quality of life for the whole family
I’d lived in the South of France, and spent a lot of time in Tuscany, but when I visited Girona for the first time in summer 2006, immediately it blew the doors off both of them when it came to ticking those five boxes. My wife and I decided within 24hrs it would be our new home, and a few months later we were living here and have done ever since.
The CHPT3 Studio – This is in the heart of Girona, right bang in the middle of the rambla, this is where we come up with and develop our ideas. We also occasionally host events, if you’re ever in Girona get in touch and we’d be happy to show you around so you can see what we’re up to.
The Service Course – Owned and managed by Christian and Amber Meier, they created TSC in order to fill a gap in the Girona market, offering a top end service that can cater to every need. Inspired by Christian’s time as a professional cyclist on World Tour teams such as Garmin and Orica-Scott he decided to recreate the experience of being a top-level pro racer for anybody.
Hang around on the bridge – The Pont de Pedra bridge in the centre of Girona is the meeting place for many professional cyclists, hang around there nonchalantly of a morning and you never know what might happen. Just remember to ask nicely if you want to tag along.
Girona has an amazing culinary culture, especially fine dining, although that isn’t to say there aren’t varying options, I’ve selected a few different types of restaurants, starting with the most famous of them all:
Celler de Can Roca – Voted the World’s #1 Restaurant more than once, currently #2 in the world. In other words, pretty damn good, as any restaurant of this calibre it almost feels more like theatre than dining. A bucket list restaurant for sure.
Bionbo Cafe – A hidden treasure of a restaurant, almost a bolthole of a place. Just outside the old town it is a destination rather than a random discovery, even knowing where it is you are likely to walk right by it. But once you are inside be prepared for an amazing experience, truly amazing food.
Plaça del Vi 7 – A personal favourite, great ambiance, feeling more like a French bistro rather than Spanish tapas restaurant. It serves tapas with a chic twist and there is a good wine list to boot, with plenty of French options, a rare thing in Spain.
Nu Restaurant – Just round the corner from Placa del Vi 7, this is the sister restaurant to the Michelin starred Massana. It shares the DNA when it comes to the quality of the food, only with a much more modern environment and style of cuisine.
La Fabrica – The first venture of Christian and Amber Meier, and the cycling cafe that Girona had been waiting for. It has set the standard, serving the best coffee you’ll find (apart their other venture, Espresso Mafia) in Girona by far and breakfasts and lunches with a North American deli style twist. Every morning you will see Professional cyclists here, it’s standard.
Federal – Owned by another professional cyclist, the Australian Rory Sutherland, this is actually part of a small but successful Australian-inspired cafe group. The food is very good, and like Fabrica offers a new world style menu.
Umai – This is a phenomenal Japanese/Asian restaurant, one of the best I’ve ever eaten in.
Nykteri’s Cocktail Bar – Mariona Vilanova, who owns and runs this bar, is a true expert in the art of making cocktails. She has been mixing drinks for over 20years and it shows, you name it and she can make it, and to a standard you’d expect from in a five star big city hotel. It’s in a lovely intimate little spot on the edge of the old town slightly off the beaten track, highly recommended, if you’re into cocktails that is.
Els Jardins de la Mercè – On the opposite end of the old town, and similarly tucked away. In fact you could walk by a dozen times and never notice it, which would be a great shame because it’s like entering a beautiful speakeasy with a hidden walled garden. A great spot and one that fires up in the evenings with guest DJ’s mixing it up.
Until recently Girona wasn’t the sort of place people chose to overnight in, it’s a day visit kind of town for most, either those from Barcelona or the holiday makers who frequent the nearby (30km) Costa Brava coastline. The rare summer rainy day finds Girona completely mobbed by tourists from the coast, other than that it’s relatively quiet in summer, which is probably due to the fact it can feel like the surface of the sun. April/May/June and September/October are the best months to visit in my opinion. The selection of hotels is actually quite limited, but I’ve chosen three of my favourite, all three welcome cyclists with open arms:
Hotel Nord 1901 – The is definitely one of the better hotels in Girona, and made all the better by it’s position, right in the centre of town and directly opposite The Service Course (see below), so all your cycling needs can be taken care of and you can also crawl to a restaurant if you exhaust yourself completely.
Hotel Historic – The original cycling hotel in Girona, Xavi and has family have been putting cyclists up here for 20 years. There is even a little shrine of sorts with all sorts of eclectic memorabilia from cycling stars of the past. A lovely hotel, right next to the cathedral, they also have a number of self-cateing apartments.
Hotel Carlemany – The best hotel in Girona for sure, perhaps slightly more corporate than the other two, but that serves it well as it means the service is excellent and what you would expect from a top grade hotel in any city. The restaurant, Indigo, is brilliant, and unlike the two hotels above it has a bar, not just any bar, but the winner of the best gin and tonic in Girona.