Farewell And Adieu Ye Fine Spanish Ladies:
A Brief Catalonian Diversion

To live in one land, is captivitie,
To runne all countries, a wild roguery.
- John Donne

The railroad station at Cerbère is where you run out of France, going down the Mediterranean coast. On the other side of that hill, at the far end of that tunnel, is Spain.

It was Monday, May 8; a national holiday in France - VE Day; two holiday weekends in a row, a fine idea but a trifle inconvenient for travel. The early-morning train I'd been expecting to catch turned out not to run on holidays, so it had taken me till after 1 PM to make it this far. And still quite a wait till a Spanish train made its slow clattering appearance to take me onward, like the bear, to see what there was to see.

The other side of this particular mountain held a neat little bay and the small town of Port Bou, a pretty but not particularly appealing place that seemed to exist mostly off the trade from French tourists and shoppers. The shopkeepers and restauranteurs were in the main a surly and unfriendly lot - with a couple of exceptions, notably the delightful ladies at the grocery store - and all in all it wasn't a very promising introduction to Spain. But then border towns are much the same in certain respects anywhere from Calais to Juarez.

I did learn something, right away, that I hadn't known: people in these parts didn't speak Spanish. I mean, they could speak it - though not all of them would admit it - but the local language of choice was Catalan, a language I hardly even knew existed. Later I learned that Franco had done his best to outlaw the language, mainly to punish Catalonia/Catalunya for siding with the Loyalists during the Civil War; after his death there had been a huge Catalan revival.

All of which was admirable enough, but a problem for me; I'd been counting on my Spanish - Mexican Spanish, to be sure, but comprehensible - to get me by. But all the street signs were in Catalan, and might as well have been in Aramaic for all I could make of them; and quite a few people seemed to get pissed off if you spoke to them in Spanish. Which is taking cultural pride a bit too far; a traveler shouldn't have to learn more than one language per country. After all, if a Spaniard showed up in Oklahoma, nobody would expect him to speak Cherokee or Kiowa.

It was almost 5:00 when the train finally pulled out. When the conductor came around he did a double take. "Girona?" he said, and then shrugged and punched my ticket and moved on down the swaying car. I wasn't surprised; I already knew not many visitors went to Girona, or even knew it existed. Neither did I until a short time ago.

It was just an impulse thing; I got to looking at the map and realized I was going to be passing not all that far from the Spanish border, and I thought what the hell, why not pay at least a token visit to Spain? I'd never been to Spain. (But I'd been to Oklahoma...sorry, sorry.)

I didn't want to go to Barcelona, though. Everybody and his one-legged Uncle Willie goes to Barcelona. I was tired of doing predictable touristy places: Paris, Avignon, Arles, enough already.

Girona was mostly picked off the map, as the nearest city of any size to the border. The only information I had was that it was an old city with some medieval buildings and not much of a tourist business. Good enough.

(I got a little confused at first, because the town appears either as Girona or Gerona, depending on which map you're looking at. Girona is the name in Catalan, Gerona in Spanish - or, as the Catalans call it, "Castellano" - and I suspect you could get knocked on your ass saying it wrong in the wrong place.)

The scenery was great for the first stretch out of Port Bou; off to the north you could actually see a Pyrenee or two, though they didn't amount to much this close to the coast. It was cloudy but it wasn't raining, which was a relief; the rain in Spain could damn well stay on the plain until I was out of there. Farther on the land opened up and flattened out and the view became rather monotonous; and I'd gotten up an a horrible hour that morning, to catch that illusory early train. The movement of the train was rather soothing; somewhere beyond Figueres, I fell asleep....

To awaken with a start as the train slid to a halt and the doors thudded open. Still half asleep, I looked around and mumbled, "Girona?"

Across the aisle a sawed-off Spaniard with a little black mustache said urgently, "Sí, sí, Girona!" and motioned toward the door. I lurched to my feet, grabbed my pack, and stumbled to the door and down the steps to the platform -

And, as my vision cleared, realized immediately that I had stepped in the shit, but it was too late; the train was already in motion. In minutes it had vanished up the line in the direction of Girona - where, it was excruciatingly obvious, this wasn't.

I had, in fact, gotten off at an all-but-abandoned stop in a shabby back-end-of-nowhere named Ceirà, which I couldn't even find on the map. From the look of the place I figured it had to be some sort of suburb - a badly rundown one - of a larger city, which had to be Girona; so I wasn't too far from my destination, but that didn't mean much.

Cursing, promising myself the pleasure of killing a certain Spaniard if I ever ran into him again, I went over to the station building, which was boarded up and covered with spray-can graffiti, obviously long closed down. Next door, though, was a small bar, of a kind I wouldn't care to visit alone at night, but now deserted except for a long-haired kid who was sweeping up. He said not to worry, there would be another train in half an hour.

He was full of mierda.

After an hour and then an hour and a half of staring down a deserted track, I went back into the little bar and confronted the kid, who shrugged. The train service, he indicated, was not very dependable. Maybe another hour or two?

I asked if there were any other way to get to Girona. Say a bus?

Oh, yes, he said; go down the track and turn left down the steps to the street and on the other side I could catch a bus. They ran quite frequently.

So I'd been waiting by the tracks for an hour and a half because he hadn't thought to tell me about the bus. Suppressing the impulse to strangle him - it wasn't easy - I followed his directions and in a very short time was aboard a big articulated bus moving briskly toward scenic downtown Girona. It was six-thirty; I had entered Spain around two. And had traveled maybe fifty or sixty miles since then....

Never mind, I told myself severely; no good getting pissed off and sour. If I'd wanted speed and efficiency I should have joined a tour group. What mattered was that I was finally here. The bus stopped at the central station - train and bus stations side by side, a handy touch - and I got off, bought a map of the city from a rather supercilious young lady, and set out along a broad and frenetically busy street to look for lodging for the night.

One look along the river was enough to make me forget the hellish day. Girona is a genuinely beautiful city - even though it was, like practically everywhere else in Europe, under massive construction and reconstruction when I was there - and worth all the frustrations of getting there. I tried a few hotels and finally found a reasonably-priced room - the hot water wasn't, very, but otherwise it was pretty decent quarters - and went out to find a place to eat. By now it was dark.

I didn't have much luck. I was in the wrong part of town; there were almost no restaurants nearby. Eventually I found a café that was still serving dinner. The service was inept, the food indifferent (something with lamb - the menu, of course, was in Catalan - and some rather rubbery squid rings) and the wine, a local white table plonk, perfectly revolting. The price wasn't that great either, but I was past caring.

Next morning I checked out of the Hotel Europa (the kid on the desk not only spoke Spanish but was friendly and helpful; he must have been from somewhere else) and went sightseeing.

Girona is an extremely strange place; I've never seen anything quite like it. To begin with, it's almost two cities. On the south side of the river you've got a big, fast-paced, obviously prosperous modern city, with tall buildings and upscale stores and wide straight streets and traffic that compares well, in terms of density and death-wish driving styles, with that of Paris or London. That was where I had spent the night.

But across the river, clinging to precipitous hillsides, is much older sort of city, with narrow cobblestone streets - sometimes stepped, because of the steepness of the slope - and long tree-shaded ramblas, green parks and magnificent medieval buildings.

Probably some good places to eat, too, if only I'd come over here, but of course it had been too late, thanks to that evil Spanish bastard and his idea of a funny joke on the foreigner...I wished him several incurable sexually transmitted diseases and a really ugly partner to catch them from.

Up here on the hillside, where the streets are claustrophobically narrow and crooked, there once existed one of the greatest and oldest Jewish communities in Europe, before the Spaniards kicked them out. The Spaniards tended to work very hard at trying to please Jesus.

In that same effort, though, they did create some splendid buildings, such as the 11th-century cathedral of Girona.

Actually only the tower and the cloister go back to the original 1038 construction; the present-day church is a mishmosh of superimposed styles going clear up to the 18th century, which in Spain is practically yesterday. This cathedral contains the widest Gothic nave in the world. This would impress me more if I had any idea what a Gothic nave is.

The church of San Feliu is smaller and only goes back to the 13th century but I liked its witch-hat steeple.

You find yourself looking at something like this and thinking idiotically, "Damn, this is old - "

And I have no idea what these ruins are, or were; but they certainly looked, well, ruined....

I could have spent the rest of the day, and another day or two, wandering around Girona's old town; but time was finite - already there was only a week left - and I had a great many kilometers to go before I slept. I walked back across the river to the modern town and, after taking a couple of wrong turns, located the railway station. With a couple of hours to kill, I took a table in the station café and had myself a couple of glasses of excellent San Miguel beer, while doing some people-watching (plenty of people well worth watching, too, Girona has more than its share of truly fine-looking women - tall, too, and fair, not at all like the usual image of the short swarthy Spaniard) and a bit of reflecting.

It would have been absurd to form any sort of opinions of the Catalan people on the basis of such a short and superficial visit. I had to admit, though, thinking back, that on the whole they hadn't seemed terribly friendly - with several exceptions, to be sure - and quite a few had been distinctly hostile and unpleasant. Only a handful had been as friendly and helpful as the French.

But no doubt I had merely had bad luck, and happened to run into an unusually high proportion of assholes. That's how these stupid generalizations get started, though; somebody has a few bad experiences and forever afterwards tells the world that the people of Lower Goombavia are no damn good.

Heading for the men's room, I happened to glance at a departures display and learned that the ticket guy had told me wrong; there was a train leaving for Cerbére in fifteen minutes. Fine with me...a little while later I was rolling briskly Franceward.

Next: Back In France
Previous Page: Nudism at Cap d'Agde
Home Travel Page & Contents
Author's Home Page