El Castell de Sant Miquel: Girona, Spain

An hour’s train ride from Barcelona lies a small Catalonian town full of cobbled streets, riverfront paths, medieval history, delicious tapas, and enthusiastic bikers. Girona (Gerona, in Spanish) is a favorite destination for both recreational and professional cyclists, who head out from the city center to climb picturesque mountains and fly down the trails and roads threading through the Costa Brava region. When I visited Girona this month, I found myself in the minority as I set out on foot for a long trail run, instead of renting a bike to explore the countryside.

My weekend trip to Girona coincided with the last heavy week of my training for the New York City Marathon, with my final 20-mile long run looming on the schedule. I considered trying to stick closely to my plan and faithfully run 20 road miles — but planning such a long route in a small town I didn’t know well was a daunting task, and running 2 or 3-mile loops of the park and city center seemed like a waste of the region’s network of trails and scenic destinations. I decided to plan a long trail run instead, focusing more on time on my feet and elevation gain than pace, and enjoy Girona instead of stressing about the details of my training.

The ruins of the Castell de Sant Miquel are found at the top of a small mountain right outside Girona’s old town, where my airBNB as well as the city’s main historical attractions —the Catedral de Girona and Basilica de Sant Feliu, the ancient city wall, and several museums including one devoted to the city’s deep Jewish roots— are located. The hike to the castle is a common day trip, and I decided to use the short climb as the beginning of my long run. I did a bit of research and hoped I would be able to pick up several other trails from the mountaintop and run a larger loop to complete my long run. The crowdsourced Wikiloc website showed me some promising-looking trails and many users included written directions for their routes, but I had trouble with the app and without a detailed physical map or GPS-enabled one on my phone, I was nervous about heading so far into a forest I wasn’t familiar with. I hoped I’d be able to figure it out in the moment, but knew I might just want to simply retrace my steps back if I found the trails too intense or realized I didn’t feel comfortable running alone so far from a new city.

In any event, I was excited to spend a day running and exploring: I planned this run for my first full day in Girona, so I wouldn’t have to worry that a long day of walking and sightseeing first would wear me out. I let myself sleep in, until the Cathedral’s bells woke me to a cool and overcast morning, and headed to the cafe downstairs for some espresso and a traditional bocadillo de tortilla. Tortilla —which in Spain refers to an egg omelette and not a flat bready wrap— isn’t something I’d think to serve as a sandwich, but I don’t really care if my bread is two halves of a bocadillo or served as toast alongside my eggs, especially before a long run! After a relaxed meal, I was ready to pack up and head out.

Behind the cathedral

Behind the cathedral

I was glad I had brought a running backpack and hydration bladder so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding water along the way, and I wished I’d had room in my luggage to bring my trail shoes as well. But packing for a week-long work trip, a few days of vacation, and a few changes of running clothes pushed my carry-on bag to the limit. I’d had to settle for just my versatile Nike Vomero road shoes, which would take me through speedwork, long runs, easy runs, and this final trail excursion over my week and a half abroad. After stowing some Clif Bloks and salt tabs, a basic map of the area, extra charger and ziploc baggie for my phone in the event of rain, and a light jacket to guard against sudden drops in temperature, I headed out.

According to the brochure/map I had and the Wikiloc sites, the trail up to Sant Miquel begins “behind” Girona’s famous cathedral and heads towards the monastery of Sant Daniel before climbing up the little mountain. I took off running to the Cathedral, hoping I’d be able to find the trail there and immediately got lost in its walled gardens. But I found the trail running parallel to the Carrer de Sant Daniel fairly quickly, and after following it along the road and Riera de Galligants towards towards the monastery, found myself in the rural outskirts of Girona city soon enough. About half a mile outside of town, the trail joins the Carrer de Sant Daniel, and the paved road towards the Castell and route to the monastery diverge. A signpost pointed me up another street to the left while the Camí dels Àngels to the monastery continued along the river to my right. Even before I reached the proper trail to the Castell, the road was marked with small signs that acted like blazes — red and white headed to the Castell, and green for the anella verda or “green ring” network that links several trails in the area.

Several bicyclists passed me on the paved road, but once I reached another signpost and headed onto a wide dirt path, there were just a few other pedestrians. I don’t think this trail is heavily trafficked in general, but the little bit of rain in the forecast seems to have scared off most other hikers and I had the trail to myself. At first it was smooth and runnable, but as I headed up the mountain I spent more time hiking: the incline was a test for my fitness at times, but the drizzly weather also left rocks and roots quite slick, so when the trail narrowed and I couldn’t move over to a packed dirt area I had to slow down to stay safe in my road shoes.

There’s one enormous sculpture along an early part of the trail, visible to the highway far below as well as hikers on their way up the mountain. “Europe’s Threshold” reminded me of a set of sculptures along the coast in San Sebastián, the “Comb of the Wind”, which are located on either end of the city’s central beach — but this one was alone and an unexpected sight in such a deserted location. Not long after, the remains of a small farmhouse lies right beside the trail, along with a helpful sign explaining the medieval ruins in several languages. This little stone house, Can Mistaire, was like an appetizer for the Castell itself — a little piece of history abandoned in the forest, but still intact enough to learn from, investigate, and admire.

There were also a few points early on where painted yellow arrows and blazes marked where the trail diverged from the main path, which also seemed to be some sort of access road for vehicles. I saw one car and several of what seemed to be driveways, but if there were many houses here I couldn’t see most of them from the trail. I continued up the mountain and kept an eye out for side trails and forks, as I think some shortcuts have developed over time, but didn’t have any trouble reaching the top. About three miles from starting my run, I exited a sharp climb onto an open grassy area at the mountaintop, with a few signs and picnic tables. In order to reach the Castell I actually had to continue a few minutes more to the left after finding the correct trail extension, but again a signpost pointed me the right way.

The Castell de Sant Miquel came out of nowhere — I rounded a bend in the ascending trail and then found myself staring at the ruins of a small watchtower, complete with a tiny dried out moat and lonely informational sign. The castle isn’t a big one by any stretch of the imagination, but it did leave me awestruck nonetheless: even after so many centuries and in relatively poor condition, it was still imposing and commanded the clearing where it sat. I marveled at the thought of building it here, lugging blocks of stone up to this height, the civilization that it was a part of, and history that it represented. Even its small size made a subtle point — the size of buildings today and castles in other locations or more recent historical moments have left me conditioned to expect grandeur, but this little outpost was a huge feat in and of itself. The Castell’s dimensions felt like a reminder of how quickly human civilization has grown and outdone itself, from technological advancements and wonders of engineering, to implicit expectations and frames of reference, as well as a reminder of how long-lasting our impact can be.

The remains of a chapel lie on one side of the Castell de Sant Miquel, while a small tower with a spiral staircase to the top lies on the other. Despite my dislike of heights I climbed up the three stories to the top, following the rusty metal stairs installed inside the ruins. Above the treeline, the wind was whipping and I felt my legs shaking and palms sweating, but I tried to stay calm and appreciate the vista in front of me. The weather cleared up for a bit, so even though the overcast weather still limited my visibility to some extent, the view was still incredible. I couldn’t see to the sea or make out the furthest mountain ranges, but I did still have a bird’s eye view of the plains below, rolling forests and cleared farmlands, as well as towns and roads snaking between them. I snapped a few pictures but was too nervous to linger very long, and when I got back down to the steady ground walked around the castle to see the view from a slightly different angle.

I saw a sign for another trail leading from behind the Castell, but didn’t recognize the name or Catalan landmarks it pointed to, so I returned to the picnic area, intending to retrace my steps down to Girona’s center. But I noticed that the signpost in the picnic area did point to a few landmarks that I had seen called out at earlier junctions on my climb up, and decided to detour towards the mountain’s other peak, Puig Estela, instead of just taking the same route home. The more time and miles I spent on this mountain, the fewer I’d need to tack on within Girona city to reach my goal of at least 3 hours on my feet, and between 10 and 15 miles total. The elevation at the Castell was only around 1,200 feet, which is nothing compared to bigger mountains in the area or around the globe, but a big change for me — especially if I added on another climb. To reach Puig Estela, first I had to run back down to the 700-foot level, then I’d climb back up another trail to reach about 1,000 feet again.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was now running downhill, but I found this second trail much more runnable than the one that took me up the mountain — I think despite some slick rocks, it was a little wider and easier to navigate in my road shoes. I began heading around the other side of the mountain’s crest and with amazing views of the surrounding valleys, descending the other side of the slope and soon rejoined the trail I took to Sant Miquel. I’d felt a little more rain along the way, but it didn’t get very heavy and so I decided to continue my detour. The signposts had all been accurate so far, and even listed estimated walking times down to the minute, so I was confident this wouldn’t get me lost on the final leg of my return trip.

Of course, as soon as I found myself more confident than nervous, I ran into a confusing series of signs. Of a four-way signpost, one written arrow pointed me back towards the Castell along the trail I now knew circumnavigated the mountain top. However, that would have meant simply retracing my steps to make my way back down to Girona, and I was hoping to explore more. Another arrow pointed towards the Font del Ferro, which I had not yet visited, and the final one seemed to point off a cliff, though it said it was the way to Girona-Barri Vell, the old city where I began. I could see Girona and even the cathedral’s peak from where I stood on the mountainside, so I knew the direction was roughly right, but I could not find a real trail down the steep slope, and even after retracing my steps to another nearby sign to check for details I’d overlooked, couldn’t figure out where that arrow was pointing to. I drank some water and ate Clif Bloks while I considered my options, and decided to head towards the Font del Ferro, or Iron Fountain, which is named for the flavor of the water there. I was fairly certain the Font was near Girona, in the right direction if not simply a stop along the way, but wasn’t sure. Still, that trail down the mountain was beautiful, and I tried to stay calm and enjoy it without worrying extensively that I was running to a dead end — at worst, I could retrace my entire route safely to return home. I passed another small ruin, the well labelled Font d’en Mistaire, and reassured myself that the fact that there were attractions along the trail meant I was at least on a well-traveled road, and one that would lead somewhere populated, even if it turned out to be a different path than I thought.

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I reached the Font del Ferro without incident, and was delighted to see a big signpost and map of the trail and its place within the extensive Anella Verda trail network (in addition to a group of schoolchildren on some sort of field trip gathered in the park around the Font). Sure enough, the Font del Ferro was simply a waypoint on the route to Girona. The signpost on the top of the mountain had been confusing because it had two arms pointing slightly different directions; I now think they were referring to the same trail, though it’s possible there was a more direct route to Girona that I missed. I continued running and realized that the Font was barely a quarter mile from a small parking lot I passed on my way up the mountain, right where the paved road gives way to the dirt trail to the Castell. I rejoined the paved road at this point, and ran back towards Girona along familiar ground. I paused to look inside the Cemetery of Sant Daniel as I passed it a second time, and congratulated myself on not getting utterly lost and having a good run around the mountain overall.

But although quite a bit of time had passed, I’d spent a lot of it power hiking or admiring medieval ruins along the trail. I’d covered almost 7 miles and decided to continue going until I had run somewhere between 13 and 15 miles total, adjusting to fit my goal of more than 3 hours of real activity. I ran into Girona center, planning to run monotonous laps of the Parc de la Devesa, but stumbled across another signpost pointing west along the river Onyar. I followed the esplanade for a short time, and it soon joined a different dirt trail with a sign that explained it was part of a network of paths connecting small towns along an ancient route that has been updated to include skate parks, benches, playgrounds, and other amenities. But when the suburban feel gave way to factories and highways I turned around, and ran back to the Parc de la Devesa to finish out my run. I’d had an extensive tour of the Girona region by this point and was happy to wrap up my long run in the city center. The Parc contained a small garden, which I walked through as part of my cool down — and though the Parc itself was fairly desolate, the garden was lush and well-kept, even housing a trio of peacocks! I stretched and watched the birds before walking back towards my airBNB in the old town.

I intended to go home and shower before getting some dinner, but impulsively stopped for a beer on the way. I headed into a small bar, ordered a small caña of beer, and relaxed. I was happily surprised to be handed a basket of fresh popcorn with my drink, and chatted with some locals about Girona, mountain running, and cycling before heading out — the perfect way to wind down after a long and solitary day. As the setting sun illuminated the Cathedral and mountains in the distance, my trip up to the Castell already felt like a surreal dream. If it wasn’t for my happily aching quads, sweaty clothes, Strava activity, and contented buzz, I might have thought I imagined the whole adventure.