|Girona: Medieval Splendor and Floral Fantasy|
Photos: Kip Miller
will be especially beautiful tomorrow! comments our tour director
Jesús, fingers flying over his laptop. And your timing couldnt
be any better, he adds. You will catch the annual Temps de Flors
in full swing. If I werent going back home to Seville in the morning,
I would gladly come with you!
We had not been aware of Gironas famous May flower festival, a hugely popular event in the old town, where stairways, alleys, courtyards and even hidden corners are transformed into imaginative ornamental gardens. But thats not all, Jesús adds in a whisper. Girona is the city where Queen Cersei walked stark naked through the streets in last years final episode of Game of Thrones! Well, then, that settles it, says Eric with a roguish smile. Were going!
Its the tail end of our trip to northern Spain. My husband and I and our friends Eric and Kathy agree to visit 2,000-year-old Girona on our free Sunday. The best way to get there is to take the high-speed train out of Barcelonas Sants station, says Jesús. You will barely have time to finish a coffee before arriving. The train ride lasts approximately 39 minutes, he adds as he orders our 21-Euro tickets on-line. If possible, I ask Jesús, can you try to get us a reservation for late lunch at El Celler de Can Roca? This three-star Michelin restaurant was recently named the Worlds Best in Restaurant Magazine. For sure, I will try, he smiles, but it will be tough.
been on my Spain bucket list for decades. Nestled in the Catalan Pyrenees
and crisscrossed by four rivers, it is filled with labyrinthine cobbled
streets, medieval churches, Moorish-inspired baths and Carolingian fortress
walls, not to mention El Call, an atmospheric Jewish quarter dating from
the 9thth century, where the study of Kabbalah, Judaisms mystical
interpretation of the bible, once flourished. Girona began as a Roman
outpost, weathering 23 sieges by a variety of conquerors throughout its
turbulent history, including a humiliating defeat by Napoleons troops.
Today, this city of 100,000 souls manages to retain its small town atmosphere,
providing a popular escape for visitors from Barcelona, the Costa Brava
and even France.
The Onyar River abuts Barri Vell, Gironas atmospheric old town. Dusty rose and muted yellow facades reflected in the water have become an iconic image of the city.
Thousands of visitors crowd the annual Flor de Temps festival where nearly 150 imaginative floral displays adorn courtyards, alleys, stairways and hidden corners.
Geranium hats crowned with lavender columns and ivy garlands enliven Placa dels Jurats, a favorite gathering spot for city celebrations and performances.
Gironas soaring 9th century walls were added to Roman foundations during the Carolingian era. Visitors are protected by parapets as they stroll above the old town.
A grandiose cathedral towers over Gironas labyrinthine core. Hidden beneath the mammoth structure are remnants of the former Cardo Maximus.
Eighty-eight steps descend from the cathedrals neoclassic facade to the
lower town. Each year the steps are a highlight of the flower festival.
Catalonia and the adjoining Basque region are the epicenter of haute cuisine in Spain. Here one will encounter more Michelin-starred establishments per square meter than almost anywhere else in the world. For it was here that Ferran Adrià invented a slew of new techniques that are known as molecular gastronomy--a deconstructed cuisine based on chemical reactions, resulting in nuanced tastes never experienced before. In the hierarchy of the culinary world, he is regarded as the Gaudi of modernist cooking. Gironas three Roca brothers had worked with Adrià when his El Bulli restaurant was the place to dine in all of Spain, as well as some of the best kitchens in the region, but their cuisine is more firmly rooted in the traditions of their family kitchen. We have to come back one day on a food tour, says Kathy, sighing over her lunch.
A wrong turn
brings us down to the Onyar, where dozens of trendy boutiques and cafes
lining Rambla de la Llibertad are enjoying a brisk business. Somehow weve
missed the Call, and make inquiries at the tourist office next to the
river. Just continue up on this street until you reach the Cathedral
area, says the helpful attendant. Turn right, and then go
down Caller de la Forca. Thats where the Jewish Museum is.
The ascent toward the Call is a delight. Every street lantern on the Rambla
is covered with a transparent pink umbrella shielding huge crepe paper
blossoms. I am enthralled by the variety of floral displays adorning door
stoops and window sills. A sweet aroma wafts from bakeries crammed with
trays of holiday macaroons. Loud holiday music enlivens crowded bars specializing
in craft beers.
Gironas atmospheric Jewish quarter is characterized
by narrow, winding lanes and dark covered alleys.
Gironas Jewish community flourished for more than 600 years, at its peak comprising 10 percent of its total population. The community was quite prosperous, with many merchants, artisans and accomplished scholars. As the worlds leading center in Kabbalistic studies, it was regarded as The Mother Town of All of Israel. Gironas most famous rabbi, Nahmanides (Ramban), is revered nearly as much as Cordobas great physician and rabbinic scholar Maimonides (Rambam). The Calls warren of narrow, winding streets and covered alleys constitutes one of Europes best preserved Jewish quarters. Its name, Call, derives from calle (street) in Spanish and kahal (community) in Hebrew. Those with discerning eyes can spot tiny slits in a few walls where mezuzot (rolled parchments inscribed with verses from the Torah) were placed near the doorposts of Jewish homes. I am in awe, says my husband as we wander down a tiny cobbled street.
A centuries-old brass menorah is showcased in the Jewish Museum on Bonastruc ca Porta. Among its many displays are carved synagogue stones, marriage ketubahs (contracts), and gravestones from the cemetery on Montjuic.
Jews prospered for centuries under the protection of the king, often ranking
among Europes elite, enjoying good relations with their Christian
neighbors. But during the violent outbreaks that swept through Spain in
August 1391, the community had to take shelter in the Tower of Gironella,
the highest point of the Call. After 17 weeks of isolation, they finally
returned to their homes, finding many in ruins. Life became perilous and
Jews were required to wear identity badges on their clothing, not unlike
the yellow Stars of David required by the Nazis centuries later. Taxes
imposed on the community grew more exorbitant, and doors and windows of
Jewish houses that overlooked routes frequented by Christians were required
to be sealed. By 1492, Gironas rich Jewish life came to an abrupt
end. At that time fewer than 300 people still remained in the Call. I
remember reading that on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion,
Spain bestowed its highest honorthe Prince of Asturias awardon
all the worlds Sephardic Jews. That year a whole flurry of seminars
and exhibits were mounted throughout the country, attracting hordes of
Jewish visitors. A long line of tourists is waiting behind us to see the
museum, so we move on to the shop. Isnt it wonderful that
the Catalan community has stepped up to reclaim its Jewish heritage!
says my husband as we peruse their collection of books.
Festival attendees burst into patriotic song to the accompaniment of a guitar. Fiercely proud of their region, many Catalonians currently seek independence from Spain.
The separatist fervor that has swept through the Basque Provinces is even more pronounced in Catalonia, a proud region dating back the 9th century. During the Franco regime, Catalonias identity and language were severely repressed, its institutions completely abolished. Today the movement has been reborn and continues to gain steam. Catalonia is now the wealthiest and most industrialized area in Spain and its restive people complain that they are propping up the entire Spanish economy. Recently, the regional Catalan parliament voted to begin the process of breaking away from Spain, paving the path for an independent Catalan state. The new Catalan president is the pro-separatist Carles Puigdemont, a native of Girona, no less. How all of this will end remains to be seen, comments Eric. You can sense their pride and determination just by the way they sing, I murmur as I walk past a group of youths singing with gusto.
The afternoon sun is casting long shadows as we cross the Onyar to Placa Independencia, a huge arcaded plaza lined with 19th century buildings designed by Marti Sureda, Gironas great municipal architect. Every café in the square is packed with people, not an empty seat to be had. At the far end an elevated festival stage is featuring a dozen musicians in a rollicking performance of traditional regional music. The audience is cheering, their glasses raised in boisterous toasts as they all join the performers in song. We would love to linger and digest the scene, but it is getting late. Next time, we have to stay for a few days, I tell my husband as we board the train to Sants, preferably right in heart of the old town. And well need to make that reservation for Celler de Can Roca months in advance. Kathy nods in agreement. How about including a side trip to Figueres to see the Dalí Museum? she suggests. And lets make a few stops on the Costa Brava, adds Eric to round out the plan, complete with some Michelin restaurants!
In just under an hour we are back in Barcelona, comfortably ensconced at the Avenida Palace near the Eixample District, our spirits high. What a great day! I sigh as I pull up my blanket, exhausted but elated. I nod off, envisioning myself surrounded by hundreds of townspeople on the Game of Thrones set. Minutes later, I am strolling through Gironas labyrinthine streets. The holiday crowds have vanished and I have the town all to myself. Church bells are tolling in unison as I enter each place of worship, taking in every resplendent nave, treasury and cloister. At the Arab Baths, I lean against an elegant column and dip my toes in the perfumed octagonal pool. But it is the heart of the Call that beckons me above all. I enter the study of the great Ramban. He does not see me standing silently over his shoulder. I close my eyes in reverence, soaking up the wisdom of the Kabbalah.