I arrived in Girona in the mid-afternoon of a bright winter day in January, after an easy one-hour drive from Barcelona’s El Prat Airport. Northern Catalonia’s largest city, Girona turned out to be bigger than I expected; I even got lost in a commercial area on its outskirts before finding my way downtown.
I drove by several large and beautiful parks before I found Hotel Peninsular, in the Old Town. I left my rental car in an underground parking lot (parking is a problem in old European cities, most hotels don’t have it and direct you to park somewhere else), and walked around a bit, pleased with the view: on both sides of the Riu Onyar (Onyar River), colorful buildings rose above the water. Right behind them, a street lined with busy shops – Rambla de la Llibertat – looked inviting for a walk. Businesses were closing and cafés were getting crowded with animated people ready for happy hour. “A nice place this Girona,” I thought, passing by banners that demanded the release of Catalan political prisoners. A few months before, all of Catalonia was shaken by confrontations between separatists and the central government in Madrid. Now, at least on the surface, everything looked calm.
Girona is a jewelry-box of museums, galleries, Gothic churches and many high end shops. Known for its medieval architecture, a walled Old Town and ruins of a fortress, the city goes back to Roman times, with ramparts still intact today. Huge Roman foundations still mark the route called Via Augusta, once connecting Tarragona to Rome. After the Romans, Girona was controlled on and off by the Moors – Muslims of North Africa – and their influence is noticeable in the town’s elaborate architecture. Taken back by the Franks under Charlemagne in the 8th century, Girona was a wealthy city in medieval times. Fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic buildings from that era still exist, so much so that parts of Season 6 of HBO’s hit series ‘Game of Thrones’ were filmed there (Braavos, Old Town and Kings Landing are actually today’s Girona). The town’s architecture alone – or its amazing gastronomic scene – would be enough to please travelers sensitive to details. But Girona offers more.
Girona has history, loads of it. Being a history buff, I was curious about something that happened there in the 12th century, when it was home to one of Catalonia’s largest and most prosperous Jewish communities. Documented since the year 1160, the Jews of Girona contributed to fields as diverse as astronomy, medicine and the arts, and at its highest point their community had more than 800 people. The most important Kabbalah school in Europe was there, and by and large Jews lived peacefully, alongside the Christian majority in town.
That started to change during the Crusades, when an area of the city called El Call – a maze of tiny alleys surrounded by a stone wall – turned into a ghetto, as the Jews were gradually confined to it by the authorities. It was around that time that the notorious ‘Disputes’ – rigged debates intended to ridicule pillars of their community – started to happen. The animosity led to mass ‘conversions,’ which in reality were just public events at which Jews, under substantial pressure, became Catholics.
The Jewish Quarter of Girona once had synagogues, ritual baths, schools and hospitals built specifically for them. But one night in 1391 changed it all: there was a riot, and a Catholic mob broke into the ghetto, killing 40 of its residents. Since the Jewish community was – supposedly – under the king’s protection (they paid more taxes than the Catholics), royal troops were sent in, and the survivors were confined to Galligants Tower. When released, after 17 weeks, they found their homes and possessions destroyed; many converted to Catholicism out of fear, and some left Girona. One hundred years later, in 1492, the few Jews still there were permanently expelled from town – and from all of Spain – by a royal decree of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, known in history as the ‘Catholic Monarchs.’ With full support from the Pope, in one night they ended a story that had been 1500 years in the making.
Today El Call is the best-preserved Jewish quarter of Europe and a frequent set for movies (parts of Game of Thrones were filmed there). Its narrow streets still center on Carrer de la Força, for 600 years the center of Jewish life; now it’s home to the Jewish History Museum, that documents their history in Catalonia in the Middle Ages. Nearby is the Nahmanides Institute for Jewish Studies, a research centre with a library holding over 6,000 publications.
After walking the narrow streets of El Call, I stopped for a coffee, still intrigued by what I had just seen. When I asked the bar owner if there were Jewish people still living there, he changed the subject. But on my way back to the hotel that evening, as I watched the lights turning on all over Girona – making it look like pieces of amber jewels – I couldn’t help thinking of the irony of it all: some of the descendants of those Jews expelled from Spain eventually found new life in America, a new world that in 1492 had just been discovered by Christopher Columbus. Navigating under the Spanish flag, his expedition was financed by Queen Isabel herself, who sold her jewels to pay for his ships. Sometimes facts are stranger than fiction.