August 16, 2001
Get Lost in Girona
Girona (pronounced heh-row-na) is a small, culturally rich town in Catalan, Spain -- and is the perfect place to get yourself gloriously lost. Old Town Girona will toy with your sense of direction until you find yourself happily meandering through medieval alleyways, Gothic churches and the remains of what was once the center for mystical Jewish thought.
Founded as a Roman settlement, and later developed into an important medieval trade center, Girona's location in Northeastern Spain situated it perfectly to become a major gateway to the rest of Europe by land and Asia by sea. Due to its business traffic, Girona became one of Europe's most culturally diverse and peaceful settlements: Arabs, Christians and Jews lived peacefully together for long stretches of time.
Today, most visitors to Girona come to explore the town that, in the 12th and 13th centuries, was a hotbed for the most influential and lasting thought in the development of kabbalah. The rabbis of Girona were internationally respected for their dedication to creating a holistic view of the world through intuitive interpretations of the Torah. While the rabbis were breaking new ground in Jewish mysticism, their community underwent many periods of extreme success followed by, and punctuated with, imprisonment and decline.
The Jewish community in Girona, like all Jewish communities loyal to the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon, held an especially precarious position in society. In return for financial tribute, the Jews received protection from the king. The king's protection included freeing the Jews from the rule of city government at the same time that the city government was required to protect them from harassment. This arrangement easily separated the Jews from the rest of the city and sowed the seeds for conflict that was destined to arise.
Tolerance and acceptance of the Jewish community in Girona fluctuated. When relations between the Jews and the rest of Girona was good, there was intermarriage, joint business ventures and religious freedom. However, when relations soured, it was easy for the city to "protect" the Jews, for example, by locking them into their homes or neighborhoods or having them wear special clothing. Jews were also attacked and killed at times.
The Jews in Girona lived in a small area in the center of Old Town Girona called El Call, from the Hebrew root kahal, or community. They clustered their homes together and built winding alleyways, private gardens and a synagogue that moved locations so many times, no one is exactly sure of its final location.
Today, Girona is separated into two distinct towns separated by the River Onyar. New Girona is a modern Spanish town complete with sprawling parks, department stores and dance clubs, while Old Girona remains much as it was during medieval time -- a maze of stone buildings that seem to have grown out of the hill of their own volition. There is even a Jewish museum in El Call.
There are a series of bridges that cross the River Onyar leading from one side to the other. The main bridge (Pont de Pedra) will lead you first into the commercial district of Old Girona -- a street lined with trendy shops, gelaterias and restaurants. As you pick your way along the winding cobblestone streets the shiny commercial district gives way to the heart and soul of Old Girona.
Girona is the perfect town to wander in -- you're sure to stumble upon something interesting, delicious or downright awe-inspiring.