If you’re looking for day-trip to escape the bustling barris of Barcelona, Girona may be just the ticket. Hailed as the “Toledo of Catalonia,” the city bears historical roots in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures. Only 30 minutes by train from the Catalonian capital—an excellent day trip from Barcelona—Girona proves to be a true crossroads of history and culture. Beyond its religious significance, the town is also home to the longest existing Carolingian walls in Europe. Be sure to climb the fortifications to see a stellar view of the historic city, including the Cathedral, the university, and Basilica Sant Feliu.
At Context we have been busy preparing the launch of our new Girona excursion and have unveiled some fascinating facts about this cultural epicenter. To delve a bit deeper, we chatted with docent and medievalist Dr. Oriol Catalan to discover more about the hidden gems Girona has to offer, and to better understand why this tiny town packs such a big cultural punch.
Girona has been a hot topic in the news as of late. Dr. Catalan excitedly tells us that only weeks ago, a 15th century mikvah (a Jewish bath) was discovered on the site of an ancient synagogue, which was abandoned in the summer of 1492 during the expulsion of Jews from Spain. “There are only three medieval mikvahs in Europe,” he exclaims, “another important one being located not far from Girona in Besalú.” Girona has long since served as a mecca for Jewish people, and this new discovery adds to the religion’s rich roots in the city. The Jewish Quarter was home to nearly 150 Jewish families until the expulsion in 1492, and today it remains very well preserved, containing a web of narrow medieval alleyways winding through the ancient Call. While navigating these serpentine streets, be sure to look for mezuzas, or hollows in the doorframe used to place a prayer in. “We can still find remains of the medieval houses just walking through the streets in Girona,” Catalan says. This quarter is also home to the Museum of Jewish History, which contains artifacts from as early as 890 A.D.
Displaying an eclectic mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, the Basilica of Sant Feliu is nestled in Girona’s old city. It served as the city’s first cathedral until the 10th century, shortly before construction was started on the Catedral de Girona. Venture into the interior of the basilica, and you’ll discover a celebrated Aloi de Montbrai sculpture of a recumbent Christ, as well as 4th century early Christian and pagan sarcophagi. When exploring the exterior facade of the basilica, keep an eye out for the great sculpted stone lion scaling a column. Why is this feline noteworthy? According to local legend, those who kiss its backside will return to Girona one day.
Climb the hilled paths of the city center and you’ll arrive at la Catedral de Girona, constructed between the 11th and 18th centuries. The true jewel of the city’s skyline, it features the hallmarks of varying architectural styles. The Gothic nave and the Romanesque tower are both juxtaposed against the imposing Baroque facade. The cathedral is home to the 11th century Tapestry of the Creation, which is considered to be a true masterpiece of medieval artwork. This appliqué is a must-see, as Dr. Catalan argues that this is, “the best example of a medieval tapestry in the world, tied only with the Bayeux Tapestry in France.”
The magnificent tapestry is not the only reason La Catedral holds such a prominent place in Gironian tradition; it also houses the sacred chapel of Narcism, the patron saint of Girona. According to local legend, 13th century French soldiers attempted to break into the martyr’s tomb, but were driven off by a swarm of enormous flies. How does this legend translate over to Girona’s culture today? Walk through any street in the city and you will find the mosques de Girona, chocolate flies produced by local artisans.
To understand how Islamic culture influenced Girona, one only has to visit the ruins of the 12th century Moorish baths. Built in 1194, the baths were designed in the Romanesque style. Duck into the entryway to see the wonderfully preserved central pool covered by a cupola. Visitors today can still navigate through the baths’ original layout, venturing through the apodyterium (changing rooms), frigidarium (the cold room which today still remains a few degrees colder than the rest of the ruins), and the tepidarium (the warm room). Although seriously damaged by the siege of 1294, these baths eventually became part of a convent run by 17th century Capuchin nuns, who used the baths as a laundry room!
If we haven’t already given enough reason to make Girona your next Barcelona day-trip, head to the historic town yourself to see these hidden gems and more. We have a feeling you’ll be puckering up for that stone lion at the basilica and returning to Girona again and again.
This spring, Context will be launching a Girona excursion as part of our Barcelona repertoire. To book a group or private walk, please visit us at www.contexttravel.com or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org