Girona, Spain: two peoples, a thousand years apart, each calling for autonomy

We have landed in the small city of Girona in the far northeast corner of Spain, part of the Catalonia region. It’s a city we’d never heard of but chose because (1) we wanted to avoid the madding crowds of Barcelona, (2) it was near the Pyrenees mountains and good for scenery, and (3) it would be a good base from which to explore the nearby Costa Brava, where we’d take peaceful walks along the spectacular Mediterranean coastline and visit the Dalí Museum.

None of that happened once we realized that the tourist crowds of Barcelona were heading to or coming back from the Costa Brava, with the Dalí museum a de rigueur stop.


But in Girona we found a beautiful medieval town with two intriguing chapters of human history, a thousand years distant, with each group wanting only self determination to maintain their culture, language, rights, customs, and rituals: a Jewish community that thrived here for 600 years, from the 9th-14th century, and a 21st-century Catalonia community with its own unique identity, including a language that is not related to Spanish.

The juxtaposition of these two histories marked our visit to Girona: the Jewish community that was destroyed by extreme persecution, the Spanish inquisition and eventual expulsion from Spain, and the Catalans who are still here and fighting for autonomy and independence from the rest of Spain..

The walled city of Girona, as with so much of historic Spain, changed hands regularly with invasions, wars, regional conflicts, the inquisition, immigration and emigration. The first inhabitants were prehistoric Iberians (migrating Celtic peoples), then came the Romans (4th century), followed by Visigoths and Moors (8th century), and in the 9th century Christians wrested the region of Girona from the Moors in a re-conquest at the hands of a local called Wilfred the Hairy (really! Guifré el Pilós). He re-populated areas the Moors had left, established laws of inherited titles and land, and is often credited with being the founder of independent Catalonia. Here is here below fighting a dragon.

In Girona, we found the remains of the Jewish community in a puzzle of labyrinthine streets in the old town and an excellent new Museum of Jewish History built on the site of an ancient synagogue and mikvah (ritual bath).

The Jewish Quarter (aljama) in Girona, which dates back to at least the 9th century, grew up in the old town around the Cathedral, with synagogue, baths, butcher shop, book binders and sellers, shoemakers, tailors, weavers, midwives, and money lenders. For 600 years the community thrived, as Jews became a prosperous and influential part the city’s life, although always ruled over by – and in alliances with – the Christian rulers.

In the museum we saw original documents such as elaborate marriage agreements (if one was destroyed by fire, the couple was no longer considered married until a new one was drawn up,) massive medieval gravestones with Hebrew text that we couldn’t believe they moved into the space (we later saw a photo – power lifted through an opening in stone walls) and archeological finds such as 13-14th century ceramic jugs and silver earrings,

Michael in courtyard of old synagogue

All this changed in the 14th century, when the Jewish quarter became a target of racist attacks, then an isolated ghetto with Jews banned from the rest of the city, and In the year 1391 a violent attack wiped out half the Jewish population and ordered those who remained to convert to Christianity. Those who refused to convert, or were suspected of following their religious rituals or practices, were denounced, imprisoned for life, or burned alive. The Inquisition destroyed any remnants of the aljama and in 1492, as Columbus sailed for the New World, all Jews were expelled from Spain. Our time in the museum and after, walking the ancient streets of Girona as the city prepared for its annual flower festival, it was hard to grasp the inhumanity and cruelty of human beings to one another…

“629 were burned alive and and 609 who had fled were burned in effigy.”

Leaving the Museum of Jewish History we saw everywhere pro-independence banners and flags (with a single star) and the ubiquitous yellow lapel pins. Photos of political prisoners hung large on buildings with signs like the one below.

The leader of one of two pro-independence parties, Carles Puigdemont, a journalist and politician, is from Girona. Two years ago the Spanish government forcible removed him and others from office in the Catalan parliament after an unofficial referendum in 2017 – when 92% voted “yes” – and the parliament declared independence from Spain. The leaders were charged with rebellion and misuse of public funds. Puigdemont fled the country, lives in exile in Belgium, and last week was re-elected in absentia as president of his party.

Two activists and seven politicians remain in prison. We saw banners and their photos here in Girona and all over in Catalonia – including yellow ribbons strung along highway fences.

We were ready to leave Girona and politics behind and travel to the beautiful village of Besalú. There we stayed five days and found an HBO film crew preparing the historic center for a shoot of the third season of Westworld (??): sand bags (filled with nut shells), barricades, vintage clothes hanging from windows half-covered with wooden planks. I think there’s a Spanish Civil War theme going here, but we didn’t ask.

Cañar Book Club

Spain reads! There are bookstores in every town, large magazine stands on the streets, and in Catalonia free books exchanges in the bus stations. Our Cañar book club had a short meeting this time, but I’m happy to pass on some comments and recommendations from some of our most active members, and a report of my desultory reading in Spain.

Patty from Portland writes: “Brother by David Chariandy was suggested by your book club. Very good and you will recognize Toronto/Scarborough – all places are accurate. Maggie O’Farrell is new to me but what a storyteller she is! On my third novel and I can’t put her down.”

And Claire from London: I can’t remember who mentioned the book, West by Carys Davies, but I wanted to thank them as I’d never heard of it – or indeed the author before. She writes extraordinary prose, taut and concise but at the same time incredibly descriptive. It’s a thin book which could have done with a few more pages to flesh out some of her descriptions and ideas! Never mind, I still wanted to turn the page to find out what happened next and I did feel transported to late 19th century U.S. 

Claire goes on to add: Now here’s a weird thing that happened. I was finishing the book on a bus home one evening and a man approached me to ask if he could take a picture of me reading it to share with the author who, he said, was a good friend! I declined. I’m not of the selfie/instagram generation and found it a bit uncomfortable, even more so when he then confessed that he had two copies of the book at home but hadn’t yet read it! 

And from Arlene in Toronto: Yes, I am the one who recommended Carys Davies. I think her book The Redemption of Galen Pike is even more exhilarating to read than West.

Alan in New Jersey is reading Klondike Fever by Pierre Berton. “He goes into great detail about a lot of boys on a mission and what greed can do to them. I read Berton’s two volumes about the War of 1812. That’s when I found out that the oral history we have about an ancestor of ours in that war is about four thirds untrue.”

From Pat in Bend, Oregon: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver about life in precarious times when the foundations of the past fail to prepare us for the future. It’s a story of two families in two different centuries that live precariously on the corner of 6th and Plum in Vineland, NJ, a former utopian community.”

Laura in New York recommends The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

From my sister Char: The Principles of Uncertainty, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman. “I’m sure most of you have read her, but this book is a real journey. Just the title made it relevant for today: the eternal question of who are we and what are we, with a touch of the Holocaust, growing old, fashion, hairdos and dogs.”

And finally, from Patricia in Cuenca: The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison. “A new collection of essays and lectures spanning four decades of the author’s career that cements her status as an unparalleled literary innovator.”

My own reading during this past month: Voices of the Old Sea, by Norman Lewis, based on his memories of post-WW II Costa Brava and the book that made me want to visit the area. It was as enjoyable a read this time as it was a few years ago, though I was shocked that he described Besalú (the village we loved) as …”an unattractive town built round a hundred yards of third-class highway.” I think he got it confused with somewhere else!

A Penelope Lively book I found in a thrift store in Madrid, How it All Began, a sweet and wry novel that starts with the street mugging of an older woman and the “butterfly effect” as lives around her intersect. I’ve always loved Lively and this felt like we’re old friends growing older together. I note her new book is Life In the Garden – now on my list.

There were a couple of other forgettable books as I ran out of reading material, but I have a prize in my carry-on bag for the 12-hour flight back to Ecuador tomorrow, given me by my sister before she left Madrid: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje – another writer that’s been a part of my life since I read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid while doing a typing stint in Toronto at Coach House Press, his first publisher.

Well dear readers, that’s it for now – it was not such a short meeting after all. Keep the book club recommendations coming and I’ll make one final Cañar Chronicle in June before we return to Portland in July.

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27 thoughts on “Girona, Spain: two peoples, a thousand years apart, each calling for autonomy

  1. What a fascinating post!
    My father believes that my family were among those Jews who were expelled from Spain and somehow landed in Germany.

    I too love Michael Ondaatje…especially “Coming Through Slaughter”.

  2. I went to Giorna a few years ago …a day trip from Barcelona. I feel ashamed that, as a Jew, I didn’t visit all the places that you and Michael saw. I remember it being very windy and beautiful. I have to review my photos and see what/where I did do while there. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Jude, so well done your report from Girona! Thank you for history i would never have known, the Jews in Spain suffering the wrath of the Catholic monarchs. And i thought the Cathars had it bad on Southern France!
    I’m still reading How it all Began, and enjoying it so much. No new books to recommend yet!
    Love, sister Char

  4. …and I realized on a closer look that I had already read Warlight! But I’m re-reading the last chapter so I can share some information to you… (see email)

  5. We also loved Girona. We went because of Portland connection. My nephew, an architect in PDX, taught at PSU and invited me to undergrad design presentation. For a number of years PSU students did a study abroad seminar in/of Girona, and then did final presentations at PSU. It looked so lovely with such rich history, and medieval design, we decided to visit for a few days. We were not disappointed.

  6. Dear Judy,

    Thanks for the fascinating account of your visit to Girornal. When I was in Canar in the 60s I remember a musty library with documents written hundreds of years. This si the blog post written by John Hammock on the dramatic change in the status of women from 50 years earlier and today. An important part of this change is your scholarship fund.


    From slaves to entrepreneurs: the liberation potential of indigenous women in the Highlands of Ecuador
    Professor John Hammock
    29 May, 2019
    Associate Professor John Hammock offers a personal reflection on his return to Cañar, in the Highlands of Ecuador, nearly 50 years after first visiting to carry out research, and the visible transformation of its society and economy.

    I first visited Ecuador in 1969 as part of a team to research social community development efforts. With my colleague Jeff Ashe, I interviewed indigenous leaders of the country and was shocked that story after story spoke of life for indigenous people on the hacienda as sub-human. Indigenous people would not look up to talk to the bosses; they were punished if they gathered wood or water from the vast hacienda lands for cooking in their chozas, their poor adobe and thatched huts; when I talked to indigenous men on the street they would answer ‘sí mi patroncito’ – ‘yes my lord.’

    As for the women, they cooked, cleaned, worked the fields, fetched water and had children – sometimes more than 10 – and made sure they did not walk alone, day or night. Rape of young indigenous women was institutionalised: they were regularly required to spend a month ­living in the convent and working to clean the local church. Children fathered by priests had a special name, were taken in by the indigenous community, but marked for life by their appearance. The same was true in many haciendas, with the administrators and bosses – ‘patrones’ – freely raping women as part of what they saw as the ‘benefits’ that went with the job.

    In 2018, nearly 50 years later, I returned to Cañar for to interview some of the young Cañar leaders of that time and to see first hand change in this one community. Due to a land reform effort that began in 1964, the haciendas had been broken up and land was granted to indigenous families and indigenous cooperatives. I expected to find that the breakup had had a major impact on the lives of indigenous people. But I did not expect to find independent women entrepreneurs on Main Street.

    I spoke at length with María Esthela Mainato, for example, who owns a photography shop in Cañar. María started the business with her husband, but he ended up spending more time on the road with his band while María Esthela Mainato ran the business. She became the first indigenous person to join the Cañar business association. But then the mainstay of the business, developing film, collapsed due to mobile phones. She needed to purchase new equipment to keep up with the times as she moved more into her own photography and video work, but she could not get a loan on her own – she would need the signature of her husband, from whom she was now separated. When he demanded that she add to the loan to provide extra for him, she refused and instead persuaded the Indigenous Savings and Loans Cooperative to make an exception for her. Today, María Esthela Mainato, who only finished high school as an adult, is on the board of a non-profit that gives scholarships to indigenous women to attend university.

    María Esthela Mainato is one of about 30 indigenous businesses in Cañar—all of them owned by women.

    Bilingual education has been a key factor in this transformation. Through the hacienda period, indigenous people mostly spoke Kichwa. Many barely spoke Spanish, and certainly almost no women (or men) could read or write in any language, let alone Spanish. With the agrarian reform and literacy campaigns, bilingual education in Kichwa was legitimised; indigenous culture was acknowledged,­­ not only opening doors for the indigenous people, but also challenging many mestizos’ belief that they were inferior because they could not speak Spanish.

    In every household I visited in rural Cañar, every child was in school, boys and girls all the way up through high school and in many households into university and even graduate school. This is a sea change, brought about by bilingual education and free education. Education is highly valued in Cañar, and has been a clear avenue for change for the rural population.

    The serious economic downturn in Ecuador with banks collapsing and the economy bottoming out in the early 2000s led to the mass migration of Ecuadoreans to the United States and Spain – including indigenous people – from Cañar. As young and middle-aged men left the villages and rural areas, the women – recently liberated from the haciendas – were now able to take more prominent roles. Men started sending remittances back to their wives and parents, and life was transformed. Over the next 37 years, remittances became the biggest source of money for the rural Cañari people.

    The legal break-up of the hacienda system, the migration of men and the availability of bilingual education all have transformed the lives of Cañari families. For those of us who saw the reality of 50 years ago in the late 60s, this huge change is astounding.

    Is there more to do and is further empowerment of indigenous women needed? Absolutely. But for María Estela who proudly said to me, ‘I am now the owner of my business,’ and for indigenous women who put up with patriarchal slavery for almost 500 years, the last 50 years appear to have been transformative and liberating.

  7. Thank you Judy for your thorough report on Girona. Larry just arrived there today to bike with friends in the Pyrenees. Hello to Michael.

  8. Thank you Judy. I am always interested in your travels and the history that you share. Looking forward to seeing you and Michael this summer. I just finished “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”. It is only 107 pages and I wish it had been longer. It has terrific humor and a couple of pretty good ideas. A very fun read.

  9. Judy, I enjoyed your description of places I’ve been to numerous times (though not for a few years now) & enjoyed a lot. When I first saw the mikvah (Jewish bath) it was more-or-less a hole in the ground with a bit of a wooden fence and a little sign! We just climbed right into it. I recommend “The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain” by Erna Paris, an old book (mid-90s I think) but an excellent account of the tolerance prior to “Los Reyes Catholiques” and the horrors of the Inquisition & expulsion. Mariana’s Mom loved it.
    Too bad I didn’t know you were heading to Catalunya as I would have connected you to Mariana’s artist sister & her partner (the village engineer, with whom Michael would have lots to discuss).who live in a small village an hour outside BCN. Next year, maybe.

  10. Hi Judy, Char and all,
    Yes, the Xians in Iberia were mean beyond description. For a look at how Christians Jews and Muslims got along during the caliphate that covers the same period from about 800 CE two 1492 CE, read Maria Rosa Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World. It is a fabulous book— language, culture and history. What is striking is that under the Muslim caliphate, Jews and Christians were permitted to be part of the culture so long as they did not blaspheme Mohamed. Several outstanding Jews were ministers to the Caliphs. The book is also about Arabic as a living language, and how Hebrew came alive outside of the narrow demands of the liturgy. Latin, however, the language of the Xians, remained as brittle at the Church, never to coma alive again.

    An added plus to the book: a very strange Forward by Harold Bloom.

    BYW, I’m in the Hudson River Valley after attending my 50th Yale reunion

  11. Judy, increíble. Gracias. You capture two peoples, two cultures with such sensitivity and empathy. This story of condemning the ‘other’ and not celebrating diversity and tolerance is still too common today.

  12. Hi Judy, your report on the Jewish quarter of Girona reminded me of the novel I am currently reading, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish. This is about descendants of Portuguese Jews who escaped the inquisition by moving to Britain, and how modern-day researchers uncovered this history through 17th century manuscripts found in an English home.

  13. Hello Judy & Michael. I forwarded your post to my son Guy & his wife Jocelyn, who will be traveling in Spain this summer with their children. Remy is now 15 & Josie is 10.
    I am currently reading Michael Ondaatje’s Cat’s Table, which I recommend to your book club members.

    I am in Portland now but leaving June10, so will see you only online this year. All the best, as ever, Mel

  14. Janice – I think it was this organization that I came across in the Jewish Museum in Girona: The European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage
    One of their programs is European Routes of Jewish Heritage. Your father might be interested to take a look?

  15. HI MEL – let Guy and Jocelyn know that I’m available to provide any other information regarding travel in Spain… We’ve been going almost every year since 2009. Hard to believe…

  16. Ah…The darkest sides of our humanity lurk everywhere – even in the most beautiful of cities. The Jewish quarters of every Spanish city were always my favorite places to stay.
    I hope you had a wonderful Spanish May.

  17. Hermana Grande – this was so good and so sad! The photos beautiful!
    thanks so much for this and all of your fabulous posts.

    reading: The Night Of The Gun by David Carr – one of the best written
    memoirs ever – about addiction mainly but so much more. Can’t put it
    down. His daughter Erin is releasing a doc about him I think on PBS –

  18. Sounds fascinating. It’s on my list and I’ll add it to the June book club. Thanks Chris.

  19. Thanks Allison. You are a great reader – send me some recommendations of books for the June Cañar Book Club.

  20. Maggi – thanks for recommendation of the book – it’s on my list. Now, you can’t jump into the mikvah, but it’s been nicely restored for a good look. We saw another mikvah in Besalú, where apparently the Jews migrated from to Girona. so much history!

  21. I can just imagine Larry’s bike trip in the areas we visited. Saw lots – and lots! – of bikers, all ages, having great rides. Also on the trains, moving from place to place.

  22. Thanks Macon. I’ve got that book somewhere on my shelves, but forgot. I’ll take another look…

  23. Muchas gracias Judy… I’m following the yellow vests (as best I can with the limited coverage) and it’s fascinating to see this merge with the Catalan independence movement.

    I’m passing on another interesting part of the art history of this area as I just learned about these this year. There are these magnificent Romanesque Frescoes from this region. They are so unique and creative and they were moved from the little churches in the early 1900’s to two museums in Barcelona. I’m returning to Barcelona in September just to experience these. I’d never known about them until now. Also of interest, these were loved by the young Picasso and he had copies in his studio.
    For anyone who wants a peek…here’s a link…

    Thank you again for this lovely visit to Girona.
    Happy trails to you and Michael.

  24. Dear Judy,

    I was reading your book club entries and thinking that I should propose the wonderful book I just finished, come to find that you are reading Warlight! I absolutely loved it and am thinking of buying another Ondaatje book for my upcoming trip to the beach (I love The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost). Also, there was an article in the NYT recently about the best memoirs of the last 50 years and there are a number of those now on my list.

    Love, Lisa

  25. Hi Judy, Love hearing from you!

    Re: your goddaughter and OSU. Just had a thought about your foundation’s strong support in Bend. You probably already know there’s an OSU campus in Bend that is really taking off, and she’d likely have a place to stay and a community that is striving to become more diverse all the time. Just a thought. Pat Kestner

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