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). https://bit.ly/2w1ml6F
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,
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…
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.