A walking tour of the medieval centre of Girona, Spain, a European city steeped in history
Located in the northeastern Catalonia region, the city of Girona is one of the most historic sites in Spain. In the guided walking tour I took through the city’s compact medieval core, I discovered medieval city walls, charming narrow alleyways full of history, cobblestone streets, the best-preserved medieval Jewish quarters in Spain, architectural landmarks, and lovely squares with outdoor cafés.
Situated at the conference of four rivers (Ter, Onyar, Galligans and Güell), Girona began as an Iberian settlement. The Romans built a citadel and named the town Gerunda. It’s position along the Via Augusta between Cadiz and Rome made it a popular stopover spot for the Romans. Because of its strategic location, it was fought over many times throughout history, earning it the nickname “the city of a thousand sieges.” Girona was ruled by the Visogoths and later the Moors. Charlemagne captured the city in 785 A.D. Girona became one of the principal districts of Catalonia. More than twenty sieges occurred over the subsequent years and Girona was captured seven more times.
Today, a modern cosmopolitan city spreads out around the historic centre, known as Old Town or Barri Vell, which means “Old Quarter” in Catalan. Old Girona is bordered on the east by the river Onyar. Several bridges cross this river to take you between old town and new town.
In the first century B.C. the Romans built a fortress with an almost triangular perimeter known as the Força Vella. Parts of that wall can still be seen today. Extensions to the wall were done in medieval times.
Narrow streets and alleyways, many of which are cobblestoned, meander through the Old Quarter. You’ll come across stone walls and stairs taking you to other levels.
The alleys become even narrower in the Call. The Call, a term which means “narrow streets” was once the Jewish Quarter. Girona had a significant Jewish population in Girona from the 9th century through the 15th century. Over 1,000 Jews present at the height of prosperity, artisans, merchants, doctors, bankers, moneylenders, poets and philosophers lived her at one time. By the 12th century, the population had become concentrated in the narrow labyrinth of streets in the Call. The Call was close to the Cathedral, from which clerical authorities could offer protection or, as our tour guide suggested, keep a watchful eye on the Jews.
When the plague swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, Jews became scapegoats. The incidence of the disease was lower among the Jewish population because of their isolation in ghettos and better hygiene due to ritual handwashing. The Call became a place of confinement and discrimination against Jews increased. They were expelled from Girona in 1492. Their homes remained vacant for centuries until new structures were built and gradually buried the Jewish call. Work to uncover and preserve Girona’s Jewish history began in the late 1970s. Today the city is home to a Jewish history museum and a centre for Jewish studies.
Girona is about 115 kilometres northeast of Barcelona. It can be reached by train, bus or car. Girona is a popular stop on tour company day excursions outside of Barcelona. Old Town is compact and easily walked, providing you wear comfortable shoes (cobblestones) and don’t mind stairs.
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