Girona was mine when I walked its medieval ramparts. It was in the early half of February of this year, a grey day when the drab skies above my head seemed to intensify the cold in the ancient town that is located in Spain’s Catalonia region. The bitterness of the day meant that I beheld a deserted town, but I was not going to bemoan the lack of day-trippers for the desolation compounded the aura of antiquity that hung around its terracotta roofs.
I took the train from Barcelona Sants to Girona, early one morning. Forty minutes later I was transported to another world when I started climbing a certain Capuchin Hill upon which the old quarters of Girona perch themselves strategically. The hill was named after the Capuchin friars who arrived there some time in the late 16th century.
Amidst the bleakness of the day, a meek sun struggled to part the clouds, and beneath its watery sunlight, I walked aimlessly. There is such joy in pottering around without an agenda – it affords one the thrill of discovery and is doubly pleasurable to the incurable romantic. Steep stone stairs and cobble-stoned alleys took me into the heart of Girona. Girona which was once Gerunda, when it was once home to the Iberians. Its coveted position as a highly wealthy town invited the attention of marauders. So they all came — the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, followed by the Romans again led by Charlemagne, the stalwart emperor who constructed a defensive wall around Girona. A canny move, I suppose, because the city was prey to many sackings.
In its old quarters, Barri Vell, I came upon a garden that read (bizarrely) ‘Jardins de John Lennon’. One of the mayors, it turns out, was a fan of Lennon. This garden was an oasis of solitude that guided me to some narrow winding stairs in a tower and soon I found myself walking old Charlemagne’s walls. Before me lay the panoramic view of Girona’s terracotta roofs, cathedrals and spires, stitched seamlessly with tall cypresses offering a dark green contrast to the dull ochre of the medieval buildings. The Pyrenees were its charming backdrop, a chain of smoky blue undulations on the horizon. One end of that wall seemed to dip into a sea of modern apartments, so I decided to turn back towards the old quarter.
In the Call, the Jewish quarter, I walked through such narrow alleys that if I stretched my hands out, they would touch the walls on both sides. It was moody, that neighbourhood with its huddle of decrepit houses and dark corners, cobbled lanes and gently ascending stairs. In the museum and bookshops, old Jews sat behind tills, adding to the atmosphere of the Call. Just as in other European cities, Jews were expelled from Girona in 1492 by the Catholic Kings, and it is said that while some families sold their properties to Christians before leaving, others blocked their houses in the hope that they would return some day. Encroachment over the years meant that these old houses were buried away till in the 19th century they were re-discovered during the construction of a railway line in town.
But a whole bunch of those abandoned medieval houses still seem to be waiting for their former residents to return. The La Judería turned out to be one of the most haunting Jewish quarters I have come across in all my travels in Europe because it seemed to centre around that singular feeling called hope, yet there remains that disquieting thought. What happens when hope does not get you anywhere?