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The Countless Legends of Girona

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Once upon a time, in the days of the Egyptian god Osiris, there lived somewhere to the south a giant monster with three heads, called Gerió. Seeking to enlarge his empire he headed north where he built a castle and founded a city that would one day bear his name: Geriona, today’s Girona.

Or not.

Perhaps Girona was founded by the Celts. Or maybe it was the “Gerhona” of the Phoenicians. Or the “Kerunta” or “Gerunda” of the Romans.

No matter. In this gathering of archways and cobblestones, what really counts is legend and myth, not necessarily history (although at times you’d think they are one and the same).

Girona, Catalonia

Girona, moody and mystical

Perhaps it’s the wilderness of the region, the forests and mountains and rough coastlines.

Or maybe it’s the passage of time, the centuries of stories lost in the mists of the past.

But ask a question in Girona and the answer might begin like this: “Well, you see, there’s a legend…”

Some are anchored in historical figures or facts, some are reinvented archetypes, and some are truly made up, a make-believe garden of jumbled untruths that bring a sparkle to reality. Certain legends even come from ancient mythology, from the Greeks and the Romans and other peoples who have since shimmered away.

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Girona sits in the northeastern Spanish autonomous (and fiercely independence-minded) region of Catalunya and spreads over four rivers – well, three rivers and a ravine that turns into a river when it rains.

It was once best-known for being grey and dirty and vile smelling, its toilets draining directly into the rivers, its buildings bombed during the Civil War and its paper factories a major source of pollution for the surrounding waters.

After the death of the dictator Francisco Franco (most everything in Spain is known as ‘before’ or ‘after Franco’) the city decided to spruce itself up. It refurbished its facades and brought toilets indoors, which improved not only the view but the aroma.

Today, the city is known as “Girona the Caramel” and is home to what has been commended as the world’s best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca.

Girona, Spain

Girona the Caramel, seen from Eiffel Bridge (one of the city’s 11 bridges), built before Mr Eiffel built his tower in Paris

Girona’s transformation has been tremendous, but its myths remain. I witnessed this love of legend first-hand, where every statue had its story and every corner its myth.

Like the myth of the witch of the Cathedral.

She was an evil witch and hated everything religious so she insulted the Cathedral and threw rocks at it each time she walked by. One day during a religious procession she threw her habitual rocks when a voice warned, “You throw rocks so you shall become rock.” She turned to stone and was hoisted up the Cathedral wall, where she became a gargoyle, facing downward to never see the sky again.

And here she sits atop the wall, spitting out water rather than stones.

Gargoyle Girona cathedral

The witch of the Cathedral of Girona (Wikimedia Commons)

Girona legends

The Cathedral of Girona has the widest Gothic nave in the world. Walking around its edge up high, a sense of the mystical is as inevitable as the pull of its space.

The legends of Girona aren’t limited to Christianity.

There is a story of a Jewish woman, called La Tolrana, whose decapitated body was found in the Gironella tower. Jews had sought refuge there when farmers – egged on by Christian clergy – attacked them and sacked the Jewish quarter. Only those who hid or agreed to be baptized survived the massacre. It is said that La Tolrana‘s ghost haunts the Old Quarter of Girona and sings sadly in an unknown language. Many locals who stroll around the Old Quarter at night claim to have heard her plaintive song – but haven’t been able to pinpoint where it comes from.

Girona was also the birthplace of Inquisitor General Nicolau Eymerich, known for his diligent persecution of heretics and blasphemers – and witches. He wrote a guide for the Inquisition – a festering horror that contaminated Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond – the notorious Directorium inquisitorum, an instruction manual for capturing, torturing and eventually burning witches, usually alive.

Jewish museum Girona

Star of David in the inside courtyard of the Museum of Jewish History, Girona

Girona’s Jewish history was lost along with most of its Jews after they were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Kings in 1492.

On a steep hillside within reach of the caramel-hued houses along the Onyar River, a darkish street opens onto a bright patio embedded with an enormous stone Star of David. This is the heart of the old Jewish quarter, or Call, buried for nearly 500 years as houses were built on top of houses. What lay under was nearly forgotten until the modern city began to spread and Jewish buildings were accidentally unearthed in the 1970s.

The Call has undergone extensive restoration and today Girona has embraced its Jewish past and is considered a center of mystical and religious knowledge, in part for being the birthplace of the Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish mystical tradition.

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Not far from the Onyar’s banks sits a modern building with a strange image across its facade, part mural, part legend – and mostly animal.

This scaly creature represents yet another legend, La Cocollona. It is said that a convent once stood here, its nuns slightly less than holy, leading dissipated lives – except for one nun who had found true religious calling. The other nuns tried to shut her up by locking her into an underground cell.

As the years passed in the darkness and humidity, she began to grow flaky skin and scales until she became a crocodile. But because of her beauty and purity she also grew a set of lovely butterfly wings. When she died her ghost could be seen wandering along the banks of the Onyar, near where she had been held prisoner. They say that when the moon is full, her ghost can be seen swimming along the river as the sun rises. 

legends of girona cocollona

La Cocollona – half crocodile, half butterfly

One last legend. It’s about a lion’s bum.

Yes, you did read correctly.

According to this particular legend, if you want to live in Girona forever – and many do – or at least come back if you leave, you should kiss the lion’s rear end.

Or if you want good luck. Or happiness forever.

Many visitors pucker up, like my brave friend Jeff here.

Lion bum Girona legends

Left, my friend Jeff Dobbins, a delightful travel blogger, is working his way up to kiss the cat (this is a copy – the original is in the city’s Museum of Art behind the Cathedral) while I look on (photo @myvideomedia). Right, the lion in its full glory (photo Jeff Dobbins)

Today, these legends are quaint and amusing.

Back when they originated, they were matters of life and death, of witchcraft and devil worship and persecution. Over centuries the damages of history and superstition have been attenuated, preserved in lore, but not altogether forgotten.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • You can fly directly into Girona-Costa Brava Airport from 35 cities in Europe and Morocco, usually for cheaper than you can fly to Barcelona (because of lower airport taxes). If you land in Barcelona, you can easily take a train or bus to Girona.
  • Girona’s Tourist Office has several orienteering circuits – pick up your maps and check off your sightings.
  • The Museum of Jewish History has a small but excellent collection and is absolutely worth a visit.
  • I didn’t eat at the expensive El Celler de Can Roca but its owners also own the downtown Rocambolesc Gelateria – ice cream to stand in line for.

This experience was made possible by Girona Turisme and our wonderful guide Gloria Lomas (thank you for the ice cream!) Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way.

11 Comments

  1. Donna on May 12, 2015 at 12:43 am

    i just read this post in a hotel room in Girona. It will guide my tomorrow’s wandering’s! Delightful.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 12, 2015 at 7:20 am

      Don’t forget to drop by the tourist office for the orienteering map (and ask them to mark Rocambolesc for you while you’re at it!)

  2. SOFIA CANOVAS on May 12, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Excellent explanation!!!! Girona and its esoteric vibs cannot be missed.
    I would also suggest to visit the Tapestry of Creation or Girona Tapestry is a Romanesque panel of needlework from the 11th century, housed in the Museum of the Cathedral . It depicts a series of theological scenes related with the Christian creation myths (the Genesis, the cosmic elements
    the Stories of the Holy Cross). As a restaurant, I would recomment to go to Le Bistrot (located in the Old town “Casc Antic” , near the cathedral). You can also walk on the walls of Girona “La Muralla” to have great views over Girona.
    During end of October local festivities are taking place “Barraques”, where you can listen to different live concerts during the night, interact with students, dance and go to grab some drinks at the “barraca” of different associations. Finally I would also recommend to visit the University of Girona’s gothic, its cloister and of course, as a good Spanish/Catalan…the coffee shop! Comments from an ex-student of the University of Girona, SCP

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 12, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Wonderful suggestions Sofia! I did see the tapestry and frankly there is so much to write about Girona I can’t really fit it all into one post… so I’ll have to go back! 🙂

  3. Lucy Maya on May 13, 2015 at 6:56 am

    It is very informative for new travelers. It inspires the women to travels. Thank you.

  4. Jeff Dobbins on May 13, 2015 at 7:19 am

    Loved this! Girona is one of my favorite places, and many of these legends are new to me. Also, thrilled to be featured in this wonderful post. As you know, I kissed that lion’s bum, so I should happily be back in beautiful Girona soon.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 13, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      You did, Jeff, you did – but I used this picture instead so we could all see your wonderful expression! It’s my second trip to Girona but I feel I barely scratched the surface and will inevitably have to go back – and I didn’t even kiss the lion!

  5. HJ Brown on July 18, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    I have just read a book, City of Good Death by Chris Lloyd, (hence the Google search), which uses some of the myths in the plot. The book is brilliant and I now want to visit Girona.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 19, 2015 at 11:06 am

      And I’ve just bought the book! 🙂

      ***EDITED*** I’ve now read the book and yes, it is brilliant! I love police investigation fiction and what I need to do is revisit Girona with book in hand and retrace all the landmarks – a bit like seeing the Louvre through the eyes of the Da Vinci Code…

  6. […] bottoms! It is believed that if you kiss the lion’s bottom then you will return to Girona. Leyla Alyanak describes the myths and legends of Girona in more […]

  7. nikki webster on January 5, 2017 at 11:17 am

    I lived on the Costa brava and used to do guided tours here. 20 years later have returned to live here with my children. The Lion’s derrièrre has never been so relevant! 😍

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