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.
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).
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.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
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’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.
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.
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.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
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.
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.
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.