Dispatches from Abroad: The Gentle Yens of Girona

Jay Stone explores an ancient Spanish city to discover a slow parade of humanity on cobble stone streets and the prosthetic digits of Edward Scissorhands

By Jay Stone

GIRONA, Spain — There’s a great lassitude that settles over Spain on a Sunday — or perhaps, that settles over the visitor to Spain on a Sunday — that is somehow ideal if you wash up in Girona. It’s a medieval city just east of Barcelona whose historic district, all cobbled streets and narrow alleys, were built circa 1000. Little wrought iron balconies are set in the stone walls, and I saw an older couple sitting at a bistro table, having lunch together and each looking at their own cell phone.

The stores aren’t open, but the museums are free — a mixed blessing — and so you climb the steep steps behind the cathedral to the famous Jewish quarter, or El Call, one of the oldest in Europe. Once again, Jewish people have their historic roots on a hill all the better — at least in this telling — to come down from.

The Jewish museum, a spare and beautiful building carved into one of the rocky walls, tells a familiar story: Jews living happily with neighbours, then becoming outcasts and finally, in 1492, being sent out of Spain altogether. By coincidence, this is the same year Christopher Columbus was sailing to the New World on behalf of his Spanish sponsors. Not that there’s any connection, but it could account for the fact that El Call seems empty today but Brooklyn, N.Y., is thriving.

A few streets over is another interesting destination, Barcelona’s Museu del Cinema, three floors of history that take you from the earliest days of shadow puppets right to the actual prop hands that Johnny Depp wore in Edward Scissorhands. You’re invited to turn cranks and push buttons to see how early magic shadows worked. It’s altogether charming.


Houses along the Onyar River in Girona

An associated show on the main floor features the works of British photographer Terry O’Neill: the unknown Beatles in the back yard of Abbey Road studios in 1963, Clint Eastwood reading a newspaper on board a boat, many photos of Frank Sinatra, including one of him walking along a Miami street surrounded by five bodyguards, and a portrait of Paul Newman and Lee Marvin on the set of the 1971 film Pocket Money, looking craggy and cool. What faces!

One spends the rest of the day at one of several sidewalk cafes, drinking coffee or wine or water (both still and con gas), and watching the world stroll by, slowly. Spanish families move in groups, dads and moms playing with their children, grandparents sometimes shuffling behind. There are numerous babies and many dogs, including a disproportionate number of white Scottish terriers. The connection could be that Scotland and Catalonia are both pushing for independence, and there are flags flying from almost every building and signs reminding us, sometimes in English, that Catalonia is not Spain.

This isn’t the time for such considerations, however. The weather has turned warmer, too hot for political passions. Once you have stopped for yet more coffee or another cup of wine or a second, unnecessary and irresistible pastry, you realize the rules of cafe society are relentless: you just keep moving, from table to table along this hidden cobbled street or that. If you play your cards right, you can walk off the food between meals and, on a good day, break even.

Burst of historic interest engage you. One of the little bridges across the Onyar River, that joins old Girona to new, was built by Gustav Eiffel, the tower guy. On the west side of town is a large grove of trees, the Jardins de la Devsa, that was planted by Napoleon. They seem to be doing pretty well. Their shade is welcome. Young people hang around in groups, sitting on the steps of churches that are centuries old and eating ice cream cones or crepes. There’s nothing much else to do, it seems. There hasn’t been for a thousand years.


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