The beauty of Catalonia, with a Jewish touch

Here you can observe bears, otters, white and gray wolves, lynxes and mountain deer. Free trails help you experience the intimacy of wild animals within their ecosystem.

The Museum of Jewish History in Girona (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Museum of Jewish History in Girona
(photo credit: Courtesy)
CATALONIA, Spain – Thinking of spring break in a beautiful country, a place with parks, extreme sports, arts and culture, and delicious food? On top of that, want some personal Jewish connections to bring meaning to your vacation? Well, consider the northeast part of Spain known as Catalonia (everything except Barcelona – if you haven’t been there already, save it for another trip).
For starters, visit Aran Park, 6.5 hectares (16 acres) of wildlife in the Aran Valley where you can discover the fauna and flora and explore the biodiversity of the Pyrenees.
Here you can observe bears, otters, white and gray wolves, lynxes and mountain deer. Free trails help you experience the intimacy of wild animals within their ecosystem.
You can also discover the National Park of Aiguestortes and Lake Sant Maurici. The two present the typical high mountain features of the Pyrenees, with rich landscapes and crystal clear waterfalls, rocky slopes, thick black pine and northern plants.
You then must – and I mean it, must – visit the mountain resort of Vall de Nuria.
Accessible only via a mountain train that is a thrill to ride, it sits above one of the highest points of the Ribes Valley and is surrounded by peaks reaching almost 3,000 meters. According to tradition, St. Giles arrived in the valley in approximately 700 CE and lived there for four years. Today, it hosts a ski resort offering 10 alpine ski pistes, hiking trails at all levels of difficulty and a petting zoo for the kids, as well as a fantastic hotel with stunning views.
Then there is the must-see Salvador Dali House-Museum in Portliggat; Dali’s only place of residence, it was where he normally worked until 1982. Book tickets well in advance and leave some time to walk freely around the beach house. I have to say, it gives you a real, clear idea about how creative and somewhat crazy Dali was.
But if you are looking for that extra something to add historical meaning to your trip, now is your chance: As of this spring, Ofakim Travel & Tours will be offering trips across the Catalonian Pyrenees that explore the area’s Jewish heritage.
Spanish Jews once constituted one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities under Muslim and Christian rule, before they were forced to either convert to Catholicism, be expelled or be killed under King Ferdinand in the 15th century. The remnants of these Spanish (and Portuguese) Jews, the Sephardic Jews, are spread all over the world.
And so in the city of Besalu, you can explore the Sephardic quarter that existed during the Middle Ages; in fact, the oldest record of Besalu’s Jewish community dates back to 1229. There, you can visit a mikve ritual bath that was uncovered by chance in 1964 during an excavation to find a well. Locals had to consult rabbis from Paris and Marseille to figure out what the underground chamber with 36 steps leading to it, and access to natural spring water, was meant for.
The Jewish Quarter in Castello d’Empuries was one of the most important in northeastern Catalonia; it dates from the early 13th century, as does the first synagogue.
The first baptism of Jews was documented in this town at the end of the 14th century, and the Jewish legacy can be seen in several buildings around town.
In the Courthouse- Jail Museum of Medieval History, there is a set of nine funerary headstones with Hebrew inscriptions.
In the town hall, the ancient Dominican priory is adorned with a mezuza. Some of the artwork preserved in the Basilica of Santa Maria is related to the history of the Jewish community, like the alabaster altarpiece with two figures of rabbis.
Another must stop is the time-honored city of Girona, located just two hours from Barcelona. It has more than 2,000 years of history on display through two fortified enclosures, the Forca Vella and the Medieval Quarter. Girona’s highlights are rounded out by the impressive old Jewish Quarter or Call, with its beautiful streets and squares.
You can trace all the necessary buildings that comprised the vibrant Jewish community: synagogues, a slaughterhouse for kosher meat, mikvot, etc. Start your day at the Museum of Jewish History and Nahmanides Institute of Jewish Studies, and perhaps attend a musical evening in the Call.
If you are interested in more recent history, Ofakim Travel & Tours offers a great program called “Persecuted and Saved.”
During the World War II years, thousands of people fled Europe and Nazi brutality and crossed the Pyrenees into then-neutral Spain. The mountain passes bore silent witness to their odyssey.
Ofakim has four main options to explore these routes; one passed through the village of Sort coming out of France, known as the “path to freedom.” It is calculated that between 1939 and 1944, some 90,000 people came to Franco’s Spain through the Pyrenees. Most were French Jews; nearly 3,000 of them were arrested at the frontier and held at a prison in Sort. This prison has now been turned into a small but fascinating museum that educates locals and tourists about the complicated past of Spain’s involvement in World War II.
An interesting curiosity (and fun activity for the kids) is available thanks to the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage, founded in 2005, which has placed hidden logos at entrances to Jewish places of interest.
Sized at about 10 centimeters, they are attached to the floor near doorways and are known as Caminos De Sefarad. If you look carefully you can read, in Hebrew, the words mapa (map) and Sfarad (Spain) – all in the shape of the Spanish map.
Have a great trip.
The writer was a guest of the Catalan Tourist Board.