For many, a day trip to the ancient county of Besalu is a trip back in time. Every detail in Besalu’s unique buildings and squares has the ability to transport you to the splendor of an era long gone, uncovering through its spaces the character of the people who inhabited them in the beginning of the 11th century.
The town, though small, has plenty to offer, beginning with its magestic arcaded square which, since middle ages, is home to Besalu’s bustling market; the Jewish quarter and it’s narrow, twisted streets full of mysteries and superstitions; the synagogue and mikveh, the peculiarly shaped fortified bridge, the monastery of San Pedro, the castle of the Count… all make for a thrilling journey to a place that mesmerize all.
However, he best way to discover Besalú is through its inhabitants; and so, to guide us through this remarkable town, I’ve chosen two figures from the nearby town of Pavia: the master builder Primo Lombardo and his son Itram. Unlike you, our guides arrived in Besalú in the year 1066 on the Count’s request to build a fortified bridge for the county, its construction authorized by the Pope himself. The bridge’s construction was of great importance to the town’s security, yet implicated the interest of many characters whose stories perfectly portray the enigmas, secrets and customs of medieval Besalú.
Our journey through Besalú began by entering the village through Bell-Lloc gate, walking down Principal Street, and submerging into its everyday life by mingling with villagers in their market shops and allowing to be delighted by their sounds and smells. Shop by shop we crossed into the neighborhood of Catllar and realized, midway between the castle and its neighboring Jewish quarter, that we had instinctively arrived at the very heart of Besalu. At this point we were faced with two options, visiting the humble neighborhoods of Ganganell and Vilarrobau on our way towards the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter; or, had we preferred, turn back and return to our staring point at Bell-Lloc gate and crossing it in the opposite direction towards the parish of Saint Vincent and its beautiful surrounding houses. Though your choice may take you on different kinds of adventure but be sure that, whichever you choose, you’ll always be within medieval Besalu.
The fortified bridge: The bridge’s true greatness can only be perceived from the riverbanks. Due to their lower level, these points allow visitors to contemplate the bridge’s peculiar angular form, thoughtfully designed in 1074 during its construction so as to respect the river’s currents. There is no doubt that the large boulders under each pillar were the best natural foundations onto which Primo the master-builder could have raise the bridge’s exceptional construction.
The bridge fortifications perfectly document Primo’s grand engineering skills and the staggering efforts of its inhabitants, Jews and Christians, who’s hard labor is evident in the site. The construction work became more frantic still, as Primo had promised the Count Bernardo Tallaferro a ten year deadline to finish bridge.
The Jewry: Besalu’s important Jewish community were historically located near the bridge and the river waters. So near, that the bridge’s construction supervision was given to a former member of its community – Jeremiah, a convert to Christianity. We visited the holy sites of the synagogue, the prayer rooms and the Mikveh at the Jewry’s heart, contemplating their every detail.
When visiting the synagogue’s ruins (the best preserved in Catalonia from that period), sit on one of the stone benches, close your eyes and you will almost hear medieval scholars reading the Talmud. Then descend the majestic staircase leading into the Mikveh, step by step. Immerse yourself back into the Jewish culture and you may even find a path, a secret underground gallery that crosses the river Fluvia and that allows you to enter and leave the county without ever being seen by anyone.
The mezuzah: Don’t forget to carefully study the small gap on the right side of each doorway in Besalu. In some cases you’ll find a small peculiar detail of great historical importance. Not many of these are left in Besalu. According to Itram, these mezuzah’s were given strange interpretations through the city’s storyline, from the conspiracies to overthrow the Count Bernardo Tallaferro to the plan to hinder the construction of the bridge.
The monastery of St. Peter: Located outside the village walls, the monastery has stood majestically since its foundation in 977. Through its walls still resonate the echoes of
medieval liturgical chant and the convictions of master builder Primo Lombardo as he defended his proposed layout for the bridge. The master insisted the bridge could not be straight, as suggested by the Abbot waiter Fray Florencio. From a corner, Itram wrote down the arguments’ every detail into a memoir, which hundreds of years later would be consulted as a basis for the reconstruction of the bridge.
We finished our guided route through medieval Besalú through Portalet Street, a starring location in a renowned historical novel, “The Bridge of the Jews”.
[tab title=”Notes” icon=”entypo-cloud”]Stories, characters, places, convictions, passion, medieval times, Sefarad … these are just a few of the ingredients of the novel “The Bridge of the Jews” written by Marti Gironell. A book highly recommended in order to experience first-hand the history of medieval Besalu, it’s most characteristic locations and to enhance your visit to the villages as you follow the narrative of the novel.[/tab]
[tab title=”TERMINOLOGY” icon=”entypo-book”]1. The mikveh (מִקְוֶה / מקווה) is a bathing space for the purification custom of Judaism. It is a place that gathers natural waters (river or rain water) in a small pool which is connected to a cycle of natural flowing clean (seldom warm) water. It can be used by both men and women, although according to Sephardic tradition, nowadays only women retain the obligation for the mikvah ritual 7 days after the completion of each menstrual cycle.
2. The mezuzah (in hebrew מְזוּזָה, «doorpost»; in plural mezuzot) is a scroll that has written verses of the Torah; the Shema Yisrael (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, “Hear, O Israel” ). It is housed in a box or holder and affixed to the right-side of the door frames and gates of Jewish homes and cities. Posting a mezuzah is one of the oldest customs in Judaism.