One doesn’t often hear of cities naming their most prominent squares after Semite linguists; and if one does hear of one, an extraordinary story must stand behind it.
In Besalu, at an ancient square formerly known as ‘The square of Jews’ where a medieval Mikveh and Synagogue are located, you’ll find a metal plate commemorating the life of the historian Manel Grau Monserrat, an honour well deserved. In the year 1975, Grau Monserrat handed his doctorate thesis to the University of Barcelona under the title ‘The Jewry of Besalu in the centuries XIII-XV’, a detailed documentation which years later would lead to the discovery of a wealth of jewish and spanish heritage. Manel’s great dedication to the thesis was praise-worthy, especially since the historian’s only link to Judaism was his academic curiosity in the religion. Similarly, his public commemoration shows Catalunya’s general pride in its Jewish heritage as part of its national history.
These notions always send me deep into thought; but today, I get somewhat distracted by the confused glare of the people around me. They must wonder why anyone would focus for so long on a metal plate when, before him, was a stunning panoramic view of the Besalu’s river banks and it’s world famous romanesque bridge. A bit embarrassed, I decide to switch plans and walk away from the crowd in search of the mysterious jewish cemetery which was widely mentioned by Grau Monserrat, yet whose location is rarely shown on any map. Most of Besalu has not yet been archaeologically inspected, and it is estimated that most of it’s significant findings still remain underground, waiting to be discovered. Historically, the king’s authorization in 1492 for the use of Jewish gravestones as building blocks to mend for the shortage in building stone, left no visual trace of the cemetery and its whereabouts.
Evidence shows that medieval Jewish cemeteries in urban areas around Spain were usually located one kilometer outside the city walls. A close examination of ancient hand-drawn maps of Besalu, I find the area which Manel Grau Monserrat speculated was the cemetry’s location. Manel pointed out a series of clues on the map which guided me on my way. The area is demarcated by an old lime-kiln, the church of Sant Marti Capellades and the Parish of Sant Vicenç. If I could walk my way in between these three, I’d be standing in the cemetry’s heart.
I cross the bridge in its opposite direction and walked into a nearby bar to ask for directions ask an old man about the whereabouts of the lime-kiln, to which he answered: ‘Young man, you will not find work in the kiln these days!’. Oh dear, It seems like for some time does stand still… Luckily, a waiter hears our conversation and sends me on my way with the right directions.
A short while later I was walking on a path, centuries old, which once used to serve as the main road between the city or Girona and the town of Besalu. A picturesque dust road along the Fluvia river. The summer heat is intense and many have made their way here to chill on the river banks. Others, well prepared for the season, have laid out picnics along the shaded greenery.
Standing in front of the parish of Sant Marti Capellades I get an awe-inspiring view of an infinite wooded area, perfectly peaceful. Nothing remains of the cemetery. I notice how each tree seems to have been drawn to the backdrop of the river and the medieval town and I wonder what the funeral procesions had been like back them. Starting at the Jewry and through the town’s gates, the whole community would follow the deceased in its last journey. Less than a kilometer long in which to say the final farewells. It was an interesting way to escape from it all, to see Besalu from its outside and to let my imagination wonder.