If you live in a city with a rich past stretching back to Roman times you’d expect a lot of tasty morsels of history to wet your appetite. It’s humbling to think that many of the old town streets and alleys I walk down have remained largely unchanged since medieval times.
Some writers have even alluded to Girona’s links to secret societies and grail legends that I’ve touched upon in other pages.
Here’s a random selection of what’s interested me so far. If you ever visit, Girona has its own Museum of History of Girona, tucked away in the old town near the Cathedral.
Girona’s air raid shelters.
Girona was bombed during the Spanish Civil War, many times in fact. In April 1938, then again in late January 1939 and once more in February. The civilian authorities built three shelters in Girona, of which just one still survives. Situated just off Placa Catalunya and next to a childrens’ playground. Its rusty metal door and short, narrow, steeply sloping concrete roof is the only giveaway. An informational sign has been erected next to it called ‘Espais de Memoria’, with an English translation.
This space is closed normally and only reopens during Girona’s week long flower festival, Temps de Flors, in May each year. Strangely there are no floral displays here but it’s the only opportunity to visit this underground space. Over the years I’ve probably been here 2 or 3 times. The narrow stairway leads down to the shelter, built to accommodate around 600 citizens. Stark cold concrete walls, dim lighting and an air of dampness gives a glimpse of what awaited its wartime visitors. I’m sure that with the added noise of dropping bombs must have left them petrified.
Continuing with the ‘espais de memoria’ I came across another of its street locations by chance, up in the old town near the Pujada de St Domenech. Surrounded by greenery the narrow red noticeboard sits quietly opposite a former seminary. Texts and photos explain how this building was used as a provincial prison during the dark days following Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. About 3,000 people passed through its doors, up until about 1942 when it moved to another location.
It was a time of harsh repression, purges and denunciations among the civilian population. Bringing a lump to my throat it made me think of that quote ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.
Nothing much exciting about street names you might think and normally they’re just another non-descript part of a city’s makeup. I find many street names here bear the name of someone famous, a writer, painter, poet, politician and so on-all in Catalan of course. Here’s the nerdy interesting part, if you’ve followed me this far. Speak to the old folk here and they’ll tell you that during Franco’s reign these same streets had other names, all in Spanish. For example the large square in front of the city hall, Placa del Vi, was until about 1975, named Plaza de Espana. I do remember seeing an old black and white photo of Franco visiting Girona in 1960, standing on the balcony of the city hall.
A lot of that was due to him outlawing spoken Catalan in public and at school. Its only refuge was at home, behind closed doors. Those were tragic times for many Spaniards, not just Catalans, and that underlying and lingering resentment is felt by many to this day. Except by the poor old street name which continues proudly displaying itself, oblivious to all and sundry.
River Onyar floods
Neatly dividing the old town area from the more modern parts of Girona there’s little to worry about. Looking down at the river Onyar from the numerous vantage points it appears very shallow, even during the winter months. Low-lying gravel banks pop out here and there, seagulls gather, standing around looking for lazy pickings. Look harder and you’ll notice fish, big fish that look like carp, basking in the imperceptible current.
So, I was surprised to hear that back in the 1960’s the river levels rose so high one winter that large parts of the old town were flooded. An old black and white photo I remember seeing shows someone sitting in a kayak paddling down La Rambla.
Snow in Girona
Winters are thankfully short here, at least they feel like that. Temperatures do drop, and during December and January you do see cars with frozen windscreens in the morning. Talk with locals and they’ll tell you snow is such a rare occurrence in Girona. A once-in-a-lifetime event that no one remembers the last time it happened. Lo and behold we had a huge dump of snow back in March 2010. It got so bad we lost power for 3 days, hot food was off the menu and candles sold out in the shops. Friends near the coast lost power for even longer, almost 3 weeks, as power lines had been downed all over the region. Schools closed for days and we had to resort to trying to stay as warm as possible. I got the impression that there’s little planning for such events here.
Here’s one last useful Trivial Pursuit fact, Girona was the first city in Spain to get electric street lights, in 1886.