Sepharad - Jewish Heritage Itineraries in Spain
Sophia's Travel AKA Jewish Travel Agency is proud to present our Sephardic Routes in Spain private tour.
In August 1492 – by order of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella – all Spanish Jews who had not converted to Catholicism were expelled from their homeland of 1,500 years. Until then Jews regarded their life in medieval Spain as a Golden Age, in which they worked and lived harmoniously with Muslims and Christians.
Partly in effort to recover the cultural heritage of Jewish Spain, the cities of Cordoba, Caceres, Girona, Hervas, Ribadavia, Segovia, Toledo and Tudela have created a promotion called "The Sephardic Way", which aims to locate and revive the lost Jewish heritage.
Plans call for restoring the synagogues and Jewish Quarters in these cities, and creating cultural centers and museums devoted to a deeper understanding of the Sephardic legacy.
Following is a look at points of interests in three of the participating cities.
The most interesting place to start is in Girona, 60 miles north of Barcelona and 30 miles from the French border. In the Middle Ages, Girona was an important Jewish community and the first center of mysticism (Kabbalah) in Spain. It has the best preserved and most interesting Jewish quarter in the country, rediscovered almost by accident during the reconstruction of the railroad from Spain to France in the mid-19th century.
Girona’s medieval quarter is surrounded by ramparts that rise from the original Roman walls. At its heart is the old Jewish section, known as the "Call", which was restored in 1980. From its main street, once an old Roman Road, steep and narrow cobbled alleys wind under archways and between stone buildings that sunlight rarely reaches. In the heart of the quarter is a new educational and cultural complex called the Bonastruc Ca Porta Center, which recreates Jewish life through art exhibits, musical events and food tastings. Surrounding a patio on the site of an ancient synagogue, the complex includes a Catalan Museum of Jewish Culture, the Institute for Sephardic and Kabbalistic Studies, and a library that houses important medieval Jewish manuscripts. These documents were discovered in 1987 while city officials were rebinding books in the municipal archives. Inside the binding of a 16th-century Latin real estate ledger they found a parchment dated July 1492, a month before the expulsion, with the story of Girona’s last synagogue and how it was sold.
Among Girona’s other noteworthy relics are Jewish baths, a massage room and sauna in a Romanesque building that had been abandoned by Arabs, and the Jewish tombstones that initiated the preservation effort displayed in the Archeological Museum, located in the Benedictine Monastery.
About 20 miles north of Girona is the pretty medieval village of Besalu, with its 12th century mikvah (ritual bath), one of only three in Spain. Discovered in 1964, the barrel-vaulted stone room with 36 steps has strategically placed openings through which the rising river floods it to the correct water level each spring and fall. The mikvah is open Monday through Friday, visiting hours vary with the season.
Best known for its still-functioning, 2nd century Roman aqueduct, Segovia is another little-known stop along thr Sephardic Way. It was the headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition, where Torquemada, the first and worst of the grand inquisitors, came to meet Isabella. In the throne Room of the turreted Alcazar, the fairy-tale-like castle of the Castilian kings, Ferdinand and Isabella signed the infamous expulsion order in March 1492.
In the medieval quarter, where the Old and New Jewish ghettos bracket the cathedral, the narrow streets are similar to the way they were in the 15th century until the expulsion. Until then, Christians, Muslims and Jews got along so well that they often shared three-story flats. The Jewish houses were typically made of bricks with wooden frames visible on the outside. After the expulsion order, Jews who actually converted (called Conversos) or pretended to (Marranos) disguised their ghetto houses by adding stone facades and patios.
Before the expulsion, Toledo was the capital of Spain and one of its leading centers of Jewry. Toward theend of the 14th century, the Jews were caught in a civil war, and eight of the city’s 10 synagogues and its five Talmudic schools were destroyed. The remaining synagogues, of particular architectural interest, survived only because they were converted into churches.
The Transito Synagogue, built in 1357, is a marvel of intricate Moorish carvings and arcades. Two years after the expulsion it became a Catholic Church, and since 1972, a Sephardic Museum with historic Hebrew inscriptions, a beautiful paneled wooden ceiling and separate women’s gallery upstairs. The other synagogue, now empty, is known by its church name – Santa Maria La Blanca. Built by Arabs in the 12th century, it looks like a mosque than a synagogue, with a forest of Moorish horseshoe-shaped arches and eight-sided columns with beautiful capitals and geometric strap work.
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