Throughout Catalonia, revolution is in the air. It was just last year that the Parliament of Catalonia voted to declare their independence from Spain. Their claim for self-government is not new, but deeply rooted in Catalonia’s medieval history.
To see medieval Catalonia for ourselves, we left Barcelona and moved 50 miles (80 km) northeast to the provincial capital of Girona. Along the way, “La Estelada”, the single-starred unofficial national flag of the independence-seeking Catalán Republic draped the balconies of nearly every apartment building.
During the Middle Ages, while the rest of Spain battled Muslim rule, Charlemagne and his Christian Frankish Empire conquered Catalonia to establish a buffer from the Muslim advance. In Girona, we surveyed the old town atop Charlemagne’s fortified wall, the longest remaining 9th century Carolingian wall in Europe.
Behind the wall, Girona’s medieval cathedral pierces the city skyline. Begun with a Romanesque design and completed in the Gothic style, it represents the two principal architectural styles of the Middle Ages. With its classic medieval façade and the world’s widest Gothic nave, HBO featured the Girona cathedral in its medieval-fantasy series Game of Thrones.
By the end of the 9th century, Wilfred the Hairy united the feudal Frankish counties and established the original independent Catalonia. According to legend, as Wilfred was dying from battle injuries, his associate Charles the Bald dipped his fingers into Wilfred’s wound and drew four bloody stripes on a golden shield, creating the Catalán flag.
Outside Girona, medieval towns and villages built of stone dot the Catalán landscape. To explore the countryside, we visited the well-maintained town of Besalú, and crossed its spectacular 12th century Romanesque bridge.
Another striking medieval town is Castellfollit de la Roca at the confluence of the Fluvià and Toronell Rivers. The entire place, including its square-sided Romanesque church tower, is perched precariously atop a 165-foot (50 m) high precipice of columnar volcanic basalt.
By the 12th century, Catalonia had united with the Crown of Aragon, and became the base of a powerful sea power. As Catalonia expanded its territory across the western Mediterranean, it became the wealthiest and most important region of the Iberian Peninsula.
Around this time back in Girona, a community of Jewish citizens was also prospering. With its high stone walls and narrow cobbled streets, Girona’s once-thriving Call neighborhood remains the best preserved medieval Jewish quarter in western Europe.
In the remarkable year of 1492, the Catholic Monarchs expelled the Jews from Spain, finally defeated the Muslims, and merged Catalonia with the rest of Spain. In exchange, Catalonia retained its autonomy, including its own currency, customs, laws, and language.
Today, the majority of Cataláns feel they are unfairly shouldering the financial burdens of Spain. But beyond the economics, their appeal for self-determination is based on a long history of autonomy and a fervent cultural pride, deeply embedded in Catalonia’s medieval roots.
Feature Image: Yellow ribbon in support of jailed Catalán pro-independence leaders, tied to the Gustave Eiffel Bridge over Griona’s Onyar River.
Blogger’s Note: Next week, we are moving on to the Costa Brava, Catalonia’s rugged coast.