Dragon’s Blood, Books, and Dance in Barcelona

Barbara Wysocki celebrates Catalonia's patron saint in Barcelona on a day that also recognizes a noble dragonslayer and marks the deaths of two literary lions. With a potpourri of bookish events, roaming musicians, and a chance to dance, she gets swept into the magic of past and present.

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Erasing History in Tortosa

by Elyn Aviva

My husband, Gary, and I decided to visit some friends in Tortosa, a small Spanish city in southern Catalonia at the mouth of the Ebro River. I knew nothing about Tortosa, but when I searched for accommodations, I discovered there was a government-run hotel, a parador, perched on top of a promontory overlooking the river at the edge of town. The “Zuda Castle” parador began as a tenth-century Moorish citadel, was conquered by Christian soldiers, given to the Templar Knights in 1182, later became a palace, a prison, an abandoned fortress—and finally, in 1976, was converted into a luxury hotel. I pulled out my “Amigos de Paradores” membership card to make sure I got the best deal and booked us a room for two nights.

SpainTortosa copy.png

Tortosa was only a few hours by train from our Girona home. The taxi ride from the train station to the parador included a drive along the Ebro River, during which we drove past an immense metal sculpture rising out of the waters. It included an eagle with wings spread, a cross, and a man with one arm raised, reaching up to a star-shaped object above his head.

“What’s that?” I asked Jorge, the taxi driver.

“A vergüenza.” (A disgrace.)

“Why is that?”

Jorge told us that the dictator Generalissimo Franco erected the statue in 1966. “It commemorates ‘those who found glory in the war.’ That means the Nationalist soldiers, not the Republicans. The Battle of the Ebro was the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. 30,000 people died. And it was fought here, along the river.”

I was shocked. “And they still have a monument commemorating only one side—Franco’s side—the winners?”

Jorge nodded. “Well, some say that now it stands for everybody who died in the battle. Or that it’s a symbol of the city and nothing more. There was an attempt to get it removed a few years ago without success. There’ll be another referendum next year.”

“How will you vote?” I asked.

He paused. “It depends on the choices.”

My knowledge of the Spanish Civil War is sketchy, but I know there were basically two sides: the Republicans, who won the elections in 1931, and the (fascist) Nationalists under Franco, who started a terribly bloody civil war that lasted from 1936-1939. Franco won and was dictator of Spain until he died in 1975. Judging by the monument in the river, memories in Tortosa run deep and long, and the horrors of that time have not been healed—or forgotten.

We drove up a steep, winding road at the edge of town, and our driver pulled up in front of the parador. It was impressive: a huge, golden stone edifice, a stunning medieval fortification, even though most of it is in fact a modern construction. 

We checked in, and while Gary relaxed on the faux-antique four-poster bed, I checked online to learn more about Tortosa. According to the Caminos de Sefarad [Sefarad is the name for Spanish Jews] website, there had been a large and important Jewish community in Tortosa since Roman times. Jews, Moors, and Christians had lived in harmony in the city in the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, Jews had been in charge of international trading negotiations and had been appointed bailiffs of the city. However, this convivial situation didn’t last; all Jews (and Moors) were expelled from Spain in 1492. 

I woke up early, eager to explore Tortosa and learn more about its multi-cultural history. The sunrise over the hills was beautiful, casting a gentle pastel glow over the tile rooftops and stone houses that spread out below the castle like a view on Google Earth. 

We started our explorations at the Tourist Office. Expansive pavilions, blue and white tiles, glazed ceramic roofs, blue stucco walls, and shade trees make a delightful setting for the Tourist Office and Museum of Tortosa, opened in 2012. It was hard to imagine that these stunning buildings, inspired by Moorish architecture, had originally been built 100 years ago as the city slaughterhouse. It was located next to the river so the offal and blood could be more easily disposed of.

I asked the clerk, “Do you have any information about the Jews in Tortosa?” She handed me a brochure that included a map of a walking route through the medieval judería (Jewish neighborhood) and mentioned several important medieval Tortosan Jews. I noticed a flyer describing “La Jueva de Tortosa,” a woman who sings Sephardic songs and re-enacts Jewish life in the judería. 

Pointing to the flyer, I asked, “So, there must be Jews in Tortosa?”

The clerk looked surprised. “No, there aren’t any Jews here. They were all expelled.”

“What about this woman?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know anything about her. She’s a performer of some kind, I think.”

Puzzling over the clerk’s ignorance (or denial), we walked across the garden to the museum.

Carlos, the museum clerk, offered to show us around. He pointed to a large graphic chart on one wall, showing the inhabitants of Tortosa: First, the Iberians, then the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, then the Christians….

“Uh—what about the Jewish population?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Well, they were expelled, you know.” 

“So were the Moors, and they’re mentioned. And the museum has displays of Moorish pots and ceramics….”

“I guess it must have been an oversight.”

“An oversight? No mention of a community that lived here for more than 1000 years and was important in the city’s trade and government?”

He looked uncomfortable. “Now that you mention it, there are a few things upstairs….”

Upstairs there were, indeed, “a few things.” A piece of a broken pottery candlestick in a case beneath a plaque describing the two “small” minority groups (Muslim and Jew) that made up 20% of the population in the 13th and 14th centuries; a parchment copy of the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Jews; and a plaque describing the 1413-1414 Tortosa Dispute, in which rabbis were forced to argue with Christian missionary zealots in order to prove that Jews were wrong to deny that Christ was the Messiah. By the end of the grueling and unfair “debate,” many Jews and rabbis had converted. They could see the handwriting on the wall. The recorded disputation was used to legitimize forced conversions and persecution of Jews throughout Spain. 

I stormed back downstairs. “I can’t believe that’s all there is about the Jews!”

Carlos had clearly been thinking about our conversation. “There was a conference at the museum a few years ago about Jews in Tortosa.”

“A conference? That’s nice, but there is almost nothing in the museum. It’s as if you want to wipe out their memory, pretend they were never here—just like people want to pretend the monument in the river stands for all those who died in the war!”

“The monument?” Carlos said in disgust. “That’s such a disgrace. On the side it says, ‘Dedicated to those who found glory in the war.’ Obviously, that only refers to the winners. It is very offensive. They’ve removed most of the fascist symbols, but they need to get rid of it.”

Suddenly I wondered whether somehow the erasure of the history of the Jews in Tortosa was similar to this monument of Franco’s. We often say history is written by the victors, and that’s certainly the case in Tortosa—both by the Christians, who pretend that Jews were a trivial, incidental part of Tortosa’s history, and by the followers of Franco, who pretend the monument represents all who died. 

Victors not only write history, they also re-write it—and they don’t write about certain things. This silence erases events and people from memory, as if they never happened or never lived. I began to wonder: maybe it would be a mistake to remove the monument in the river. While it exists, people can’t pretend there wasn’t a civil war.



Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com. Gary’s blog about their expat life is www.fandangolife.com.

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My Journey to the Union of Heaven and Earth

by Elyn Aviva

Join me on a journey into the unknown, where what you think you know melts away and is replaced by something—something “bigger.”

For decades I have been drawn to sacred sites and powerful places, drawn to go on pilgrimage across France and Spain, drawn to place my feet in the footsteps of if not my ancestors then of the ancestors of spirit who have traveled these paths before me. Like iron pulled toward a magnet, I have sought out well- and little-known places of power—ancient stone circles, half-buried dolmens, ruined Romanesque chapels, spire-topped inspiring cathedrals, thick forests, hidden holy wells, dark sacred caves. Seeking I knew not what, going I knew not why, except that I was driven by a simple but all-consuming question: “What are these places?” I think I hoped that, by going to enough of them, I would find the answer.

The first time I knew I was in a very powerful place was when I saw the alignments at Carnac in Brittany, France. My husband, Gary, and I had driven through the flat Breton maritime pine forest toward the coast. The nearly straight road reached a crossroad—and there, behind green metal fencing, were rows of large, upright stones, some as tall as a person, stretching in rows as far as the eye can see. Brakes screeching, we pulled over. I jumped out and ran across the lane, twining my fingers through the barrier to get as close as I could. What were they? Who put them here? What purpose did they serve? 

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A Foreigner’s Food Epiphany in Spain

by Katie Stearns


I am sure you’ve heard that Spanish food is incredible, that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, that it’s innovative and bright and well, you know – all that hype. Here’s the thing. It’s totally true. Unfortunately, it took me a good two years of living in Spain to realize it.

Let me back up a bit. I moved to Spain on the premise of staying for nine months – just enough time to explore Europe and sink my teeth into Spain before heading back home. My first day in Spain, I was all alone. I hadn’t made friends yet, but that clearly had no effect on my hunger, and I walked into a little bar to order a sandwich. Now a sandwich in the United States is a hefty sort of thing, layered with ingredients and toppings and sauces. And as I was fairly hungry when I ordered this “sandwich,” I was more than disappointed when two flimsy toasted pieces of sandwich bread came my way with a little lettuce, tomato and a fried egg stuffed between them.

Okay, so my first experience wasn’t great, but over time I did learn to enjoy Spanish food. I liked it. I really liked it. But I never reached the point of loving it. I continued ordering the same things again and again at restaurants and bars, and never felt it was special. In my head, American food was superior to the simple and often bland food of Spain.

About a year and a half after I moved to Spain, I met my Spanish boyfriend, and I decided to tell him my opinion about all of this. He was shocked. I thought he was too proud to admit I was right, but I realize now I was horribly mistaken. As we continued dating, I started tasting foods I had never even heard of before, and I had to come to terms with the fact that after eighteen months of eating three meals a day, I actually knew nothing about Spanish food. Actually, my realization was an epiphany. 

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Seeking Retreat in Asturias, Spain

by Elyn Aviva

I needed a break. Big time. I’d been doing too much for too long. Traveling. Writing. Doing. Coming up with projects, ideas. More doing. And doing some more. I loved it all, and I loved my husband, Gary, but I needed a break. Alone. And somewhere preferably in Spain, where we live. 

I started scanning last-minute Internet offers. My idea was a comfortable little cabin in the woods; someone bringing me wholesome food; and occasionally taking short, shady strolls through verdant vegetation.

Suddenly a vision floated before my eyes. My Camino de Santiago pilgrim friend Judy Colaneri and her husband, Juan Carlos, own Fuentes de Lucia, a “boutique” hotel/retreat center in the mountains of northwestern Spain. They had been asking me to visit for years. I checked the website. It wasn’t an isolated cabin in the woods, but it looked like a charming place, located in a beautiful Asturian Natural Park.

A “dynamic yoga retreat” was scheduled for the week I wanted to be there. I wasn’t sure I was interested in “dynamic” or  “yoga”—it’s been too many years since I sat on the floor or managed to mold into an asana—but the retreat part sounded good. 

I emailed Judy and received an immediate reply. In fact, she wrote, she had already put my name on the door of Room #7. That’s auspicious, I thought. After all, according to the Bible, the Creatrix rested on the seventh day. And that’s just what I wanted to do.

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A Musical Journey Through Spain

by Jessica Kitt 

When I moved to Barcelona, my knowledge of Spanish music was as narrow as that of most expats travelling to Spain:  flamenco, castanets, and … flamenco? However, as my two-year journey throughout the country proved, there is a lot more to Spanish music than just flamenco. My first partial relief of ignorance came from a student I was teaching from the region of Asturias in the North of Spain. After about the first year of teaching British English classes in Spain, I developed a certain odd nostalgia for home and my Irish heritage.

Coming from quite a traditional background, with a family of musicians and Irish dancers, I was used to being surrounded by all things Irish. Frequently, I took to listening to my father and uncle’s traditional Irish band on my MP3 player before bed. One day, during a class with my Asturian student, I indulged in a discussion about Irish music and all the “exotic” instruments we had from uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) to bodhrans (hand held drums). During this discussion, my student informed me that the music of both Asturias and Galicia in the North is Spain was surprisingly similar to both Irish and Celtic music. I promptly downloaded some of this music and was shocked by how similar it was. 

Traditional Asturian drummers and pipers. Photo by austinevan via flickr ccl.

This similarity between Irish and Northern Spanish music was again proven to me when I travelled to the North of Spain to work on an organic farm for a month.

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A Sensational Time-Lapse Story in Barcelona

by Elyn Aviva

Rumbling vibration of Spanish high-speed AVE train, coming into the deep underground white glass-brick cement plaster metal station in Girona. Feet tingle on platform, train sloowwwwws waaaayyyyyyy dowwwwwwnnnn and coasts to stop. Sigh like a long-held outbreath as doors open, stairs unfold. Clack thump of discharging passengers maneuvering out and down and onto platform, luggage dangling. 

We wait to get on. Impatience has a metallic feel. 

Finding our seats, sinking in. Ahh. Whoosh of doors closing, train starting, gaining speed. 200 kms/hour. Fast. Train car is more or less silent, except for the gaggle of girls behind us, a before-wedding hen party heading to Barcelona. They sport puffy red heart pins on their sweaters, move grudgingly when I push through to the semi-circular toilet cubicle at the end.

Ground mist rises like whipped cream, hiding the dark green hills. Rain smears against the windows, streams rushing tumultuous but soundless, muddy swirling water caressing tree roots in a cold embrace.

200 kms/hour, now 150, now 50, now 6…. Slow sigh of arrival. Sants Estación, Barcelona. Hurry down the platform, up the escalator, across the station toward Metro entrance. Huge Metro map on wall, angular routes snaking over it, marking the underground root-network beneath the city. Choose your color, your number, your direction. Linea 5, sky blue, direction Vall de Hebron, intermediate node, Sagrada Familia. Repetitive thump squeak of footsteps on tile corridor, down one flight of stairs, onto slow moving escalator… Pause. Shift. Wait.

Tension builds. People jostle to buy tickets. Which way does the ticket arrow go in the machine to get through the gate? Will the baby buggy get caught in the vertical gyrating windmill turnstile? Why doesn’t it work? Put it in again. Lose a journey.

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Have a Happy Crappy Christmas Catalonia-Style

by Elyn Aviva


Bon Nadal and Feliç Any Nou! That’s Catalan for Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

It’s the holiday season in my home town, Girona, Catalonia, and things aren’t quite what you might expect. Yes, there are the familiar ho-ho-ho Santa Claus figures dangling from buildings, and three-foot-high Christmas trees with matching pink and purple ribbon decorations are lined up outside stores on the main shopping streets.

There are brilliant-colored lights strung across the avenues, and a glittering conical abstraction of a Christmas tree pulses on and off in the Plaza de Catalunya. Christmas carols (sometimes in English) echo through the halls, the beauty salons, and the restaurants, and carolers emote as they stroll down the pedestrian Rambla, songbooks in hand. Flame-red poinsettias are for sale in the market, and school-club fundraisers hawk chocolate bars and handmade knickknacks. And there’s the cheery Firanadal (Christmas Fair) offering artisanal goods, felt slippers, jewelry, plastic toys, and boxwood spoons.

Yes, all of this is vaguely familiar, even if gigantes (giant dancing king and queen figures), a marathon Nativity play (Els Pastorets), xuixus (pronounced “choochoos”: sugar dusted, cream-filled pastry rolls), and turrón (a kind of nougat) aren’t usual Christmas fare.

But you really know you’re in a foreign land when you seen the rows of squatting miniature figures—including SpongeBob SquarePants, flamenco dancers, Obama, Barça soccer star Messi, Queen Elizabeth II, and Death—their pants pulled down, a brown plop of poop deposited behind them, for sale for inclusion in Nativity scenes. Correction: the plop of poop behind Death is white, not brown. 

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An Alien Universe

by Elyn Aviva

Unwittingly, my husband, Gary, and I walked into an alternative virtual reality. We were surrounded by aliens who looked human. Aliens who spoke a language that sounded like English, but their vocabulary was subtly different. Words like “ROI,” “SEO,” and “hashtags” peppered their speech. 

And they communicated with odd body language. Although they seemed to be talking to each other, they rarely made eye contact. Instead, they stared intently at small, vibrating, hand-held devices with brightly lit screens. And they kept tapping these strange pieces of equipment, sometimes with one finger, sometimes with several, or sometimes with their opposable thumbs. Occasionally, their eyes flicked up from the screen to glance around. But only for a moment.

Into what strange world had we wandered? An international travel bloggers conference in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. It sounded appealing in the invitational email: inexpensive, educational, entertaining—and it included a visit to a castle. AND it was taking place in my adopted home town of Girona, so why not?

In this alternative universe, everything was baffling, including the meaning of words I thought I knew. “Relevant” meant “meeting your fans where they’re at” and “content” meant maximizing your Google indexability (the number of searchable key words in your website or blog). “Service” writing” meant providing information and the rush to publish meant some bloggers are posting not weekly but daily or even hourly. A popular book author was called a “long-form print guy.” “Engagement” referred to how actively engaged your Facebook (or blogsite) fan base is, not to a diamond ring.

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Coffee Cult Comes to Catalonia

by Elyn Aviva

When we went for an early morning stroll in Girona, Catalonia, my husband, Gary, and I saw a group of well-dressed people standing impatiently outside a shop. We took a closer look and saw a storefront with impressive, fluted grey stone columns, large display windows, and imposing glass double doors. The merchandise on display was unusual: small metallic capsules in coordinated colors arranged in geometric designs. Emblazoned in glowing white letters over the doors was “Nespresso.” Nespresso? The coffee capsule brand?

The crowd grew increasingly noisy and impatient. We decided it was time to leave before they became even more restive.

I was puzzled. Who would want to purchase pre-made coffee capsules? It seemed neither cost-efficient nor ecologically sound. And besides, when you ran out, there was nothing you could do—except wait desperately for the Nespresso shop to open.

Returning from our stroll, we paused again at the shop. Nespresso was its name and luxury was its selling point. From our vantage point we could see inside. Slim young women in classy matte-black uniforms stood near the open door, gatekeepers into this exclusive club. People entered, sometimes showed a membership card, chatted for a moment discreetly, and then were ushered into this high temple of gustatory excess.


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Two Ex-Pats in Girona, Catalonia

words + photos by Elyn Aviva


“I can’t believe we live here!” I said to Gary as I stared in fascination at the multicolored reflections dancing over the rippling surface of the Onyar River.

River OnyarHe squeezed my hand and leaned over the railing of the stone bridge. Ducks floated by, luminous in the evening light. “I know just what you mean,” he replied. “Who’d have thought that what started off as a whim would end up being such an adventure?”

I nodded, admiring how the brightly lit cathedral spires were silhouetted against the velvet black sky. I sighed, contentedly. Then, hand in hand, Gary and I strolled across the medieval bridge that divides one part of Girona from the other. We walked down the Rambla and sat down at a sidewalk café. We ordered a cortado, a fragrant cup of espresso laced with a touch of milk, and an artisan beer. We looked at each other and grinned. Ah, what a life.

Just two years earlier Gary and I had been pondering what to do next with our lives. We knew we enjoyed traveling in Europe and wanted to do more of it with less hassle. Why not move to Europe for a few years, I suggested. We weren’t getting any younger. We had good health, enough money, a love of adventure, and much to be grateful for. If not now, when? Gary agreed, and we began making plans to move to Spain, a country we had lived in briefly once before.


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A Chocoholic Falls off the Wagon

by Elyn Aviva

I don’t know what I was thinking. Or rather, I wasn’t thinking. Like a lamb being led to slaughter, I followed our friend Jack into Oriol Balaguer’s chocolate kitchen in Barcelona. I knew I was a dead duck the moment I walked in. The sweet spicy scent of Gran Cru chocolate filled the air, and streams of satiny liquid chocolate poured exuberantly into stainless steel sinks. It was like being transported into paradise.

It’s true confession time. I used to belong to a Chocoholics Club. Note the operative verb: “used to.” Once a month, one of the members would make an over-the-top chocolate dessert, which we would savor briefly and then devour. Devotees of chocolate we were—and some of them still are. For health reasons, I had sworn off the dark, creamy, butter-and sugar-laden delights. And, except for an occasional lapse, I usually avoided succumbing to temptation.

So what was I doing in Balaguer’s High Temple of Chocolate? Jack (www.discovergirona.net) leads specialty tours in Catalonia, and the opportunity to do an interview with master chocolatier/pastry and dessert chef Oriol Balaguer was too good to pass up. I hadn’t considered the consequences—but now I knew. I knew I would live to regret it—but I also knew, as I took another deep, soul-satisfying inhalation, that I didn’t care.

Oriol has been winning prizes for his chocolate and pastry creations for the last 17 years—and he’s only 39. Best Pastry Chef, Best Book (The Dessert Book) in the World, Professional of the Year—the accolades don’t stop. Not only is he a brilliant inventor, he’s also a master marketer. He’s turned buying chocolate into a time-valued event.

When is chocolate like haute couture? When you are Oriol Balaguer and you present twice-a-year collections of new tastes, textures, and shapes. Last season’s collection is so last year—but so good that it is still available and still in great demand. Oriol also launches monthly “concept cakes” in his specialty shops, where each item is displayed like a precious jewel. Suddenly, everyone wants to purchase the latest product, score the most recent release for their dinner party.

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It’s Not Spain, It’s Pais Vasco

by Aysha Griffin


I fell in love with Spain. First it was a week in Barcelona, then, a year later, a week in Madrid. By year three, following a week’s tour in the Midi-Pyreees, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to Spain and travel its length from Bilbao in the north, through its geographic center of Madrid and on to the former Moorish capital of Granada in the south. But first, I was told, I must visit – and eat in – San Sebastian.

by SwansonRut via flickr (common license)Located on the eastern end of Spain’s Atlantic coast, known as la Golfo de Vizcaya (Bay of Biscay), San Sebastian is considered one of the culinary capitals of the world, a distinction largely lost on this non-foodie. But, as much as gourmandizing does not excite me, the idea of bars competing to outdo each other with exotic and cheap finger food called “pintxos” (pronounced “pinchos,” and essentially tapas) was an adequate inducement, along with San Sebastian’s picturesque setting in a horseshoe-shaped bay with golden sand beaches.

I arrived by train from Toulouse, France, with the rugged Pyrenees providing a continual and stunning southern vista. At the border city of Irun, Spain, the civility and cleanliness of the French train, with the melodious lilt of that language spoken in hushed tones, was markedly replaced by a grimy and worn Spanish train, boarded by shoving one’s way in, and the shouts and grunts in Spanish and Euskara, a baffling pre-Indo European language spoken by the Basque people in northeastern Spain. I was back.

San Sebastian’s seaside does not disappoint. Its broad promenade skirts the entire bay where locals and tourists of all ages, most smartly dressed, stroll arm-in-arm or glide by on bicycles or skateboards. White walled restaurants with royal blue awnings and outdoor seating offer exceptional people-watching opportunities on the promenade or beachside, while upscale apartments and commercial buildings line the boulevard, looking over a green-hilled island and bobbing sailboats to sea.  


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The Camino de Santiago: An Inner and Outer Journey

by Elyn Aviva

I first heard about the Camino de Santiago in 1981 from my friend Michael, when I was looking for a topic for my Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. Michael idly mentioned there had been an important medieval pilgrimage road in Spain and suggested I look for it—I might find its art and architecture of some interest.

In the summer of 1981 I arrived in Spain, still looking for a topic for anthropological fieldwork. I ended up in Sahagún, a small town in the north-central province of León, where I stayed at the Benedictine nuns’ guesthouse.

photo by victor_nuno via flickr (common license)

I didn’t have to look for the Camino de Santiago—it found me. Sahagún was on the pilgrimage road. Pilgrims came to the door of the guesthouse, passport-size pilgrimage credentials in their outstretched hands, seeking shelter for the night. The Benedictinas, observing millennium-old customs of hospitality, gave them a place to sleep and food to eat. I realized that the Camino wasn’t an historic artifact—pilgrims were still walking it.

I was fascinated by these pilgrims and soon captivated by the Camino. I learned that it stretched 500 miles across northern Spain, from the Pyrenees in the east to Santiago de Compostela in the west, the purported burial place of St. James the Greater, the first martyred apostle. The pilgrimage had begun after the rediscovery of the tomb in the 800s.

As in a vision, I saw before me a grand panorama of people in movement, spanning the centuries, traveling across the outer landscape of Europe, traveling through the inner landscape of the soul. I had found my research topic. I knew I had to walk the Camino.

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I Heard The Call of Girona

by Elyn Aviva

I heard the Call whisper to me as I pressed my hands against its crumbling grey stones. I was standing in the medieval Jewish quarter in Girona, aka “The Call,” a Catalan word based on the Hebrew qahál, which means “a meeting or a gathering.” And gather they did, long ago, the Jewish residents of Girona, Spain, in the winding streets and narrow alleys, in the covered corridors and on the steep-stepped sidewalks. Hurrying to work, to play, to study, hurrying to synagogue to pray. They arrived in 898 and for 500 years they were integrated into the city—except for those dreadful times like 1391 when suddenly they weren’t and they became the targets of violence and repression.

I had seen their traces in the Museum of Jewish History, housed in what had been the Girona synagogue until 1492 when all the Jews were expelled, ending 500 years of coexistence. Suddenly they were gone, all gone, forced from their temple, their homes, their land, and sometimes from their faith.

I had seen what little they had left behind, displayed in the museum’s evocative exhibits. One gallery held fourteenth-century limestone gravestones, engraved in Hebrew (“Josef, a young child who was a lover of joy, the son of Rabbi Jacob. May he be present in Glory, protected by his Rock and his Redeemer" and “the honored Estelina, wife of the distinguished and upright Bonastruc Josef. May she have her mansion in the Garden of Eden”). Other galleries were filled with rare artifacts, facsimiles, and borrowed objects, with modern reconstructions and pictorial displays. Nothing else remained of the once-thriving community—except its reputation. Not even time’s amnesia could silence that, for Girona had been the center of a famous medieval school of Kabbalists, those mystical philosophers who believed the universe was made manifest in ten emanations.  

The most famous Kabbalist of that time was Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (also known as Ramban or Nahmanides), born in Girona in 1194 and died in the Holy Land in 1270. In 1263 King James I of Aragón (a personal friend) summoned him to Barcelona to defend Jewish beliefs against the Dominican Pablo Christiani, a Jewish convert to Christianity. King James awarded Nahmanides a prize and declared that never before had he heard "an unjust cause so nobly defended."

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Blood On His Hands

words and photos by Elyn Aviva


He was a good-looking guy, even though he had blood on his hands and his jacket was spattered with red stains. His eyes were intense, his smile tight, his long fingers graceful as he sharpened his knife, the thin blade scraping rhythmically against the long steel rod.

The carnicería was packed with customers, patiently impatient, enjoying Julio’s ongoing spiel, willing to wait (for wait we would) while he cut each piece of meat to order. There were five butcher shops (not counting two supermarkets) in Sahagún, the small town in northern Spain where we were living, but this was the best. I had it on good authority.

“He’s an artist,” my late friend Paca had explained. “He can slice a piece of meat so thin you can see Barcelona through it.” No small task, given that Barcelona is 500 miles to the east.

Inside the entrance to the small shop was a red ticket machine. Take a number and you will know where you stand. Or so I thought at first. But I was quickly disabused. The flashing number on the bright-lit sign above Julio’s head never changed.

“Who’s last in line?” I asked, my limited Spanish having expanded to cover such necessities. A man leaning on a cane pointed to the elderly, burgundy-haired woman beside him; she nodded. I knew my place and sat down to wait. And wait. An hour would be fast, I realized, for it was just before the holidays, and everyone was stocking up to feed the hoards of friends and relatives returning home.

Homemade chorizo sausage, marinated pork loin, pork tongues, skinned rabbits, quarters of young and slightly older lamb, whole chickens, duck pâte, smoked pork chops, soup bones, bacon, tiny quails packed close together, pig ears, beef steaks, stew meat, chunks of beef to slice into fillets—and more—were tightly packed inside the glass-fronted case that separated Julio from his customers. Another case was crammed with rounds of cheeses and heaps of packaged pork products, its flat top covered with jars of leeks and asparagus and tuna, and bottles of local fruit conserves. On the wall behind, assorted Iberian hams hung from ropes tied around their shanks.

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