Spain is one of those overlooked countries when it comes to historical and cultural tourism. This is a reflection of years of viewing Spain as a sort of beach resort for northern Europeans, rather than an exciting destination to discover more about this crucible of cultures. As we are based in Barcelona, I get to witness how two thousand years of history mesh together every day.
Barcelona’s medieval district is rightly considered one of the best preserved in Europe. There is literally a story on every street, and around every corner a legend. From its origins as a buffer region between the Frankish and Moorish empires through its heady and influential days as one of the major ports of the Mediterranean to its decline after the discovery of the new world - Barcelona’s history weaves its complicated and fascinating story through its streets and buildings. And the Gothic Quarters’ preservation makes the journey that much easier to bring to life!
But the medieval legacy doesn’t end at the old city walls of Barcelona. It is everywhere throughout Catalonia. Head north and in just over an hour you arrive at Girona, a walled city along the Via Agusta, site of the largest single-nave Gothic church in Europe. A majestic masterpiece built on the site of the previous church (built on top of the previous church, etc.), the church also houses a spectacular treasury including an 11th century tapestry of the creation of the world, and the tomb of Elisenda de Carcassona, one of the most influential women in Catalan history. A walk along the city walls leads to the 12th century Arab Baths and down to the Romanesque church of Sant Pere, home to the local archeological museum.
But visits to small towns and villages are sometimes the true hidden treasure. Take the town of Besalu, once seat to some of the most powerful figures in Catalan history. The town itself is still accessible through its spectacular Romanesque bridge (foto). Our tour takes visitors through the town’s winding streets and includes highlights such as the Hospital of Sant Julia and the only surviving Mikvah in Spain, remnant of what was once one of the most important Jewish communities on the Iberian peninsula.
Another example is the town of Cardona, an hour and a half north of Barcelona. The town is dominated by the castle, built between the 11th and 15th centuries on the site of a pre-Roman Iberian fortress. The Castle overlooks the whole town, and provides excellent panoramas of the region’s original treasure: The Salt Mountain of Cardona, a massive salt mine that for centuries was guarded jealously by the counts and rulers of the region.
Heading south from Barcelona, we offer tours of important medieval cities like Montblanc, and the fortress monasteries of Poblet and Santa Creus, which houses the tombs of some of the most important figures of the age. Closer to the beach we find evidence of the Templars’ presence in the region, at the castle-fortress of Miravet.
I have enjoyed walking the paths that medieval people walked – standing on the fortress wall, navigating the narrow alleyways and low doorways that were part of the daily need for defense, and then standing in the Lord Mayor’s house to see the luxury of the upper class. Sharing these experiences with my clients is what makes this job so enjoyable.
Eric Hersey is one of the owners of The Spanish Touch, which has been offering personalized tours of Spain since 2002.