Whether you’re out sun-seeking or sightseeing, Spain has more to offer than just good food and good weather. Home to the original ‘Sephardim’ (‘Spanish Jews’ in Hebrew), Spain is rich with stories and evidence of its Jewish population’s history and culture, right up to the community’s 1492 Expulsion. So wherever you find yourself roaming the country or exploring the city, there’s always something new and unexpected to discover: synagogues built like mosques and converted to churches or statues of Jewish celebrities, Spain has it all, with some breathtakingly beautiful views.
Cáceres- Barrio de San Antonio
A UNESCO World Heritage City since 1986, this isn’t the least of Cáceres’ charms. Fascinatingly, the city is an early example of religious coexistence; Cáceres was populated by Jews, Moors and Christians in the 11th century.
Stop by the Old Jewish Call and observe the one-story houses stacked on top of one another in all of their chaotic glory, and the Plaza Mayor, where Jews sold, shopped, kvetched and plutzed. The nearby Cáceres Museum offers a wealth of information, and for the more eagle-eyed tourist, around the corner at number 30 Barrio de San Antonio de la Quedabra Street is a street sign recalling the city’s past Jewish population – two stars of David.
Girona – Catalan Jewish Museum, the Centre Bonastruc ça Porta
And now to Spain’s very far East – Girona. Girona’s beauty – the hilly Capuchins to the east of the river Onyar; the modern town on the plains of the west – is breathtaking and varied. Nowadays, Girona is a popular day trip for tourists from Barcelona. It’s Jewish past, dating from the late 9th century, isn’t completely obvious at first glance; for that, you have to dig a little deeper. Take a visit to the Centre Bonastruc ça Porta – the Jewish Museum, within the boundaries of the Jewish ‘Call’ (quarter) and the site of Girona’s last synagogue–details all areas of medieval Spanish-Jewish life, including the most famous Jewish Gironan of all, the celebrated Talmudist Nahmanides.
Barcelona – city of Dali, Gaudi and good food. But did you know that Barcelona’s ‘Aljama’, Jewish community, was one of the largest of medieval Spain, comprising 10% of the city’s population? After the 1391 attack on the city and 1492 expulsion, all that’s left of Barcelona’s magnificent Jewish heritage is the layout of its streets. For some light-hearted relief, the Barcelona Jewish film festival and European Day of Jewish Culture celebrations take place in the city on the first Sunday of September.
The community of Besalu began as an overflowing community (think synagogue on High Holidays)from the nearby Call of Girona, and, like most good Jewish communities, produced some well-known doctors (amongst them notables like Abraham des Castlar, personal doctor to Peter IV of Arragon, and Bendit des Logar, two of the leading physicians of the time). Besalu’s main claim to fame? It has one of the only three medieval mikvehs throughout Europe. If the heat gets too much, take a look around a fancy house of the time: the Cultural Centre Curia Real, a former home of notable Jewish family the Astrucs, has cultural clues and all round interesting items to satisfy your curious urges.
Toledo, close to Madrid, is the city of walls, silk and swords and one of the most important Jewish cities of medieval Europe. Other than the famous ‘Escuela de Traductores’ (School of Translators), the Jewish quarter (‘Juderia’)’s two remaining synagogues (out of Toldeo’s original ten) are unmissable. The Sinagoga del Transito is a two-in-one attraction – built in 1366, nowadays it contains the Museo Sefardi, detailing medieval Jewish life in Toledo. The Sinagoga of Santa María la Blanca also has an interesting story – permission to build it was granted when the King was in love with a Jewish woman. It was later converted into a church. The path of true love never did run smooth…
Known as the ‘Capital of Paradise’, unfortunately, nothing original of Oviedo’s Jewish heritage remains in the old Jewish quarter. The city is, however, skilled at commemorating what used to be there. There are many things to ‘not’ see in Oviedo: wander over to the Campoamor Theatre and look for ghosts –below your feet is what used to be the Jewish cemetery, memorialized by a plaque on the side of the theatre. In Juan XXIII Square, a lonely plaque on a pharmacy tells readers that they are in the historic Jewish quarter. Most excitingly, perhaps, just east of the theatre, is the commemorative statue of Woody Allen. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. And no, we don’t see the connection either.
The only quarter on our list which was built between a castle and a former prison’s bridge, Estella’s community was the third richest and most powerful in the region. Walled in on its remaining three sides, it is this which hopeful tourists come to see. Perhaps the second most famous Jewish wall in history, it’s 300 meters of white limestone, topped with part of a remaining tower. Unfortunately, no actual remains of any other Jewish community buildings are present. Two churches within the quarter – San Pedro de la Rua and the Santa Maria jus del Castillo – are former synagogues. Climb up Zalatambor Castle for some spectacular views.
The undulated shape and seven gates of the Segovian Jewish quarter sets it apart from the rest of the city. Segovia’s Jewish history is what might best be termed ‘hidden’. There’s a hotel on the site of a famed converso rabbi’s house. Large arches stand, without their gates. Where there was once three synagogues, two dedicated Talmud schools, a Jewish hospital, cemetery, butcher, ovens and baths, there are now a collection of generic buildings with some lovely scenery and views – the community was forced to liquidate their assets at the time of the expulsion. Happily, within the quarter is the Jewish Quarter Educational center, which is also the former home of an illustrious descendant of converted Jews.
The Jews of Tudela were a bit different from most other communities on our list. They were the last Jews to leave Spain, holding out against the expulsion edict until 1498. They are also responsible for bringing to the world-famed Jewish scholar, Judah Ha-Levi and famed 12th-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela. The Jewish quarter is divided into the old, ‘Vetula’, and linked to the new quarter by two parallel streets. Vetula’s top attraction is the Old Synagogue, and the ‘Manta’ – roll – of Tudela, a list of conversos (forced converts) from the 17th century. The new quarter is just a stroll away, the place where the Jews took in other Spanish-Jewish refugees and clustered together during their last 6 years in the country.
Monforte de Lemos
To the North, and to a very distinct community in Galicia. The Jewish community of Monforte de Lemos was known for their silk and silverware trades. Unusually, the community here were permitted to come and go as they pleased, unlike other Jewish Calls throughout medieval Spain. Pescaderías street offers some of the best views of the city, including 700-year-old walls and watchtowers. The house of the most important family, the Gaibores, still stands in the quarter, and is definitely worth a visit. Carry on walking a little further and you’ll encounter the ritual baths, the site of the old synagogue and the city’s old prison.