A buzz through Barcelona
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A buzz through Barcelona

Naomi Frankel found an unlikely guide in Barcelona to help her discover the Catalan capital’s Jewish heritage

Naomi is a freelance journalist

One wouldn’t expect to uncover Barcelona’s Jewish history via a born and bred Irish Catholic guide, but a fortunate encounter led me to a fascinating Sephardi heritage on a bespoke tour of Barcelona’s old Jewish Quarter. 

My adventure began with a search the previous day for the Medieval Synagogue, (one of the oldest in Europe). Google Maps leads me through Las Ramblas, a touristy thoroughfare where painted performers compete with multiple stalls selling trinkets. The Gothic quarter, located in the heart of Barcelona’s old city reminded me of Jerusalem’s Old City, with its distinct ancient feel and the endless narrow, quaint twisting streets one could get lost in!

I did in fact get a bit lost, and my frustration reached a peak when I eventually stumbled upon the synagogue to discover (the extraordinary small) door firmly closed upon arrival. Heading opposite to ‘Fat Tire Bike Tours’ to ask for more details, a friendly American worker recommended Iosaf, an Irish guide who was apparently  very knowledgeable about Barcelona’s Jewish history!

So I called Iosaf and arranged to meet the next day in Gracia, a busy shopping district. Our tour began in the Gothic Quarter, and I soon discovered Iosaf was a truly fascinating guide. Relating everything in a distinct Irish lilt he told me how the Jewish presence in Barcelona dates back to the 9th century, although it was two centuries later when El Call, the Jewish Quarter was created. I discovered that Jews were hugely influential during the medieval period, enjoying the King’s protection as Barcelona emerged as a major trading port. Until 1391, that is, when the Jewish Quarter was attacked and their privileges taken away. With the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the rest as they say is history.

Iosaf took me to view some buildings and pointed out some distinct Hebrew lettering inscribed on the ancient walls. Enraptured, I listened as he told me about Montjuïc (Jewish Mountain in Catalan), a scenic wooded hill in the south west of Barcelona.

It was once the home of the city’s medieval Jewish community. Sadly, after the Spanish expulsion, bricks from Jewish graves in Montjuïc were carried down and used in the building of tenements in Barcelona.

I voiced my outrage at this clear disrespect for the dead, but Iosaf put a spin on things by relating how it is believed those workers were Marranos (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity but who practiced in secret). So, the actions of placing bricks with Hebrew lettering among the stones was probably an act of defiance.

We continue to El Born, bordering the Gothic Quarter, where Iosaf pointed out a street called Carrer dels Canvis Vells (Old Money Changers Street). Unsurprisingly, it hads a large population of Jewish moneychangers in the 1200s. The street bordering it is called Carrer dels Canvis Nous, meaning New Money Changers Street, and Iosaf told me how this signalled the new period after the 1200s, when Christians began moving into money changing.

Hebrew lettering inscribed on the ancient walls.

Our final stop was the medieval synagogue, which thankfully was now open. Although no congregation prays regularly there, it is still used for festive occasions. Built on a low underground level, I had to stoop to enter, feeling like Alice in Wonderland! Inside, a staff member gives a short but interesting talk about its history. I marvelled at the beautiful stained glass windows and grand menorah standing proudly in the corner.

I was only in Barcelona for a few days, and I was told that it would be a crime to miss the incredible work of Gaudi’s architecture, though his creations are dotted all around the city. With time constraints I chose to visit Barcelona’s Park Güell, one of his major works, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984.

My last evening in Barcelona was spent dining at its only kosher restaurant, Maccabi, located in the heart of Las Ramblas. The queue is long but the steak is great, making it worth the wait.

However, the cherry on the cake was over dessert (pardon the pun) where a clan of travelling musicians serenaded me with  traditional Spanish music. I didn’t know the song, but I won’t forget it.

Naomi’s Fact File

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