A floral tryst

A floral tryst

The ancient town of Girona has a unique way of welcoming spring. It covers itself with a cloak of flowers, bathing in colour and fragrance. Tanushree Podder witnesses Temps de Flors, with its promise of a revisit to the town.

The exquisite little city of Girona manages to enthral even the most sceptic visitor, but if one were to visit it during the ‘Temps de Flors’, a repeat visit is assured and if you have kissed the bottom of the lioness you can’t avoid a few more visits. According to a popular legend, if you kiss the stone bottom of the scrawny lioness on the Sant Felui, you will definitely come back to Girona. To facilitate this task, an iron ladder has been placed near the pillar that is topped by the venerated creature.

The beautiful hilltop city sits near the confluence of four rivers, just over an hour’s train ride away from Barcelona. That explained why it is also known as ‘City of the Four Rivers’.

A charming welcome

When I landed there on a May morning to find myself amidst the brilliant Temps de Flors (Festival of Flowers) celebration, I knew it was providence at work. The festival is Girona’s salutation to spring after the long winter. For about half a century, the entire town has draped itself in a floral garb during the month of May. What began as a flower competition has bloomed into a major tourist draw.

Offices, homes, restaurants, cafés, shops and squares; in fact every nook and cranny of the town is draped with flowers of every hue and variety, giving the town a festive, colourful and fresh ambience. Draped over balconies, alleys and stores a multitude of flowers flooded my senses.

Enthusiastic townsfolk lend their creativity to create interesting patterns and arrangements on every inch of the town. The gates to private gardens and public buildings, where intruders are generally not allowed, are thrown open to show off to welcome visitors. People flock to the centuries old churches and monasteries to witness their flowery décor.

It was impossible not to pause on the bridge across the Onyar River that divides the town into the Barri Vell (Old Quarter) and the newer part, to admire the colourful houses built towards the end of the Middle Ages. Suspended strategically on the edge of the water, painted in shades of bright red, lemon and orange, their shadows reflected in the river, they were picture-perfect.

Girona, which has survived dozens of sieges and invasions, is an ancient town. This is the town Charlemagne wrested from the Moors way back in the 785 AD, after which the city walls were constructed to keep out intruders. Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, the town has seen them all in the seven times it was captured. Not surprising, the stamp each one of them left on the place still remains visible. Moorish, Jewish, French, Spanish, Catalan, you name it and a miniscule impression will be discernible in the cuisine, structures and culture. In the 12th century, during a strong Jewish influence, the town saw the establishment of an important institute for Kabbalistic studies.

Like most European towns, this one also needs to be explored on foot, so I footed towards the Old Quarter. It is towards the ancient city walls with their watch towers that I made my way to catch a panoramic view of the town and adjacent areas. The majestic Cathedral of Saint Mary loomed in the distance, casting its shadow on the old town. The zoom on my camera detected the faint colours of flowers that adorned the structure.

The 89 steps of the Cathedral were decorated with flowers lending the 11th century Baroque structure an exquisite appearance. Constructed over a period of several centuries, it towers over the Placa de la Catedral and is reputed to have the world’s second widest Gothic nave, which is almost 23 metres in width. But, more than the nave, it is the 11th century Romanesque tapestry known as the ‘Tapestry of Creation’, and Charlemagne’s throne that makes this cathedral famous. 

“That’s the Life’s Path,” explained Anna Aliu, our guide, adding, “The lower steps are decorated with white roses, which symbolise the innocence of childhood. The red roses on the upper steps are a symbol of youth and finally the broken piano signifies death.” Profound philosophy at an apt spot, I mused.

Multi-cultural influences

Sauntering along the flower decked streets, I entered the Banys Arabs, a Romanesque bathhouse built some time in the 12th century. Akin to the ones constructed by Romans and Arabs, this bath house has the typical elements consisting of a chamber for changing, chambers for hot and cold baths and a sauna chamber heated by underground system. For the moment, it was wreathed in floral decorations.

The El Call or the Jewish Quarter, laden with flowers bright and beautiful, tells sad tales of the times when the Jews were persecuted. For close to six centuries between 890 and 1492, till they were ousted, this place was inhabited by a very influential Jewish community till they were forced to convert or leave forever. Now, all that remains is a museum to illustrate the Jewish history and their lifestyle.

Girona’s denizens are a creative lot. On a street, I find tennis balls turned into tulips, a host of white shoes hanging overhead to adorn a street, also a bicycle adorned with paper-cones and flowers. Elsewhere, there are red umbrellas creating a semblance of flower arrangement.

At the 12th century Benedictine monastery, Sant Pere de Galligants, I am fascinated by the brilliant blue flowers fashioned from enamel and ceramic. Bountiful ivy flows down from ancient tombstones. There is music in the air as the enamel flowers nod in the breeze, keeping time with the chants in the backdrop.

Timeless relics

Enchanted by the town, I make my way to Girona’s favourite church, Sant Feliu. The pretty church with its Baroque façade, Romanesque arches, characteristic belfries and Gothic elements is a popular picture on postcards. Crates of flowers line the steps leading up to the church, adding to its serene charm.

The Rambla De La Libertat proves to be true to its reputation of being the liveliest part of the city. With a flower market dating back to the medieval times, it was natural that the festival of flowers marked it as the most important spot of all.

It was time for a repast after the hectic trampling through the town. I am not surprised when told that there were restaurants that use flowers, creating a distinctive floral cuisine. Would I like to try it? Of course, I would! Temps de Flors seems the right occasion to feast on flowers. And so to La Calendula we make our way. There I meet Iolanda Bustos, the lovely lady who pioneered the cuisine in Girona.

“This year, over 30 restaurants from ‘Associació d’Hostaleria de Girona i Radial’ will offer floral cuisine during the Temps De Flors,” informed Anna. “Some of the popular dishes are salad with both lobsters and violets as ingredients, a beef hamburger with rosemary flowers, and foie gras mousse made with red rose petals.

That’s not all. At Rocambolesc, you can taste ice-creams made from different kinds of flowers.” Seated in the restaurant, washing down marigold tempura with floral beer, I muse about my floral tryst with a town with a past.

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