The ancient county of Besalú was situated in what is now the Garrotxa region. The landscape of this area has two essential defining features: the leafiness of the forests and the sea of solidified lava that covers the subsoil, the result of the intense volcanic activity that characterised this territory. The county of Besalú and in particular the county capital, the town of Besalú, is an ideal area for the visitor to discover the mediaeval past of Catalonia inherited from the time of the counts.
If you only have one day to spend in the county, we recommend a visit to the county’s capital, Besalú; if you have an extra day, the mediaeval settlement of Santa Pau is also worth a visit. Upon leaving Besalú, the route heads south towards Banyoles. After passing the lake of Banyoles on the eastern side, the route continues west towards the centre of the region, to Santa Pau.
1.- From Besalú to Santa Pau
The history: Bernard I of Besalú, Tallaferro
The history of the origins of the county of Besalú are closely linked to the life of Bernard I of Besalú, otherwise known as Tallaferro or The Chisel (approximately 970-1020), great-grandson of Wilfred I the Hairy and son of Oliba Cabreta, Count of Cerdanya and Besalú.
Following the death of his father in the year 990, Bernard governed the counties of Cerdanya and Besalú that he had inherited together with his mother, Ermengarde, and his two brothers, Wilfred and Oliba. The death of Ermengarde led to the division of the counties between the brothers. Wilfred took charge of the county of Cerdanya, while Bernard governed the county of Besalú and the domains of Vallespir and Fenollet. Bernard thus became the first count of Besalú, beginning an independent lineage. When his brother, the abbot Oliba, gave up his county, Ripoll, Bernard also took charge of his land.
Throughout his life, Bernard I of Besalú participated in a variety of military campaigns, such as the expedition to Cordoba to fight against the caliphate. As a result of his skill and abilities as a military leader, he became known by the nickname Tallaferro, meaning The Chisel.
The government of Bernard I of Besalú was determined by the objective of making the county capital into the seat of a new bishopric. With this in mind, Bernard and his brother, the abbot Oliba, travelled to Rome in 1016 to put their request to Pope Benedict VIII. Despite the reluctance of the neighbouring dioceses, for a short time (from 1017 to 1020) Besalú became the seat of the new bishopric, with Wilfred, the son of Bernard, as bishop.
Bernard was killed in an accident during one of his trips, on the way to Provence. His remains were taken to the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll, where his brother Oliba buried them.
Throughout the more than 20 years of his rule, Bernard established the political and economic foundations for the future development of the county of Besalú, particularly its capital. As a result, Besalú experienced intense construction work during the 12th and 13th centuries, with projects such as the bridge, the miqvé or Jewish baths, the church of the Monastery of Sant Pere and that of Sant Julià, the former pilgrims’ hospice, the house of the Cornellà family, the Church of Sant Vicenç and the Gothic hall of the palace of the royal curia.
Highlights of the county of Besalú
A visit to the county town of Besalú
Besalú is the main town at this stage of the route. Walking through the town streets, visitors will discover an impressive monumental complex and will learn about the history of one of the most fascinating villages of mediaeval Catalonia, both in terms of its value as a monument and in terms of the unique nature of some of the buildings that have been preserved in the town.
A visit to Besalú focuses on two main areas, the Jewish quarter, centred on the remains of the synagogue, the miqvé and the Jewish gate, and the area around the Monastery of Sant Pere, along with the hospice of Sant Julià and the royal curia. A tour of the town can then be topped off with a visit to the parish church of Sant Vicenç, the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria of Besalú and the ruins of the count’s castle. Visits must be arranged in advance at the Tourist Office for the last two buildings, as they are located on privately owned land.
Parking: There is a large car park that is open to the public on entering Besalú, beside the famous bridge. After parking, visitors are advised to go to the tourist information office in the town centre, as this is where guided tours are organised to some buildings that are not otherwise open to the public.
Tourist Information Office
Plaça de la Llibertat, 1
17850 Besalú (Garrotxa)
Tel.: (+34) 972 591 240
The jewish quarter
Access to Besalú’s Jewish neighbourhood is through a small stone gateway, on the other side of which there is a square with the synagogue, the miqvé and the Jewish gate, which are reached from the buildings along an almost intact cobbled street.
On 4 October 1264, James I the Conqueror granted permission to the Jewish community in Besalú for the construction of the synagogue or schola judeorum, the most important public building in the Jewish quarter and the focal point of life there. This was where prayer, reading and explanation of the Torah and other biblical texts took place. The building can be freely visited and visitors will find a number of explanatory panels that will help them to understand the ruins that have been preserved on the site.
Linked to the synagogue, the miqvé is an unusual building that is unique in Europe. It consists of an underground stone room covered by a barrel vault, with a small window for ventilation and illumination. Mosaic Law requires a source of running water, not still water, for ritual bathing. Purification by immersion was essential in Jewish religious practice, following birth and menstruation for women and before the Sabbath and Yom Kippur for religious men.
The jewish gate
Below the synagogue towards the river, visitors will find an original mediaeval street with steps and a pavement, discovered in 2007 during archaeological excavations. This was the old way out of Besalú for the Jewish population, who, if they wanted to enter the town, had to leave the Jewish quarter through this gate and re-enter the city through the main route, over the bridge.
The monastery of Sant Pere
The only complete element remaining of the former Monastery of Sant Pere is the main church. The ambulatory, which is decorated extensively, is not a common element in the churches of the time, which has caused experts to think that the church was the work of a French architect. This was a church of pilgrimage; on the right, looking towards the altar, a door can be seen positioned high up in the wall. Behind this door the most important relics are stored in safety; it was these relics that many pilgrims came to worship.
The hospice of Sant Julià
Besalú was an important pilgrimage destination for the Christian faith, which meant that it had to have a number of hospitals to accommodate pilgrims. This is the only one that has survived: the hospice of Sant Julià. Beside the Church of Sant Pere on the way to the royal curia, visitors can admire the façade of the building. It contains a deep-set door decorated with Corinthian columns and lions.
The Royal Curia
The main feature of the royal curia building is a large Gothic hall. From there, visitors can see fragments of the 11th-century wall that have been uncovered, previously hidden by later buildings. An audiovisual presentation has been installed on the ground floor of this building that narrates the complete history of Besalú, from its most remote origins to the present day, providing a clear vision of the Court of Tallaferro.
Points of interest in the county
Santa Pau complements the main stretch of this route perfectly, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural, wild heart of the ancient county of Besalú.
The mediaeval complex of Santa Pau
As well as the charms of the old town, Santa Pau is the ideal base for discovering the La Garrotxa Natural Park. The old town of Santa Pau, distributed around the castle, the church and the porticoed square, was declared a complex of historic and artistic interest in 1970. The town’s tourist office offers a variety of different itineraries for discovering the area. We recommend visiting the tourist information office first.
Santa Pau Tourist Information Office
Plaça Major, 1. Can Vayreda
17811 Santa Pau (Garrotxa)
Tel.: (+34) 972 680 349