In Marca Hispanica VII: Besalú and its rainy gardens

Trying, more or less unintentionally, to get as many of the old comital capitals into one trip as possible? Possibly, but I had been told to go to Besalú anyway, and it had been on my mind since the road from Hostalric to Vic through Arbúcies and Sant Hilari de Sacalm, that we’d taken to get to Vic from where we were staying, had led us through place after place whose name I knew. I knew them from a single document, usually, that document being the will of the Count-Bishop Miró III Bonfill, Count of Besalú 957-984 and Bishop of Girona 970-984, having previously been a deacon from early in his life. Miró was a fascinating man who seems to have read Greek, in fact to have generally read a lot and sponsored astronomical research as well as founding shedloads of monasteries.1 But as we drove along that road, it became clear that he had also carefully amassed a swathe of property by his death that led more or less directly along the route from his bishopric to his county’s capital. I don’t know if they’re all a comfortable day’s walk from each other or not, but I wouldn’t put it past him. He’d have found that new road very convenient, as he must have done the journey rather a lot. So I was already fairly happy to be seeing some of his work. Because, you know, they say charity begins at home, and so when you get right into Besalú you can see how Miró took this to heart, because the town square is mainly taken up by this:

The old monastery of Sant Pere de Besalú viewed from the Plaça de Sant Pere

`This’ is the old monastery of Sant Pere de Besalú, that Miró founded, and though it would have surprised him like this because of a twelfth-century rebuild, it’s still a good focus, and although the nave is locked away from you by a glass door you can stand in the porch at its open end, and for the cost of a Euro, illuminate the altar at the other for three minutes, which is quite a nice gimmick. But this is getting ahead of things, because to actually get that far you have to park up outside the town and come in this way:

The Pont de Besalú and the town behind it

There’s been a bridge here since the eleventh century, but lots of what you see here is fourteenth-century, and its building generated quite a drama;2 I don’t know how people got across the river before that, although on the day we were there it was shallow enough to ford no problem, despite the rain that may or may not be evident to you in the photoes. And behind it the town just sort of piles up, medieval stones on medieval stones:

The outside of Besalú seen from halfway across the Pont de Besalú

And then once you’re across the bridge, you are in this maze of medieval streets, that has basically not changed except in terms of cleanliness and shopfronts since the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. It’s like Girona’s medieval centre except much more compact and, whereas Girona is kind of like one large museum piece, here people were still living and working in it. I thought this continuity of use was fantastic, apart from anything else for the quality of building it implied but also for the apparent cultural assumption that you couldn’t go replacing this stuff. That said, again and again during this trip I came across buildings that turned out, despite being apparently medieval in style and fabric, to have been there only since the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries or even later; it was just the way people built here for a long long time.

But it’s not just buildings. From the bridge side the town slowly climbs down to where the river loops round in slightly more reachable fashion, and out there there is an expanse of market gardens, the Horts de Besalú, that apparently go back to the tenth century, although I assume that the actual terracing and structures are more recent than that at least:

The Horts de Besalú taken from the river through a mist of rainfall

These gardens were something of a revelation to me, dull though they look, firstly because I see the word ‘ortos’ a lot in my documents and this made it make a lot more sense in my head. Secondly, although I couldn’t get a decent picture that would bring this out, because the cabbages and cauliflowers growing in some of these gardens were bigger than some children, I mean truly giant vegetables that would make nonsense of the entries at most British country fairs. And thirdly because they’re achieving these monster vegetables with an irrigation system that looked extremely familiar. Forgive the strange angle, which was adopted not for style but to get the complexity of the system in:

The irrigation channels in the Horts de Besalú

I grant you straight away that these are made of concrete and may well not be any more medieval than you or me. However, compare these, which are in Shiraz in Iran and may have been since about the same time Besalú’s bridge was put in place:

A medieval qanat in Shiraz, Iran

If it works, why fix it I guess?3 Admittedly, the pouring rain that shortly after this drove us to take refuge in a café and then run for Girona where my companion of the journey so far had to catch a plane, and also forbade any more photoes, made an irrigation system seem pretty redundant, and it was sloshing out spare water like a storm drain, which it had effectively become, but the low river still told us why it was there, and why people had been maintaining this essentially ninth-century Arabic technology so that they could continue to grow outsize cauliflowers. Really, they haven’t changed much of medieval Besalú, it’s worth a look.

1 On Count-Bishop Miró and his monastery work see Josep María Salrach, “El Bisbe-Comte Miró Bonfill i la seva obra de fundació i dotació de monestirs” in Eufèmia Fort i Cogul (ed.), II Col·loqui d’Història del Monaquisme Català, Sant Joan de les Abadesses 1970 vol. II, Scriptorium Populeti 9 (Poblet 1974), pp. 57-81, with English summary pp. 422-423; on his learning and savvy generally, see Salrach, “El comte-bisbe Miró Bonfill i l’acta de consagració de Ripoll de l’any 977” in Estudis de llengua i literatura catalanes oferts a R. Aramon i Serra en el seu setanté aniversari Vol. IV, Estudis Universitaris Catalans Vol. 26 (3a època, Vol. 4) (Barcelona 1984), pp. 303-318.

2. There has recently been a historical novel set around its building, indeed, by Martí Gironell and called El Pont dels Jueus (Girona 2007), though how close it is to history would be something to read up on I suspect.

3. If the irrigation is something you find interesting, aside from Googling for « qanat » you could try either (for Catalonia especially) Pierre Guichard, “L’aprofitament de l’aigua” in B. de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. Josep María Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998; repr. 2001), pp. 332-333, or more generally Thomas F. Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia (Cambridge MA 1970), online at, last modified 8 December 2001 as of 26 March 2008.

5 responses to “In Marca Hispanica VII: Besalú and its rainy gardens

  1. Jonathan: All you had to do was publish a photo of that complex-but-wacky I-don’t-know-what of a water-divider to grab my attention! The near end of the Besalú canal looks like a siphon. Regards. Tom

  2. Prof. Glick, when I saw it the far end looked like a faucet on full blast, ironic considering Barcelona would be shipping in drinking water within two months. This year I seem to be bringing rainy weather to Iberian pastures, clearly I should get back again and help water the autumn crops. As far as I remember the featured bit of concrete is indeed a water divider, splitting the flow at 0° & 90° so that one channel flows out to the fields and one roughly past my photographer’s feet. Glad to have your interest, yours,

  3. Benvolgut,
    Tenint present el vostre interès pels segles carolingis, crec que us poden interessar els atles dels comtats de l’època carolíngia que hem editat aquests darrers anys. Així, per exemple, l’Atles del comtat de Besalú (785-988), Rafael Dalmau editor, Barcelona, 1998, publicat per J. Bolòs i V. Hurtado. També han aparegut els volums d’Empúries-Peralada, Girona, Osona, Manresa i Urgell.
    Ben cordialment
    Jordi Bolòs

  4. Professor, benvingut al blog! Tots els seus atles són a la biblioteca de l’Institut de Recerca Històrica, i jo comprava la meva pròpia còpia del volum per Osona quan era a Vic més d’hora en l’any. És un treball fascinant i útil, i una manera molt interessant de dirigir-se a la història i arqueològia. Estic molt complagut per tenir-lo com lector, com he fet gran ús de la seva obra en la meva propia. Gràcies per al seu comentari!

  5. And indeed, for everyone else, Prof. Bolòs has a very handy map of the city up at one of his own blogs, here.

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