The stone witch of Girona ...

Yesterday morning Emi and I set off on a mission ... to find the famous petrified witch of Girona who'd been really, really bad back in the day when the powers that be took a really, really dim view of that kind of behaviour.

Girona's stone witch, high on the cathedral tower

Once upon a time in the fair city of Girona there lived a wicked witch, or so the story goes. She called down curses on everyone who crossed her. Oftentimes the slights were imagined, and other times the witch took what was said out of context, perceiving slights where none had been intended.

Girona from the River Onyar

But everyone in the city walked in terror of the witch. Everyone knew someone who had suffered from her evil maledictions. Their hens had stopped laying, their cow's milk had dried up, couples who yearned for a baby remained childless, crops withered and died in the fields. It seemed as though there was no end to her diabolical powers.

Of course she grew arrogant as a result of the fear that she inspired. Everyone deferred to her, everyone always stood back allowing her to pass first through a doorway, no one ever contradicted her and she was given the best of everything by the city's merchants. The witch developed a defiant swagger and her wickedness grew by the day.

Even back then in the witch's day Girona had a fine cathedral that was the pride of all its citizens, but, because of her craft, it was a place that she found odious. In the dark of night, whilst everyone else kept to their beds, the witch stalked the streets of the cathedral quarter. She invoked powerful spells, aimed at bringing down thunder bolts onto the roof of the wonderful building.

Cathedral of Santa Maria de Girona

But an angel kept watch from the highest tower. Half way up to heaven he was able to see the witch coming, and he had more than enough power to defeat all her magic. The witch was shrewd; she realised why she hadn't been able to achiever her purpose. Breaking her walking stick on the cobbles in her fury she cursed the angel, but all to no avail, because, as everyone knows, angels are impervious to a witch's spells. But the angel watched her carefully. He was upset to see so much hatred and malevolence in her heart. In the dark of the night, with only a sliver of a moon for company, he prayed that she might learn to be a better person.

Angel on top of Santa Maria

But sadly the witch was not minded to embark upon a campaign of self-improvement. The following day she learnt that one of her neighbour's sons had found his vocation as a priest. His proud mother, Sra.Verdaguer, had been boasting down in the market place about how her boy was set to take the cloth. The witch listened from the shadows with a heart full of loathing. She'd never liked this woman; she'd always seemed too happy, too full of light and virtue, which the witch chose to interpret as smugness and self-satisfaction. Without making her presence known the witch slunk off to her lair.

That night when darkness enveloped the streets and everyone else retired to their homes, the witch wrapped herself in a magic cape and set out, invisible to mortal eyes, but not invisible to the eyes of the angel. Creeping noiselessly over the cobblestones she arrived outside the would-be priest's house. A wonderful smell of meat cooking over a wood fire filled the air. The sound of happy laughter echoed from the windows of the Verdaguer home. Peeping through a crack in the wooden shutter, where it had been fractured by the hot Catalan sun, the witch was outraged to see the family sitting around the table at supper, toasting their son and congratulating him on having found his vocation. Happiness and the good fortune of others always outraged her.

The witch withdrew into the shadows for a moment to brood on the scene that was playing out behind the shutter, and from half way up to heaven, on the tallest tower of the cathedral, the angel watched her, praying that she would chose to be good. But his prayers were to go unanswered.  With a cackle of mirthless laughter the witch invoked a spell on the young man, and crept up close to the window again to see her handiwork begin to unfold.

Through the ragged crack she saw him shiver, as though someone had walked on his grave. His parents seemed to sense that something was amiss too.

What's the matter, Bernat? What ails thee? they asked, speaking in unison.

Tis nothing, the young man replied with a stern, unsmiling face.

The parents looked at one another, confused. They knew something had changed, but they didn't know what.

Without another word, or any display of filial affection, the young man rose stiffly to his feet and left the room to seek out his own chamber for the night. Satisfied, the witch turned around and went back down the street to her hovel.

Next morning the townsfolk awoke to a terrible commotion. The noise echoed around the narrow streets of the cathedral quarter. As the sound bounced from stone to stone it was amplified by the natural acoustics of the city. By the time it reached the Verdaguer home, it sounded as though the devil himself and a legion of fallen angels were attacking Girona.

Sra. Verdaguer woke up with a start. Immediately she sensed that something evil was afoot. Out of nowhere in the clear, blue sky, a cloud crossed the early morning sun, throwing a dark shadow over her door. She jumped out of bed and, pulling on sufficient raiment to cover her modesty, set off in the direction of the unhallowed racket.

As she approached the cathedral she beheld her son, standing on an elevation behind the sacred building, with a sling shot and a supply of rocks, which he was aiming at the precious glass of the windows, and then at the growing group of citizens, who were trying to make their way up the hill to disarm him.

People called to him, Bernat, have you lost your mind? What are you doing?

But Bernat Verdaguer only replied with curses and obscenities, and a renewed vigour in his attack. And when he looked briefly into the eyes of his heart-broken mother he seemed oblivious to the pain that his wrong-doing was inflicting upon the person who loved him most in all the world.

The townspeople realised that they couldn't allow the situation to continue: the would-have-been priest was going to damage the precious glass of the cathedral that had cost them a king's ransom to install or, worse still, he was going to kill one of their number. The mayor, who knew that he had to take the lead, quietly went home and returned with his musket and a pouch full of gunpowder.

From his tower, half way up to heaven, the angel looked down on the scene and had an inkling of what the witch had been about the previous night. In a flash he knew that he couldn't allow an innocent man to perish as a result of her evil-doing. At the very last moment he caused the musket to misfire. The noise of the gun's discharge and the pall of smoke penetrated the deranged mind of Bernat Verdaguer causing him to realise that he was in mortal danger. Taking to his heels he scaled the walls and made his escape into the hills behind the city.

The gardens that cling to the old city walls

From the hidden coolness of a dark alleyway the witch looked on, satisfied with how her night's work had unfolded. She rejoiced in the broken aspect of Sra. Verdaguer, who had collapsed to her knees and cried pitiful tears, ignored by everyone around her. Those who had congratulated her down in the market only the day before avoided her, not knowing what words they could offer to comfort her, and at the same time not wanting to court the disapproval of their peers through being associated with her.

The Jewish Quarter

The broken mother made her way home along the back streets avoiding the crowds and wearing her disgrace like a penitent's black gown at Pentecost. But the work of the witch was not yet done. Not satisfied with the spectacular fall from grace that she had wrought on the young man's life she still yearned to crush his mother's soul completely.

As it happened, later that day, the annual Corpus Christi procession was due to make its way through the streets of Girona, carrying the Sacred Host, so that it might be venerated by the people of the city. The angel knew this, and wondered whether the witch might try her hand again. He normally kept a watchful vigil over the people of his city, but that day he watched with extra special care. He had a feeling that there was more to come.

The morning passed, the sun strengthened and the people gathered for the procession. No one had seen anything of Bernat Verdaguer since morning, but no one talked of anything else. How could he possibly hope to enter the priesthood after what had taken place? What would become of him? Shock and surprise turned to outrage. No one could understand his actions, and gradually their hearts hardened against him. In the course of one short day he had gone from being the most respected son of their neighbourhood to being a social outcast.

Front façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Girona

The bishop and the priests came slowly down the great steps of the cathedral with the Host. The crowd lowered their heads respectfully and silence fell over the city. The heat was by now intense, and the bearers carrying the heavy monstrance with the Eucharist inside sweated under the weight of their burden.

When they were half way down the steps Bernat Verdaguer appeared at the door of the cathedral. The people at the back, who hadn't all bowed their heads, gasped to see him, and everyone else looked up expecting some new outrage. On his back Bernat carried a bag, full of stones, and his bloodshot eyes raged with the madness that possessed him.

No one, other than the angel, saw the witch, standing quietly under the eaves of the bishop's palace. But that didn't matter, because the angel had read her thoughts and knew that she was about to make the young man attack the Eucharist with his stones.

In a flash the angel intervened. The great bells of the cathedral rang out, although no one was pulling their ropes. There was a crack of lightening that flashed across the brilliant blue sky. The people quaked and looked on in terror. They saw nothing. Bernat Verdaguer had disappeared.

A few of the braver souls, including a small boy, ventured slowly and carefully up the steps to investigate what had taken place. The small boy looked up at the roof of the cathedral to see whether the angel was still there. He loved the angel who lived on the tallest tower, half way up to heaven. In his heart he knew the angel kept him safe when he lay, scared of the darkness, in his bed at night. He squinted. He rubbed his eyes. It couldn't be ... no, surely ... but it was. There on the side of the cathedral was the witch, turned to stone, and staring harmlessly back down at them. If the truth be told she looked more placid and benign than any of them could ever remember her having looked in life.

The witch of Girona
And you can still see her there to this day, on the side of the cathedral, just beside Charlemagne's Tower. You can't miss her because she's the highest of all the gargoyles, and the only one in human form. For over 800 years she has stared down at the ground beneath her, not able to look up to the heavens and admire the vivid blue of the Catalan sky in summer. And every time it rains, the fresh rain water washes through her mouth, purifying it from all the evil curses and blasphemies that she uttered in the course of her lifetime.

What about the would-have-been priest? you ask. What happened to him?

A happy amphibian in the pool of Sant Pere de Galligants

Well, the angel realised that the hearts of the people had been poisoned against him, and that he would never be allowed to pursue his vocation. So, in order to save him from the misery of a life of rejection and disappointment, the angel changed him into a frog. With the altered expectations and career goals that came with being a frog he hopped off to live a happy and uncomplicated life in the nearby pool at St. Pere de Galligants. And if you pass by that way  you can still see his descendants living happily and croaking loudly in the shallows.

Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona

All the best for now,

Bonny x

[Loosely based on an old legend from Girona - more or less]