For whom the Bell Tolls

July 10, 2012 10 Comments »


bells ringing in the bell tower

The Girona bell tower in action

When you first arrive, you hear them. They will wake you up in the morning with a abruptness that makes you sit straight up in bed. But soon the sound fades into all of the other new sounds and stimulation of Europe and they become unnoticed in your normal day. Church bells in Europe become a part of your everyday sounds.

My travel schedule is packed, but I am able to stand still for a while for multiple days in Girona Spain and I start to fixate on the bells. I refuse to let my brain put them in the background. Is there a reason for the pattern? What do the different tones mean? Why are they rung at odd times? Then my mind starts to wander into logistics – is someone ringing the bells, who maintains them. A small hunchback man?

I follow the bell tones like a breadcrumb trail to the Girona Cathedral. Perched high on a hill and protected by walls – it’s bustling with people in the plaza square at the base of the stairs. I wonder if these people are as fascinated with the audio puzzle of the bells as I am? They seem more interested in gelato than bells.

girona spain cathedral looking up from the outside plaza

The bell tower from below

The Cathedral is the center of attention in Girona and a trip inside is necessary as it gets me closer to the bells. Luckily, I also have a guide who leads me to where most people cannot go – inside the Girona bell tower.

We enter the big nave and immediately I’m swallowed by the enormity of the church. We inconspicuously slip through a little side door barely noticed and start to climb the spiral stone stairs. They are dusty and it smells damp, but I appreciate the cool stones and wonder who else has walked these stairs as I am today. We get to an opening and soon I find myself in a narrow passageway with the best view in the Cathedral. I can look down into the cathedral where everyone now looks like miniatures roaming around like ants.

the hidden passage way

The narrow hidden passage way to get up to the bell tower offers the best views of the Nave

girona cathedral nave view from above

The view of the nave from above

We continue to climb another set of spiral stairs and eventually pop out into the bright sunlight. Above me are rows of bells of all sizes, we have made it to the bell tower. My guide informs me that we made it here just in time – 15 minutes before the noon bells. He explains that we will hear the typical hour bells – the ones that bell towers are typically known for. But back in the day when people didn’t wear wristwatches and phones for people to reach them – the bells were more than for just time, they were a complex message system.

There were bells for festivals, funerals, and prayers. There was a tune used to alert you if it was a day you could only eat fish. Finally, I learned there was even a bell to alert the bell ringers!

View of Girona from the bell tower

View from teh bell tower – the best view in town!

The bells used to announce the hours weren’t as simple as I thought either. Back when people didn’t have access to time on their wrist, people relied on the bells to tell them the time. If they told their wife they were going out to tend to the crops and they’d be back at 5PM for dinner, then how did they know it was 5PM? The bells were a very large wristwatch in a way. They ring on the hour to notify you of the time, but they also repeat in 2 minutes. Essentially, the first set of rings is the ‘warning shot’ which alerts everyone. The repeating is a way to honor the old system of communication. If they were out washing in the river or working in the fields and they heard the bells in the distance and started counting them – they might not have known if they heard the first few rings or not. So the rings were repeated 2 minutes later so that everyone was prepared to count the rings and know the time.

Counting the number of rings was also important when it came to communicating funerals. If the funeral bell rang 27 times it meant that a man had passed away, and it was rung 18 time for a female. It had to be a different enough number so that people could differentiate if they once again potentially didn’t hear the first few initial rings.

Girona's church bells up close

Girona’s church bells up close

As my guide told me about this morse code of years gone by it left me daydreaming about life without watches and constant communication. However I was startled out of my daydream with the first of 12 loud bells echoed throughout the bell tower and across Girona! My body vibrated as I looked out across Girona and wondered if anyone really even heard the bells any longer or if they were immune to them. Since I was within 20 feet of them, there was no way I could ignore them…and the best thing is that I knew in two minutes, it would happen again.

To learn more about Costa Brava then listen to the Amateur Traveler Episode 339 – Travel to Costa Brava, Spain

My guide was provided by the Girona Tourism Board as part of the Costa Brava Blog Trip I was invited on via Visit Costa Brava.  However the opinions expressed here are all my own.

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