The Heart of Old Castile: Burgos

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

I: Burgos City, Capital of Castilla y León

Not far from Madrid (240 km/150 miles, or three hours by pleasant train, a bit less by car) is Burgos, a surprising town -  with not nearly enough tourists, considering its attractions.  The city lies close to the modern highway leading to western France, and also athwart the French route of the Camino de Santiago.  Its attractions go back at least 1000  years. Burgos was the first capital of the then-tiny Castile, and continued as such until the fall of Granada in 1492.  The legendary El Cid was born just north of here and is buried in the cathedral.  The cathedral itself is one of the finest examples of early Gothic in Spain, and is on the UN World Heritage list.  There are lovely small shops, friendly townspeople, and, a pleasant river-walk.  Go in the spring or early summer - Burgos lies on the Meseta at nearly 860 meters (2700 feet ) above sea level, and the winters are cold.

The first, and lasting, impression of Burgos is of a pleasant place to live.  The old town, beautifully and sensitively restored, is ringed with impressive walls and gates, and just outside is the lovely Paseo del Espoleón along the Arlanzón river.  Cafés abound.  Above the walled town is a ruined castle, built by Diego Porcelos, the founder of Burgos, around 884; this may be the original “Castilla” of “Castilla y León”.  As you ascend and descend the various levels of the city you will pass a number of churches, interesting mansions, and gates in the old walls.  Happily the historic center will remain as it is, as local building code now prevents anything taller than three stories from being constructed.  The builders and sculptors who worked here were among the finest in Spain: Gil and Diego de Siloé, Juan and Simon de Colonia, and Diego de la Cruz.

Start in the morning, after an invigorating coffee in one of the cafés, at the Casa del Cordón, an elegant building in the old quarter on Plaza del Calvo Sotelo.  A glance will tell you why it is the House of Cord - the doorway is marked off by a carved rope.  The tombs of the wealthy original owners, the Constable of Castile and his wife, are in the cathedral, in the Capilla del Condestable they had built.  The building itself is now occupied by a bank (as often, and fortunately, is the case, banks have saved historic buildings all over Spain as well as the rest of Europe).  This was the scene for the meeting of Columbus with Isabella and Ferdinand in 1497, after his second voyage, and here Philip the Fair, the Hapsburg husband of Juana la Loca, died in 1506 after catching a chill from playing handball.  Ponce de León started his voyage in search of the fountain of youth from this same house a decade later.  Nearby is a modest hotel, the Residencia del Cordón.  This square also hosts several good restaurants, including the Casa Ojeda, a great place for both tapas and good meals.

In the old center are numerous points of interest: 13/14th century San Gil and a section of the old walls, 13th century San Esteban and the Moorish arch of the same name, and San Nicolás.  The latter church, just west of the cathedral,  has an alabaster altarpiece, resembling nothing more than lacework in stone.  Outside the walls is San Lesmes, and in the ruins of San Juan Monastery are works by Burgos impressionist Marceliano Santa María.

While you are strolling on the riverwalk, you will not miss the huge gate, or Arco de Santa María; walk across the river at night and look back through the gateway to see the illuminated cathedral.  Part of the gate dates to the 11th century walls; part is 16th century and honors the great figures of the time: Charles V, El Cid, and early Castilian heroes.   While you are on the other side of the river, visit the Casa de Miranda, another fine building, which houses the Provincial Museum.  This offers several stunning treasures from churches in the province, including a lovely Gothic tomb of Juan de Padilla, Isabel’s much loved page (not unlike that of the Doncella in Siguenza), and archeological material from Roman Clunia.  Cross back on the Puente de San Pablo, lined with eight statues of figures from El Cid’s day, culminating in a monument to El Cid himself, sweeping all before his great sword La Tizona (today in the Museum of the Army in Madrid).

The cathedral will take part of the afternoon.  Work began in 1221, and ran on for three more centuries.  The multi-level site made the design and construction of the building very difficult - it is essentially built in a corner, surrounded by natural walls on two sides.  Yet the spires rise nearly 100 meters, pulling the eye up from the ground.  The exterior, which is richly ornamented, lies on several levels due to the terrain.  Most of it has been cleaned and restored, and shines splendidly; the remaining bits that need to be cleaned show how fouled the building was just a few years ago.  Walk around, first up a stairway to the east (at the top of which is San Nicolás church), past the tower and the 13th century apse to the Puerta de la Pellejería (named for the tanners that once were nearby), with a sculpture of St. John in a vat of boiling oil, and the Puerta del Sarmental with a monumental doorway, the main entrance to the church.

Inside the cathedral are many delights, such as the double stairway, the Escalera Dorada, which leads down from the door in the north transept, high above the cathedral floor.  Carved stone panels behind the altar can be seen from the ambulatory.  And here is the Capilla del Condestable, combining the work of Flemish, German, and Burgundian artists.  The intricate dome of the lantern tower is thought to have been inspired by Mudejar ceilings.  Under it lies a plain stone, covering the tombs of El Cid and his wife Jimena.

If time and transport allow, just outside the central Burgos area are several other great medieval buildings.  Three kilometers west is the Hospital del Rey, part of which is now a university campus; it was built in the 12th century as a hospice for pilgrims to Santiago.  The facade of the church shows Santiago in numerous representations, along with groups of pilgrims who would fit right into the Canterbury tales.  Further west on the same road (N-620) is the Monasterio de las Huelgas Reales, also founded in the 12th century - by Alfonso VIII and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Once a royal retreat (hence, Huelgas Reales, or royal relaxing), the building was converted to a Cistercian monastery and pantheon, with some fifty tombs, for the royalty of Castile.  An articulated statue of Santiago was used to knight some of these royalty, Santiago being the only person considered by them to be of higher rank!  It is also the home now of the Cloth Museum, which has a number of interesting pieces of clothing from the period; one display is described as the embroidered standard of the Moors, captured in the battle of Navas de Tolosa - although some writers say it may be a part of the caliph’s embroidered tent.  Going east from Burgos along the river you will encounter the third monument, the La Cartuja Monastery, which contains the tombs of Isabel’s parents and the brother whose death gave her the throne; everything is finely worked in marble and alabaster.  The altarpiece, by Siloé and de la Cruz, has an unusual structure, and is gilded with, it is said, some of the first gold brought by Columbus from the New World.  You can take a guided tour, or walk around with a self-guide brochure; best of all, the monastery is open on Sunday afternoon!  Finally, a few kilometers on is San Pedro de Cardeña, the original burial spot of the Cid and his wife (and where you can still see their elaborate tombs) and where the Cid’s horse, Babieca, is still buried.

Practicalities:  The city has a wide range of hotel choices, from the expensive Landa Palace, a five-star in a castle tower outside the city, to the mid-range Meson del Cid facing the cathedral, which re-creates the setting of an old inn, or the Fernán González across the river.  More modest lodgings include the Cordón and the Norte y Londres.  The latter is on the marked Camino itself, as is the Hotel Jacobeo, in two restored houses.

The Landa, del Cid and Fernán González all have excellent restaurants (the Landa is a Michelin one-star), and there are the Ojeda, the Asador de Aranda, and the Mesón la Cueva as well.  The key is classic Castilian cuisine, roast lamb, roast beef, no nouvelle cuisine in sight!  There are many salads and vegetable dishes for the less famished...and the Ribero de Duero wines are excellent.  The light reds of the area, called clarete, go well with meat, poultry or even fish.  Enjoy!

II: Burgos Province, Romanesque, Renaissance, and  Roast Lamb

Aranda de Duero is the first big stop in Burgos Province, if you are driving up from Madrid (km 156, or about 96 miles).  Here Charles I (Emperor Charles V) met his brother Ferdinand for the first, and last time.  Ferdinand, Spanish-born and raised, was on his way out of Spain to be ruler of Austria - eliminating a potential threat to Charles, the rightful ruler but Flemish-born and literally a foreigner to his subjects and his aristocracy.  The principal artistic attraction of the town is the late-15th century portal of the Iglesia de Santa Maria, which has a beautiful carved stone staircase leading to the upper choir.  Another excellent reason for stopping is to enjoy lunch in one of the many restaurants, from which you can often explore the numerous underground tunnels, generally used for wine storage  - there are more than seven kilometers of tunnels, for some 120 wineries, located 9 to 12 meters below ground; they go back to at least the 13th century.  Most of the restaurants have brick ovens, and the aroma will make a vegetarian feel morose You can’t go wrong - and the house wine will be a fine Ribera de Duero!

A short hop from here along the river is Peñaranda de Duero, an old town with a castle on the hill and tiny Plaza Mayor.  On the west side of the Plaza is the Palacio de los Condes de Miranda, a beautiful example of Spanish Renaissance style, with a two-story patio and sixteen fine artesonado (intricate wooden) ceilings.  Nearby is the pharmacy La Botica, the second oldest in Spain, continuously functioning since the 18th century.

Chugging on up the N-I you will come to Lerma, rising above the plain to the east.  The town rose to prominence when one of its native sons, principal advisor to Felipe III and Duke of Lerma, formulated the plan to expell the Moriscos, the christianized Moors.  Some of the property that was seized from them went into building huge monasteries and palacios in the upper town.  The principal monument of this Renaissance era is the Ducal Palace, an enormous structure fronting an equally enormous plaza.  Built by a disciple of the Escorial’s architect, it was sacked by the French in 1808 and then used as a barracks; works are underway to turn it into a Parador.  The 17th century  collegiate church of San Pedro is very attractive, and an arcade alongside offers a fine overlook of the terrain.  Guided tours are available - stop at the Ayuntamiento.  Casa Antón is one good dining option - we simply followed our nose; there are others - again, for classic Castilian cooking (translation: good roast lamb!).

From Lerma the C-110 takes you 48 kilometers to Covarrubias.  Covarrubias is a delightful town - although on weekends, particularly Sundays, visitors may far outnumber the town’s 629 inhabitants, and overrun its facilities.  The historic center is jammed with half-timbered houses, and lots of memories - even ghosts.  The son of Fernán González founded the town in 978.  Some stories claim that his daughter Urraca ran afoul of her father and was imprisoned by him in a Mozarabic tower here - which she is said to haunt; yet this same Urraca, grand-daughter of Fernán González, was made first abbess and effectively governor of the place.  It is more likely her death under tragic circumstances that gave rise to the legend .  Another Urraca, the sister of Alfonso VI who saved Zamora from their marauding brother Sancho in 1072, also served as abbess here.  The 15th century Colegiata is filled with lovely works, including a triptych by Gil de Siloé.  In its cloister is the tomb of Norwegian princess Cristina, married to a brother of Alfonso X, El Sabio, when Alfonso was making alliances in a failed effort to become Holy Roman Emperor.  She died only four years later, at age 28, and was buried here by her husband, far from home - but still honored by Norway, whose flag stands by the tomb.*  Just across from the church is a statue in her memory, from her home town, and a nice memorial by the youth of Covarrubias. The really local wine is from the Ribera de Arlanza, an almost-secret DOC.

Not far from Covarrubias San Pedro monastery (a romantic ruin that is an excellent site for bird-watching and/or a picnic) rises above the Arlanza river.  Gonzalo Fernández, father of the Good Count, founded the monastery in 912, and González was buried here, but his tomb, with that of his wife, was moved from in the 1840s when the monasteries were dissolved.  In the late 19th century wall paintings were discovered on the ruined walls after a fire stripped off the plaster applied a century earlier (how is it, you have to wonder, that they did not notice the 13th century murals when they put on the plaster?).  Some of these extraordinary murals are now in museums in the US, and others are in the Prado and in the Museum of Catalonian Art in Barcelona.  A few more kilometers east, then north, you can visit the extraordinary Visigothic church of Quintanilla de las Viñas, near the birthplace of the Good Count.  South from Covarrubias is Santo Domingo de los Silos, a village of some 328 souls, famous for its extraordinary Romanesque cloister - and the best-selling Gregorian chant of all time.  You can explore the cloister, by guided tour - and if you are lucky, attend a service to hear the monks singing.  Santo Domingo was of course affected by the dissolution, and was just saved from destruction by the arrival in 1881 of monks from Solesmes, France -- who were known for their revival of Gregorian chant!

South of Silos is the stunning Yecla gorge, to explore on foot.  And there is the great dig at Clunia, where the Romans had a town of some 30-60 thousand people, for five or six centuries.  This is a very pleasant place to explore, and if the paucity of visitors on a Friday afternoon in summer is any guide, likely to be one you can enjoy almost by yourself.  All around you on the hillside are buried ruins, with just a few stones breaking the surface.  Nearby, at Coruña del Conde, there is a ruined castle, apparently built with stones from Clunia, and a strange airplane memorial - which turns out to be in honor of one Sr. Aguilera, who in 1798 built a flying machine based on Leonardo da Vinci’s designs - and launched himself off the castle walls, terrifying the locals, who destroyed the machine after it crashed.

Many other delights lie east, west, north, whatever - east into the mountains leading to La Rioja, north-east to San Juan de Ortega and Santo Domingo de la Calzado on the Camino, or west along the Camino towards Frómista, not to mention the stunning finds of early man in the Atapuerca site near Burgos city.  Burgos - Quiet, relaxing - yes; boring - never!

Practicalities:  Dining in Aranda - We had a lovely meal (steak, grilled vegetables, excellent bread) in El Lagar on c/Isillas (from which we toured the tunnels -just ask!)  (947-51 06 83).  El Ciprés (947-50 74 14), Rafael Corrales, Casa Florencio (947 -50 02 30), and El Asador de Aranda (947 50 29 02), are also recommended in many sources, and the Meson de la Villa (947 50 10 25) on the Plaza Mayor gets high marks for classic Castilian cuisine.  Covarrubias: The Arlanza, an “associate Parador” right on the Plaza Mayor, is comfortable (947-403025); dining choices include the restaurant at the Arlanza, the Galo, on Monseñor Vargas just off the tiny town square (947-40 63 93, or Galin, Plaza Doña Urraca 4, 947 40 30 15.  In Santo Domingo de los Silos, the Tres Coronas hotel (947 38 07 27) is just fine, and it has a nice restaurant.  Another option is the Arco de San Juan (947 38 07 94) by the monastery.  Around the corner from these two is a most agreeable shop where I found an elegant 4-foot candlestick made from antique wrought-iron balcony railings

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.