Burgos is the second largest city in the province of Castilla y León, after León itself. One thousand years ago or thereabouts, the city was the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Castilla. Now the city governs a high plateau, 859 m (2,818 ft) above sea level, situated some miles inland and therefore insulated from the warming currents of the Mediterranean. Chilly wind sweeps through its streets, and winter inevitably brings heavy snow.
But there is plenty to compensate for the cold.
The ride up was long and pleasant. It was only the driver, GF, and myself. The driver was a young man from Galicia who lived in Burgos, working as an air traffic controller. He spoke slowly and with a clear accent, which gave me the pleasant illusion that I was fluent in Spanish. After two hours we arrived.
Soon we were walking towards the center of the city. As usual in Burgos, it was a cold, cloudy day. But I didn’t care; I was about to see one of the finest cathedrals in Spain.
But first we had to eat. I was hungry. So we ducked into a bar for some croquettes and tortilla and coffee. While there, we asked the barman to point us to the cathedral’s entrance.
“Right around that corner,” he said. “But before you go in, go to the Iglesia de San Nicolás, a very nice church.”
He was right. This little church is right next to the cathedral, and it definitely merits a visit. The central altarpiece is incredible, a towering monolith of white marble carved into an army of angles. There are so many little figures and scenes in it that it would be impossible to look at it all; in fact, the carved reliefs are so tiny that they form only surface details, elements of an abstract pattern. This monumental altar, one of the great works of Renaissance Spain, was designed by the sculptor Simón de Colonia and executed by his son.
Now it was time to see what we came for: the Cathedral of Burgos, La Santa Iglesía Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María. We walked out of the church and looked up. It was stupendous. The cathedral of Burgos is one of Spain’s lesser known treasures, at least to outsiders. Even greater than the Cathedral of León, it is the finest example of French Gothic in Spain.
We walked around the outside for a while, just taking it in. Like the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the massive building is impressive from every side. Sculptures stand above the doorway, their noble robed figures looking down on the viewer with infinite calm. Reliefs are carved into the exterior walls, of men, of animals, of abstract decorations. Above one doorway, now unused, is an excellent scene of the Last Judgment, each figure looking like it had been carved yesterday. The whole thing is bristling with spires, over twenty of them, impaling any poor clouds that get too close.
Whereas many cathedrals in Spain are stylistic patchworks, due to their being built and repaired in many different epochs, the Cathedral of Burgos is a symphony of stone—balanced, unified, pure French Gothic. (And this is not, by the way, because it was built all at once, but because later generations mostly kept to the original aesthetic.) Burgos, you see, is one of the major stopping-points on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route which brought untold thousands from the rest of Europe. This is why the cathedral has such a strong French influence.
After we had drunk our fill of the looming edifice, we went inside. The entry ticket came with an audioguide included. Thinking that we’d practiced enough Spanish that day, we got the guides in English. There were two narrators, a man and a woman, and both of them spoke with such soothing tones and such calm slowness that I felt I was being deliberately lulled to sleep, not informed.
The inside of the cathedral is not as overwhelming as its outside, which is hardly saying anything. There are fine Renaissance paintings, old Romanesque frescos, impressive sculptures, admirable altars—too much to remember or name. But a few things stick out in my memory.
First was a wooden figure of a man’s upper half emanating from a section of the ceiling, high up above near the ceiling. Every hour this impish fellow strikes the bell and opens his mouth. This automaton is called the Papamoscas, named after the flycatching tit, whose snapping beak the Papamoscas is supposed to resemble. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see this delightful rogue in action. But he is sufficiently incongruous—looking almost Mephistophelean with his grin—to attract the attention of nearly every traveler to the cathedral, including Victor Hugo.Then there was the central cupola. This was unlike any I had ever seen before. Instead of a large dome crowning the building, it was filled with small windows in an intricate pattern; standing underneath and looking up, it looks like heaven itself is opening up. The audioguide explained how it was created, but I don’t remember now, and even at the time I couldn’t believe it. Hanging from so high a place and looking as delicate as paper ribbons, it is impossible to believe it was made from stone. The credit for this lovely work goes to Juan de Vallejos, an otherwise obscure and unknown figure.
Immediately below is something even more special: the tomb of El Cid Campeador, the half-legendary warrior from the Spanish Middle Ages. The tomb is nothing special to look at—just a slab of granite on the floor—but the man certainly was.
El Cid is the star of the first major work of Spanish literature, El Cantar del Mio Cid, an epic poem in which he is portrayed as a tireless warrior for Christianity against the Muslims. (The real story was, as usual, more complicated.) I had read this poem right before moving to Spain. Thus, standing there before his tomb felt a bit like standing in front of Washington Irving’s old room in the Alhambra: like I had completed a circuit. I love moments like this, when past and present are suddenly thrown together, because it is in these times that we can feel how much we’ve changed and how much we’ve stayed the same.
On the recommendation of both our driver and our host, we went to Casa Pancho for lunch, a restaurant quite near the cathedral. It was early for lunch, but the place was already bustling.
I knew what I wanted: morcilla. This is Spanish blood sausage, a common ingredient in stews from Asturias to Segovia to Cáceres; and the morcilla in Burgos is supposed to be the best in Spain. Indeed, in supermarkets you can find blood sausage labeled “Morcilla de Burgos.” This label doesn’t necessarily mean that the morcilla was made in Burgos; rather it means that the sausage was made with rice rather than onions, which is the Burgos style. Rice gives the sausage a denser and, in my opinion, more pleasant texture in comparison with onions, which are used in the morcilla of Estremadura.
I ordered two tapas of morcilla to start. It was great, so much better than other morcilla I had tried. Then I ordered pepper stuffed with morcilla in a spicy sauce, and it was even better; and after that, a piece of bread topped with a quail egg, a hot pepper, and morcilla. Everything was delicious.
Both of us left satisfied and happy. In fact, the food was so good and so reasonably priced that the meal stands out in my memory as one of the best I’ve had in Spain.
The next stop was Las Huelgas. This is a large monastery that is situated a bit outside the city center. It took us about twenty minutes to walk there. It is an impressively large building, its gray form stretching hundreds of feet.
But when we got there we found that it was closed, and it wouldn’t open for another forty minutes. This is a common occurrence in Spain, especially in smaller cities: monuments close in the middle of the day and reopen a few hours later. The Spanish may profess that the siesta is dead, but midday breaks are still something the tourist must be wary of.
We retreated to a café to kill time. On the television, the news was playing; they were covering the story about the castle in the south of Spain, the Medrera castle in Cádiz, that had been restored with hideously poor taste, essentially turning the old castle into a block of concrete. The news story compared it to the other famous botched restoration in Spain, the ecce homo in Borja that an elderly Spaniard had famously turned into ‘Beast Jesus’. In fairness, restoration is difficult, delicate work. But it shouldn’t be the occasion to turn a piece of heritage into modern art.
Finally it was time to go. We paid and went to buy our tickets.
“Would you like to visit now?” the cashier asked as I was paying.
“Yeah, now,” I said.
“Okay, follow her,” she said, pointing to her colleague.
We did, and soon discovered that we were with a group. We were on a tour; the only problem was, the tour was in Spanish. Our guide was a woman with short gray hair, who seemed very professional. Sometimes I understood almost everything she said, other times almost nothing.
What immediately struck me were the sarcophagi. For a long time this monastery had served as a royal burying place; many kings and queens of Castille can be found here. In this respect Las Huelgas is the counterpart to the Royal Pantheon in the the Basilica of San Isidro in León. Though many of the sarcophagi are relatively bare and unadorned, and though I had never hard of anyone buried there, the sensation of being surrounded by so many royal corpses sent shivers up my spine. Even on a purely aesthetic level, many of the coffins bear beautiful carvings and decorations, and their placement in the cavernous space allows the visitor to walk around them and get a close-up view
Another thing I noticed was the preponderance of Mudéjar ornamentation on the walls. The ceilings were built with the lovely, crisscrossing, intricately interlocking wooden pieces so typical of Mudéjar and Moorish architecture. And some of the stucco decorations could easily have been in the Alhambra, if not for the royal emblem of Castile inscribed in the vegetable motifs, not to mention the Latin calligraphy (instead of Arabic) inscribed into the pattern—a wonderful example of syncretism in history.
Though the visitor wouldn’t guess it—I certainly didn’t—the monastery is still active and in use, with a population of Cistercian monks. Apart from its use as a royal pantheon, it is also historically notable for having some of the oldest stained class windows in Spain, and for being the discovery site of one of the most important musical manuscripts from the middle ages, the Las Huelgas Codex—which is an invaluable source of our knowledge of medieval plainchant and polyphonic motets. And this is not to mention its museum of cloths and fabrics, preserving many royal garments and tapestries from the middle ages.
Beyond this I unfortunately cannot say much, since I visited when my Spanish was still far from fluent, thus preventing me from understanding much of what our guide said.
By now it was late. The only thing to do that was still open was the Museum of Human Evolution. We walked there from the monastery—about twenty minutes—and searched around for the entrance. The museum is in a cluster of big buildings, and the entrance is actually not well marked. We walked around for about five minutes before asking somebody, who pointed us in the right direction. Ahead of us in line to enter was an American man, who took the opportunity to complain to the woman at the front desk that the place is hard to find.
“I was looking for twenty minutes!” he said.
“Yes, sir, it’s not very good,” she said.
The Museo de Evolución Humana is housed in a huge building. The best way to describe the museum is that it looks expensive. Lots of money had been spent here. Everything was new and shiny. Indeed, it looks like they had money to spare, since they didn’t use the space efficiently; probably more than half of the volume of the building is totally empty.
The first floor (or floor zero in Europe) is dedicated to the archaeological site in the (now collapsed) caves of the Atapuerca Mountains, just a few kilometers away from the museum. This site, which can be visited by bus from the city, is known for being the location of the discovery of the oldest known European hominin fossils, Homo antecessor. It is not a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and I hope to visit one day.
On this floor there were four raised platforms, the tops of which were covered in a very realistic imitation landscape, with fake trees, shrubs, and grass. These are meant to be the environment of the Atapuerca Mountains. You can walk into the bottom of these platforms, as if walking into the caves; and inside are all sorts of fancy displays, with replicas of bones, tools, and audiovisual presentations.
The second floor (European first floor) is dedicated to the theory of evolution. Most notable was the timeline, arranged in a semicircle, of human evolution. It is complete with replica skulls of hominin fossils, making the gamut from Australopithecines, to Homo erectus, to Neanderthals, and finally to us. Even more impressive than the skulls were the life-sized models of these species as they might have looked in life, all of them excellently made, quite startlingly alive. I kept expecting them to move.
The next level up was about the history of technology. In glass cases were stone tools from different stages of our evolution, ranging from simple choppers to finely crafted arrowheads, as well as replicas of wooden and bone tools. Despite its showy and even ostentatious presentation, the museum is undoubtedly among the best science museums in Spain, and well worth a visit.
It was late now, and we had only one more stop: the Taberna Patillas. This bar was recommended to us by our host because every night they have free music. We ate a quick dinner of pizza and then huddled into the corner of the bar, drinks in hand, waiting for the music to start. We waited, and waited. The bar gradually filled up. Half an hour went by.
As we waited, we took the time to examine the decoration. Every inch of the walls and even the ceilings was covered in old ads, postcards, portraits, posters, photographs, and other paraphernalia—all related to musical performances. There were framed and signed pictures of musicians, and on one wall there was a big painting of the bar itself, with the bartender playing the guitar. Next to it, a guitar hung; and nearby was a mandolin. The place has character.
After forty minutes a group of men walked into the bar and sat down at a table near ours, two of them carrying guitars. All of them were late middle-aged, with graying hair, all wearing collared shirts and sweaters. Everyone around grew quiet and turned their seats to face the men. The two guitarists tuned; then one of the other men stood up. He looked like the oldest of the bunch; he had snow white hair swept back across his head, and an equally white goatee.
The guitarists started playing, running through a few bars. Then the man started to sing. He had a strong voice, almost operatic. When he sung, he held his body in a stiff posture, his shoulders thrown back, his chin raised, gesticulating dramatically with his hands. He finished with a flourish and everyone burst into applause; then he began on another, this one more mellow.
After three songs, the singer bowed and made his exit. But the band stayed on. Many of them were also talented singers; and they could sing in harmony. Maybe it was the atmosphere, maybe it was the beer, maybe it’s because I was tired and had seen so much that day, but I thought the music some of the best I’d ever heard. It was so intimate, and so direct. If you find yourself in Burgos, go to Taberna Patillas at about 8:30, and wait.
After about an hour, we left. We were both very tired. All in all, my day in Burgos was easily one of the best I’ve had in Spain—full of history, science, music, fine architecture, and good food. Burgos is a special place.
(This trip continued onwards to Logroño.)