Burgos was a city located 230 km's north of Madrid, which meant a 2 and something hour ride. This time my little sister Stephanie decided to join us so we were pretty crammed in the car, and since we had all woken up early, my two sisters, Ed and I all tried to accommodate ourselves as comfortable as possible in the back seat to try to sleep during the ride.
As it turns out, Burgos was a pretty big and important city. At least that was the impression we were given when we reached the city limits. The streets and main avenues were wide, lots of people walking in the sidewalks, tall buildings, lots of shops and large supermarkets and important restaurants.
But what caught our undivided attention were the two gothic steeples that poked out of the city which could be seen even from the previous city we passed in the highway. As we were to later find out, the two steeples belonged to the famous Burgos Cathedral. No wonder Burgos rang a bell, I had studied the cathedral in school.
We parked the car and started walking toward the cathedral, which couldn't be missed; all we had to do was follow the steeples. We came across a bridge which crossed the narrow Valladolid River on to a huge stone monument, La Puerta de Santa Maria, much like a Roman arch of triumph. As we crossed the archway we started hearing a man speaking over a PA system. We were running into tons of people standing around all facing one direction, and when we walked though them, the archway opened up to reveal a huge square and the mighty Burgos cathedral.
Hundreds of people were lined in the square, as if a procession was about to start. Women dressed in their Sunday best waiting in line, nuns of Asian descent standing in rows of two's, little 8 year old girls dressed in beautiful white dresses ready for their First Communion playing with their lacy skirts amongst the bed of flowers in the center, their moms yelling at them to keep off the dirt, and the man talking on the PA system was a priest, giving mass. The procession of the Corpus Christi feast was about to begin.
Ed and I positioned ourselves in the front of the processional path to take pictures and watch as the hundreds of different groups, organizations, priests, monks, nuns, kids, and elderly people carried relics, huge silver crosses intricately sculptured, flags embroidered in golden threads, richly scented incense. Finally a silver and gold carriage was wheeled
by, with sculptures of solid silver and jewels glistening by the sun, as if Christ Himself was illuminating the huge relic.
After the procession moved away and the square was left almost empty, we all hurried away from the cathedral towards an old convent that, as the lady in the tourism office informed my parents, was to close in an hour. The convent was about 10 blocks away from where we were.
The Real Monasterio de Las Huelgas had the shape of an old Romanic church, made of thick walls of stone with practically no ornamentation on its fašade. As is typical of religious buildings from this era, the exterior didn't seem more than a fortress type construction. But apparently, the wonder was to be seen inside.
The tour guide started without us, and when we arrived out of breath, she was in the lower end of the main church, explaining the history and the purpose. This was not like any church I'd seen so far. Founded in 1184 by King Alfonso VIII of Castilla and Toledo, the church was divided by a thick wall with only one opening closed off by a large iron gate. The tour guide explained that the church was originally meant for the monarchs and religious
authorities, but some centuries later, the people of the town protested and rebelled, wanting to take part in the religious ceremonies of the abbey, forcing the sisters of the convent to make some sort of distinction between the place where the king and queen and high religious authorities sat to listen to mass, and where the common folk were to stand in the church. Hence the thick stone wall.
As we moved to the eastern nave of the church, we discovered that it was a Royal pantheon, where kings and queens of Spain, together with princes and princesses, and the women heads of the abbey throughout the years were buried. The most notorious head of the convent had been none other than Anne of Austria, queen of Spain who joined the Cistercenian convent after her husband, the King of Spain, had passed away.
The only things remaining today are the empty sarcophagi. What little had been recovered, such as dresses, jewels, staffs, sceptres and crowns were taken to other museums. The rest had all been looted by the French soldiers during the Napoleonic occupation of Burgos. There was only one untouched tomb which apparently the soldiers weren't able to open as there was another heavy tomb blocking the opening side of it.
The convent is still inhabited by 30 nuns, so we were told to keep quiet as we entered the cloisters. This was the oldest part of the convent, Romanic in style. None of the small columns holding the small Romanic arches were the same, all with different plant motifs.
There was also clear Arabic influence in the decorations of some of the rooms and chapels of the convent, as is common throughout all of Spain. The inctricate arabesque designs, some colored, others faded, hinted the vaults of the inner part of the cloister, which was incidentally, the oldest part of the Convent.
The friendly tour guide ended her exceptional explanations and we were left to venture into the final grand chapel to the north side of the convent. But we quickly moved out as it was past lunch time and we were all starving. We found a quiet restaurant in front of the Burgos cathedral were we had a typical Burgonese lunch.
As we had lunch, we were able to observe the people that wandered around the square. Most of them were backpackers and there was also a group of bicyclists. After lunch my mom went up to one of them and asked him if they were touring with their bikes. He told her they were doing the Camino de Santiago on bike, which lasted 15 days. Apparently, the Burgos Cathedral was on the famous Path to Santiago de Compostela.
Once we entered the cathedral we were haunted by the gothic images, sculptures and paintings. This was definitely the most captivating cathedral we had been to so far, no wonder it was renowned. I even saw a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. Even thought most of the church was under restoration and closed off to the public, we were able to enter the cloisters (always my favourite part of any cathedral) which in this case were cold and damp, with a scary feeling to it. The stone was deep grey and the vaults of gothic arches tall and dark.
The modern museum built inside the cloisters were filled with paintings and rows and rows of golden relics, cups, crosses and altar pieces. It reminded me of the importance relics had had in Romanic Europe in the pilgrimage routes, as a marketing strategy to attract pilgrims. As Burgos was on the Route to Compostela it all made sense.
It was getting late and we were all tired, so we headed back to Madrid, running into several traffic jams in the highway that made our way back a little tedious. During the ride, in my mind I was going over all the things that were to be done that night, as we are leaving Madrid tomorrow. And we still don't have flight tickets.....
After deciding that we would spend our last Sunday with my family, we all agreed we would go visit someplace neither my parents nor my sisters had been to before. I had seen signs on the freeway pointing to Burgos, so I asked my Dad if that was an interesting city to visit, to which he said "definitely".