Tuesday 28th April 2009, Burgos
It was still chilly as we left Salamanca yesterday morning. We've not really decided quite where our travels will take us now we've ticked off the major cities of central Spain but we are gradually making our way eastwards, back towards France and the Pyrenees.
The logical next stop after Salamanca should have been Valladolid but neither its appearance as we passed nearby on the motorway, nor the description of it on our laptop Britannica encyclopaedia, was encouraging. Once, on our first ever visit to Spain back in 1995 when we were staying in Asturias we'd attempted to drive down to Burgos for an overnight stay but ended up getting happily diverted in the wine producing area of the Rioja and never made it. It was time to rectify matters.
We have to say that the countryside of Castile Leon between Salamanca and Burgos is amongst the most uninspiring we have seen anywhere. It's an immense plateau right in the centre of Spain. It's not exactly ugly, nor is it scarred by man - except for what appears to be many totally unnecessary roadworks. It's just flat, empty, bare, bleached and very, very boring. There are no buildings, trees, fields or hedges for mile after mile, the only relief comes from the movement of flocks of sheep far away as they slowly move across the landscape searching for a few blades of dried-out grass to chew. This is characteristic of central Spain, where traditionally the Mesta, a sheep rearing cooperative, organise the seasonal migration of sheep, known as the transhumance. Flocks are left to roam during the summer in the care of a shepherd and his dog. Their fleece is the same grey colour as the landscape and if they were not moving we'd probably never notice them. The skies though are a different matter! They stretch for ever in every direction and are really impressive with their ever changing cloud formations. Until now we'd always considered the Causse of southern France to be the most arid place we'd ever seen but, considering how early in the year it is, the Spanish Meseta is really no more than a desert.
The road building programme in Spain is puzzling. We drove for over forty kilometres along a well constructed, clearly marked road without seeing a single vehicle on the route. Right beside it ran the motorway to Valladolid. Even that was almost devoid of vehicles and we kept a steady pace running parallel to a lorry for the entire distance! If the construction money came from the EU it has been totally squandered. Everywhere there are new roads being built when there are no vehicles needing to use them. Without a village or any habitation for many miles around we encounter heavy digging equipment gouging up the roadside or moving entire sections of the hillside. Why? If Europe has money for road construction and improvement it should be going to Poland where by comparison even the worst roads of Spain are in excellent condition!
With nowhere to stop and no reason to do so, our journey was simply a matter of getting somewhere more interesting as soon as we could. Thus we made excellent time and arrived at our planned campsite early in the afternoon. This was about forty kilometres before Burgos but we were tempted by the description of the campsite which sounded interesting as it stood on the pilgrim route to Compostella, on the edge of Castrojeriz, a typical Spanish rural town with a castle towering above. We turned off the main road and the countryside became marginally less boring with bare, grey limestone hillsides sparsely covered with whispy dead grass.
Far away in the distance the sun was shining on the white tops of our beloved Picos de Europa, way to the north in beautiful Asturias, but here it was like driving through a wasteland. Eventually we found the village, many of the buildings with adobe walls constructed from bricks of dried mud. Much of it was in ruins, the tiled roofs broken, holes and cracks in the walls with windows and doors missing and a general air of desolation.
Above it all the colourless hillside rose steeply up with a ruined castle on its summit from where, it was said, a view could be had over the entire surrounding countryside. Even Ian said it wasn't worth clambering up there for such a view!!!
The pilgrim route passed right through the village where there was a hostel and the campsite. Fancy walking with a pack for days across a dead landscape and arrive, longing for a hot bath and a meal, at such a dreary place!
The campsite had cold water and turkish loos but it did have free wifi! Even that couldn't tempt us and we decided to drive on to Burgos where we've found an excellent campsite that not only has proper loos, but also toilet paper, doors and a heated shower block! It's even got wifi for a couple of euros extra a night and is a pleasant bike ride away from the centre of Burgos along beside the river.
This morning we made our way into Burgos. Even before we arrived we were in a happy mood. Waiting to cross the road a delightful elderly Spanish gentleman expressed a keep interest in our folding bikes Hinge and Bracket, saying how useful they must be and that he'd like one. It could be folded up and popped in his pocket or under his bed when not in use. He pointed to the magnificent statue of El Cid that stands at the gates of the city. "Look at him sitting high up there on his horse. He's not on a nice bike like those! He'd look far more splendid if he were!" All this was in Spanish along with very vivid gestures to help us understand.
We crossed the bridge and left our bikes in the attractive paseo or promenade beside the river before entering through the mediaeval gate known as the Arco de Santa Maria with its statues of those persons closely linked with the history of the city. These included the city's founder Diego Rodriguez and the legendary El Cid.
Almost immediately we were confronted with the stunning gothic cathedral with its delicate spire. Such soaring splendour really does lift your spirits up with it! Built in grey stone it is in total contrast to everything we have seen in recent weeks in Portugal and Spain. It claims to be the best example of gothic architecture anywhere in Spain. Inside lie the remains of El Cid and his wife.
El Cid, or Rodrigo Díaz, (1026-1099) was born just outside of Burgos and became a brilliant military figure. He was a supporter and personal friend of King Sancho II of Castile. When the king was murdered El Cid was suspicious that the new king, Alfonso VI, had been involved in his brother's death. The king denied any involvement but, angered by his suspicions, banished El Cid from the city despite him being married to his cousin. He thus became a soldier of fortune, over the years fighting for and against both Christians and Moors. Eventually he captured Valencia in 1094 where he ruled until his death. His remains have been moved several times but eventually they were interred in Burgos cathedral in 1921. Over time fact and fiction have been woven together to create a legend depicting El Cid as a valiant 11th century knight that has captured the imagination of the western world.
Burgos is an immediately likeable city. It is clean and smart with streets of colourful 19th century houses with enclosed glass balconies. Many streets have been pedestrianised and the shops are fashionable and interesting. There is even one small department store, the first we've seen during these travels in Spain! There are open spaces, pleasant parks, shady seats, a pretty, shallow river where geese wade, and the usual quota of storks bringing good luck to the city. Unlike so many Spanish towns the streets don't get snarled up with traffic and, apart from the pilgrim route to Compostella passing right through the centre of the city, it's not a place for tourism.
Seeing a group of pilgrims gathered outside a hostal, each with a staff or Nordic walking poles, a rucksack, hiking boots and a straw hat with the obligatory dangling cockle shell, Ian remarked that he'd quite like to be a pilgrim and walk to Compostella. When I pointed out he'd lose his sunhat and cockleshell at every stop and have to go back and start all over again, he assured me that to be a pilgrim "he would valiant be, 'gainst all disaster."
My luck of yesterday didn't continue and soon I was marched up to the top of the hill to the castle where, after admiring the rooftops, the Grand Old Duke of York marched me down again.
Many of the sights are scattered around the town and for once Ian was generally content to stroll rather than doggedly follow a route on his map. Thus we stumbled upon the Palacio de Capitania where Franco's government was first set up in 1936.
Later we chanced upon the Casa de Cordón where Christopher Columbus was welcomed back from his second voyage to the New World by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand.
A wonderful discovery for us was a free exhibition on the art of Salvador Dali twenty years after his death. Ever since 2005 when we visited his bizarre castle in Figueres which he purchased as a gift for his wife and decorated entirely with his own unique artwork, we have found him a fascinating, larger-than-life character and have been greatly intrigued by his work. Much defies understanding; he was technically a very gifted artist working in a variety of artistic mediums – painting, sketching, engraving, sculpture, photography and cinema. He was also fascinated by developments in technology, incorporating new media, such as holograms, into his eccentric artwork. There is a sense of self amusement in much of his work and a respect for women that is completely lacking from the work of Picasso. Of particular interest today were his series of frequently incomprehensible but none-the-less absorbing sketches of Paradise, Purgatory and Hell inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.
The exhibition was sponsored by the Caja de Burgos bank immediately adjacent where it had incorporated the cloisters of the 14th century Casa de Cordón into its offices! In the centre of the covered courtyard was a large, typically Dali bronze statue. He would have loved it. Even the bank seemed like a Dali creation with computers and cash machines wired up between the ancient columns with their carved frieze.
Finally, after stopping for a coffee in gardens beside the river, we followed the pilgrim route right across the city so that Ian could say he's walked part of it (though hatless and without his cockle shell.) On the way we passed the place where the house of El Cid once stood and several other major buildings, including the remains of the Palacio de Justicia.
Cycling back along the riverbank we somehow lost our way and ended up well beyond the campsite. Another friendly elderly Spaniard, out for a toddle with his beret and walking stick soon set us on the right path again and we arrived back exhausted as usual but with a sense of fulfilment. While supper cooked we crossed to the bar for a beer. Unfortunately I managed to drop all the peppercorns in the grinder into our supper when the lid came off. After a bit your tongue becomes anaesthetised!
Wednesday 29th April 2009, Burgos
I've had too much culture! I don't think I'd really mind very much if we never went into another Spanish cathedral! That's the trouble with travelling. On a holiday you may take in a couple of such places along with lots of other things. Everything is new and interesting and there's not time to get jaded. We've been moving steadily from city to city, ticking off the main sights, which by default in Spain, are religious buildings. Yesterday I thought that at least Burgos has a Gothic cathedral and it makes a nice change. Today we actually paid money to look inside. It's magnificent all right, but typically Spanish, simply dripping with gold brought back from the Americas and packed with holy pictures of martyred saints. That's the biggest problem with Spanish Catholicism, it never knows when to stop. Too many magnificent churches, monasteries, religious paintings, tombs, monuments, saints, cherubs and crucifixions. Most of all, too much lavish ornamentation. Well they had to do something with all the gold that kept arriving back from the New World! The buildings are all so wildly and extravagantly ostentatious yet they all look exactly the same. After a while you find yourself wandering around in a daze, not really taking anything in and wondering how we'd cook the rabbit we'd bought for supper tonight in the remoska. There's only so much you can take in and quite frankly, even if Burgos Cathedral is on the World Heritage list, I found it all rather boring. The best bits for me were the tomb of El Cid and a painting of Mary Magdalene by Leonardo da Vinci. Now there's an artist I can relate to and admire. Not only did he produce fantastic paintings, he designed helicopters as well!
Apart from our onslaught on the cathedral we've not done much today. Visiting so many cities can become expensive so we had an economy drive with a picnic lunch of empanadas which we bought in the municipal market, and a cheap coffee in the library café. As we lunched in the sunny park we were amazed at the number of elderly men around us, sitting packed four to a bench, chatting earnestly, laughing and happy. They all knew each other and as friends toddled by they'd stop to chat. From time to time one would pick up his stick and hat and trot off home for lunch. Another would appear from nowhere and join the rest on the bench and the chatting would start all over again. What a wonderful way for the elderly to pass the time and how different from England where they are rarely seen, spending their time in isolation, each in their own home. Psychologically and physically, it's got to be so much better for people. They were all so animated and cheerful and their minds obviously very alert.
Back at the campsite, while I relished a religious free zone and a mug of tea, Ian set off on foot to explore the nearby Carthusian monastery of Miraflores. Just give him a map and a monastery and he's happy!