The train from Pamplona arrived at the station called Rosa de Lima on the edge of the city of Burgos. Buses to the centre of the city run roughly every thirty minutes – there was an electronic schedule to the right just before I exited the station – and the best destination to alight is Plaza de Espana, which is not the nicest part of the old town, but things soon improved as I headed towards the cathedral.
Top of most people’s list of priorities is the cathedral. It was certainly the first place the people I was following went to. The western front is spectacular and you can see the twin spires from most of the old town. A long period of cleaning now means the cathedral shimmers in the sunshine and the carvings are all delicate and finely done.
The cathedral was busy, but the edifice is so vast that the numbers soon dropped off as I moved further into the depths of the cloisters. The central dome exhibits Moorish influences and is supported by four piers that fan out into buttresses that reminded me of the Plateresque style similar to silver filigree. There’s a multitude of carvings to admire.
In the cathedral’s floor, right under the dome, is a slab of pink-veined marble, the last resting place of El Cid and his wife Jimena. El Cid is the national hero of Spain and his story is worth knowing. Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar was a Castilian knight in 11th century Spain. The Moors called him El Cid, which meant the Lord (probably from the Arabic Al-Sayyid), while the Christians referred to him as El Campeador, meaning ‘champion’ or ‘outstanding warrior’.
On the north wall of the cathedral is the remarkable Golden Staircase or Escalera Dorada by Diego de Siloe, the son of Gil de Siloe, the greatest Spanish sculptor of the 15th century. Diego’s sculptural style is a mixture of Italian Renaissance, Gothic, and Mudéjar, called Plateresque. Influenced by both Michelangelo and Donatello – he studied in Florence as a young man – Diego animated his figures and create forceful compositions. He sculpted the Escalera Dorada between 1519 and 1523, and it combines both his sculptural and architectural gifts in a work of painted and gilded magnificence.
The main entrance to the old town and the cathedral precinct is via the Arco de Santa Maria, a south-eastern facing arch that used to be part of the city walls. The arch has exquisitely carved statues of King Carlos V and famous people from Burgos, including El Cid. These carvings were made between 1534 and1536 to appease Carlos, who was upset that Burgos had taken part in a noblemen’s revolt against their monarch.
From the arch, I headed over the Puente de Santa Maria and turned right. Following the signs, it was a twenty-minute walk to the Monasterio de las Huelgas, a Cistercian house remarkable for its Mudejar craftsmanship. This monastery dates from 1187 and was built as the future mausoleum of Alfonso VIII and his queen, Eleanor. The main church contains the tombs of sixteen Castilian monarchs, including Alfonso and Eleanor. Napoleon’s troops ransacked the church, carrying away its treasures, but they left the tombs intact – hopefully as a mark of respect – and when the tombs were opened, many regal jewels and costumes were found. These now form the core of the exhibition in the museum.
Back in the old town I headed up the hill, past the western front of the cathedral, and walked past the churches of San Nicolas and San Esteban, plus the city’s newest arts centre, the Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos, that houses art installations and contemporary art exhibitions. At the top of the hill is the Castillo that survived a siege by the Duke of Wellington before being destroyed by the French in 1813. The interior and exterior walls have been reconstructed, and it’s worth looking around the castle to see the various views over the city and the surrounding countryside. The views from the mirador, about one hundred and fifty yards down from the entrance to the castle, are even better.