Day 77 – Wednesday, July 19 –Took a taxi back to Irun to catch our train to Burgos, home of the “greatest gothic cathedral in Spain". Its name comes from the group of smaller towns that were eventually consolidated together. It has a conservative, Northern European feel, very orderly and reserved – with plenty of old folks taking their strolls down the pedestrian streets. It is so right-wing that it was Franco’s base during the Civil War. Burgos is also said to be the center of the Castillian language (as Tuscany is to Italian), where the national hero El Cid is pronounced “El Theed”.
Burgos is also our first stop (not counting Pamplona) on the Camino de Santiago, the centuries-old pilgrim route to the traditional burial place of St. James. Although I hadn't been walking the whole way, I still took a break near the cathedral with a statue of a weary pilgrim. Along the route, you also see many scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrimage, which was used in old times to drink from the streams along the way.
We checked into Hotel Europa in the very center near a pedestrian street leading into the old part of town. We had a delicious paella lunch while watching some local folk music groups sing and dance, then toured the Cathedral de Santa Maria. It is amazing, dominating the town’s old center. Despite being 500 years old, it looks brand new since its recent renovation washed away not only grime and pollution but centuries of character as well. The interior is excellent, particularly the balconies, chapels, tomb of El Cid and the 16th century “Stairway of Gold”.
We then visited San Esteban and San Lorenzo churches before climbing the stairs to the ruins of the old castle above the town – a trip we would not recommend in the 90 degree heat of a Spanish summer. The views from the top were great - including irrigated fields which could be anywhere in the world. We then returned through Plaza Mayor to watch the gathering of people taking in the slightly cooler nights.
Day 78 – Thursday, July 20 – We figured out how to get a bus to the city’s second major sight, the Monasterio de las Huelgas. The 12th century monastery was the summer (and final) resting place of the royals and represents an incredible mix of gothic and Moorish architecture.
Afterward we encountered a huge street demonstration against the government’s move to increase Sunday trading hours like other European countries. There were street marches, slogans, banners and speeches. It was all pretty exciting even though I understood very little of what they were saying. It was odd that this political activity dovetailed right in to a parade of folklore musicians and dancers from dozens of countries. The costumes and music were great, especially the Africa, Ukraine and Vietnam contingents. It was a great display of ethnic variety in a town with a fascist past.
The good news today: Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science have developed a Simputer (simple computer) to allow illiterate people to surf the web and email using touch screens and translation software. The project is driven by the Simputer Trust. If this can be done for illiterates, surely it can be done to allow people of different languages to communicate in real-time over the internet (as we discussed with an older gentleman in Budapest last month). Global village here we come.
Day 79, Friday July 21, 2000 – We took a train to Leon, the next big city along Camino de Santiago. After checking into Hotel Paris on a pedestrian street, we headed straight for the Cathedral . This was the star attraction for us. You may have noticed we have a thing for stained glass, and this church is renowned for having some of the most amazing glass in the world. We read about the 125 windows and 57 oculi covering 1,800 square meters, but when we walked in, we were actually startled by the color. The windows are nearly floor to ceiling in every color of the rainbow, dappling the interior in colored lights. It was really amazing – there is so much glass (and lead), some of which dates to the 13th century, that they are actually straining the walls of the church. We wandered around for a couple hours taking it all in and trying to get some good photos. Of course, none of them can show the real effect of actually being inside.
We then took a guided tour of the Real Basilica San Isidro, housing incredible 12th century frescos of biblical scenes. Back at the hotel, we watched TV for the first time in weeks. We were so starved for entertainment that we watched the most popular US export in the world, Baywatch. We couldn’t understand most of the Spanish dialogue, but it’s not like anyone really listens to Baywatch anyway. Afterward, we had another one of our standard internet fiascos from the hotel. Five hours of struggling to upload a few photos.
Day 80, Saturday, July 22, 2000 – We took a walk around town, stopping at some old market squares, then to the Cathedral museum. There was a wedding at the Hostal San Marcos, a 12th century residence and church turned into a parador. They hired a local gypsy band and dancers to add some historic flavor. As the crowds gathered for the evening stroll, we met a modern cosmopolitan couple (Dutch and German), who took cross-cultural travel so seriously they stayed on a local farm for a month.
Day 81, Sunday, July 23, 2000 – We had another
great café ole and a final look at the cathedral’s glass – then off to the
train station to start our 6-hour journey to Santiago de Compostela.
On the way, we wrote some emails since the car looked secure enough to
whip out the laptop. We sat with Tracy, a sweet Irish girl doing the pilgrim route
the more modern way – partly on foot, but mostly by train.
The funny part is that Naomi had met her once already when we arrived in
the years, millions of pilgrims have made the walking trek from France through
Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where a church was built when the
headless remains of the martyred St. James were miraculously rediscovered in
813. It arrived with two refugees from the holy land some 800 years
earlier, but the grave site had been lost.
A bishop was lead to the grave by a guiding star (hence the name
Compostela). The original church
was destroyed by Moors in 997 but rebuilt in the 11th century. During the
Moorish wars, St. James was said to lead Christian forces in battle - he was so
good at killing Moors (usually by decapitation) he was called Matamoras (Moor-Slayer). His exploits made him the patron saint of Spain and the
church (and town) built in his name is now the third holiest site in the
Christian world after Jerusalem and Rome . This generates a great deal of
excitement and commerce along the pilgrim route, especially leading up to the
anniversary of the saint's death, July 25th, when there is a grand festival with
music, parade, fireworks, etc. I suppose it's more than a slight
coincidence that we planned to be here on my birthday when the whole city will
be celebrating with us.
When we arrived, the town was in full celebration, with crowds in the street and music blaring. Unfortunately, it was techno music accompanying one of the carnival rides in the small park near hotel San Clemente. We headed down there and caught a Cuban girl band in full Rumba. The music (but not the setting) faintly reminded me of the Conga Room back home in LA. Fortunately, there was a much better concert afterward – Ruben Blades – with the magnificent cathedral lit up in the background. It started to rain, but the band carried on, playing to a sea of umbrellas. We loved the rain since we had been sorely missing it all summer, but it wreaked havoc on our beers and Cuba Libres. Later we read that Santiago is also famous for being the rainiest city in Spain.
Day 82, Monday, July 24, 2000 –The loud booms of fireworks led us to the cathedral square and the parade of giant paper mache puppets. The large “gigantes” look similar to those in Pamplona, but the dancing heads were more grotesque caricatures. The crowd was having a good time, but they were hardly the liquor-filled secular crazies from Pamplona given the pious nature of the festival. It was good to go to these two festivals to see the two extremes of Spain.
We went into the cathedral to watch the famous lighting of the largest incense burner (botafumeiro) in the world. After lighting, it is swung mightily across the transept by a team of 7 robed priests with an incredible rope and pulley system they’ve apparently been using for centuries. It is a pretty wild sight, the crowd oohing and aahing as the burner approaches the ceiling on either side, spewing clouds of incense throughout the church. It slows down after a few minutes until the head priest corrals the burner in a spinning flourish with robe flying.
The cathedral was packed shoulder to shoulder for the mass, so we decided to come back later to tour the inside of the church. We walked around taking in the festivities and waited for the highlight of the festival, the midnight fireworks display. The crowd in the square was even tighter than inside the church, but the mood was still light – even in the drizzle. People were pushing forward, but we finally reached the point where there is no possible way to go any further. The fireworks were different than any other we had ever seen as they use the façade of the cathedral as the canvas for laser drawings and projections of pictures and designs. The cathedral even has fire shooting out of the towers as if it is under attack and on fire itself – all accompanied by music. Let’s just say it was a hell of a birthday present.
After we fought the crowd out, we found an excellent
restaurant under an umbrella near the cathedral to have a nice dinner –
complete with Galician cheese and wine. We
pretty much had to since this is "Dia de Galicia", you know.
Day 82, Tuesday, July 25, 2000 – We slept in since
the booming carnival music kept us up most of the night, then watched the
incense burning again before having an Italian lunch (for a welcome change).
The rain was the heaviest yet, so we stayed in the hotel to write,
download pictures, email and make some phone calls.
Santiago is also being celebrated as one of the nine "European Cities of
Culture" for all of 2000 (along with Bergen, Helsinki, Reijkavik, Krakow,
Avignon, Brussels, Bologna, and Prague). We've been lucky enough to visit
three of these cities, but the current festival and crowds in Santiago have kept
us from some of the related events. When the rain died down, we got some great chocolate churros at the
carnival and headed to the cathedral for a Celtic music concert.
Prior to coming here, we did not realize the Celtic culture reached this
far south. However we were very happy about it as this is one of our
favorite types of music, with funky percussion, string and bagpipe instruments.
The rain did not dampen our spirits (or anyone else’s for that matter).
We were actually happy to get some use of our umbrella and rain jackets
after hauling them around the world for three months.
Day 83, Wed, July 26, 2000 – The weather broke
enough for us to get a better look at the cathedral. The interior is
nearly as elaborate as the exterior baroque. The highlight is the Portico
de la Gloria, carved by Maestro Mateo in
the 12th century. This is the historic entrance of pilgrims to the
cathedral, where they kneel before a statue of Christ and St. James to say a
prayer of thanksgiving. There are five wholes worn into the marble where
millions of fingers have been. There is also a popular tradition of
knocking your head three times against a statue of Mateo in order to acquire
some of his genius. Apparently, most people mistake a statue of Samson for
Mateo and knock heads with the wrong guy. We did both just case, since we
could always use some of Samson's strength as well as Mateo's creativity.
There's plenty more extravagant baroque gold chapels and altarpieces, and
several examples of Santiago wreaking havoc on some unlucky moors.
Inside the cloisters of the cathedral museum we ran into
Tracy again. It was very weird –
three times by accident. We thought
it was enough of a sign to interview her:
Later on, we were enticed by a Guinness sign to enter an Irish pub (we’ve discovered during this journey that there is at least one Irish pub in every city in the world – for which we are quite thankful). They of course had comfort food of jacket potatoes and shepherd’s pie. We uploaded a bit of the website before heading for our LAST overnight train to Madrid.
Day 84, Th, July 27, 2000 – We arrived very early at 7:30. Our memory was flashing back in the taxi. Madrid is one of the few (or maybe the only?) large European cities without a seaside, river or lake. They’ve tried to make up for it with numerous fountains and parks, which we love. Madrid residents have also made an art of the late dinner and bar routine. With all due respect to New York, Madrid is really the city that never sleeps. Hotel Mora would not let us check in that early, so we went for a great breakfast at a small café across from McDonalds on the Prado. (OK, we admit it- we might have wanted to get a Big Breakfast at McD’s - it’s been a while - but they were closed). We walked through the famous Plaza Mayor (where the inquisitions tortures were carried out) and the nearby fruit market which was eerily devoid of crowds. We were then among the first ones to arrive for the tour of the Royal Palace, which has seen its share of historic events in its long history. It is stuffed with tapestries, frescoes, chandeliers, ornamental clocks, and an incredible collection of armor. What made it unique for us, however, was the peacock looking over the place. He (or she) was beautiful and very friendly.
Back at the hotel, we phoned a bunch of Servas hosts, but
as in Italy, many were out of town for summer holidays. We went to the excellent
private art collection of Thyssen-Bornemisza.
They had a wide range covering 13th-20th century,
but unfortunately I was not allowed to photo any of it. At the end of the
day, we were much too tired from the overnight train to take part in the famed
Day 85, Fri, July 28, 2000 – Our Servas host,
Cruz, was nice enough to give us a personal tour of the Prado museum.
If you’ve ever been there, you know that a guide is a wonderful thing.
The Prado has one of the most impressive collections in the world, but
the museum itself may also be one of the most confusing.
It is enormous and not set up in chronological order as is the
Thyssen-Bornemisza. Cruz led us through the entire sections devoted to
Spain’s big three - El Greco,Velazquez and Goya. It was great to hear
the historical context and personal stories
of the artists, making the works come to life.
El Greco, the transplant from Greece, was rich and independent enough to
develop his own style of elongated figures which seem to float.
Velazquez, the court artist struggling with his “commoner”
background, is most enigmatic in his “La Familia de Felipe IV”.
Goya’s life was full of mystery and scandal, like his two paintings of
a “common” woman, which are identical except one is without clothing.
The horrors of war and class inequities drove much of his art,
particularly his paintings inspired by the Napoleanic war.
In his later years, he was going deaf (and some say crazy) as he worked
on a series of disturbing “black paintings” and fled Spain, fearing
retribution for his “inflammatory” works. There are plenty of other
works from all over Europe. One
amazing piece is Hieronymous Bosch’ “Garden of Earthly Delights”.
You can’t help but think that his incredibly, surreal scenes of earth,
heaven and hell were influenced by hallucinations of some extraordinarily
To change pace, we went home through the botanical gardens. We weren’t allowed to photo the art in the museum, so we settled for the more amazing art of mother nature.
I talked to a few people, but they gave me some weird
looks. I’m sort of used to that,
but when I got back to the hotel I realized I had a huge bird shit on my head.
I take back all those nice things I said about Mother Nature.
To Follow us to Egypt, please click here: Photojournal July 29 - Aug 11.
If you have any comments, suggestions, or other feedback, please see our contact information and send us a note.
Thanks for your support!