Burgos was first and foremost the location of a strategic fortress on the frontline between the kingdom of Navarra (Basques) and their rivals, the Muslims. Several villages (burgos) grew up around the fortress and over time these grew into each other to form the beginnings of the city seen today. Much later, when pilgrims began to flow from France to the north and from Castile to the south, on their way to Santiago de Compostela; Burgos became a major stop on the Camino de Santiago. The routes that the pilgrims took gradually saw trade develop as well, especially between the interior and the northern ports along the Bay of Biscay.
The major tourist draw today is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed cathedral situated along the Camino de Santiago in the old quarter north of the riverbank. It started life as a modest Romanesque church but during a short 40-period starting in AD 1221, the massive French Gothic structure was added. It wasn’t until later in the 15th century that the twin towers were added along with dozens of equally intricate spires.
The cathedral in Burgos is considered a masterpiece and one of the most beautiful in all of Spain. In addition to its architectural beauty, it is the location of the coffin of El Cid, the most famous son of the city.
El Cid was born in a hamlet 10km north of Burgos in AD 1043. He became a legendary mercenary, known for his superhuman strength and his unswerving loyalty. However, in truth, he was a soldier of fortune who fought for both the Muslim and Christian rulers. In the end, he sided with the Christian monarchs and when he heard that Valencia had fallen to the Muslims, he recaptured it and became its ruler in AD 1094. He became known as ‘El Campeador’, The Champion, but his fighting days were over.
He retired at the top of his game, to live the remainder of his life, only five brief years, in Valencia. His body, was returned to Burgos and interred in the cathedral alongside his wife, Jimena.
Another dramatic event that put Burgos on the map more recently, was the discovery of the remains of the world’s oldest European at a site 15km west of the city. Atapuerca has been of interest to archaeology students for some time, but in July 2007 they uncovered a jawbone and teeth of a 1.2-million-year-old human ancestor. The remains are at least 500,000 years older than any other remains discovered in Western Europe. Atapuerca is now a UNESCO World Heritage site that can be visited by appointment through the Burgos municipal tourist office.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had travelled quite far east in order to see San Sebastian and Pamplona, but Madrid is located in the middle of the country so one way or the other we had to swing back west on our way to the capital. Burgos seemed like a city to pass through, if only for one night. I had read about the stunning cathedral in Burgos and though we’ve grown more than a little tired of seeing all the glitter and the gold, most of which was plundered from South and Central America, we decided to see it anyway because if the heaps of praise that have been showered on it.
We arrived in Burgos just after dark and didn’t venture out after finding a place to stay in a small boutique hotel in the old quarter. We awoke to find a beautiful sunny morning and as it was a Saturday, most of the inhabitants weren’t stirring. We left the hotel around 10:00am and were almost alone on the streets. We walked the short distance to the cathedral and admired the colourful buildings surrounding the Plaza Major along the way.
We decided we weren’t interested in a thorough tour of the cathedral, so we bypassed the ticket office and slipped into an entrance from the Plaza de Santa Maria. We were able to see as much of the church as we wanted and were pleasantly surprised at the beautiful interior. The elaborate golden altar was obscured from view, and we were pleased not to see it at all. The high vaulted ceilings were adorned with sculptures and not much else. It’s hard to call it simple, but it seemed less garish than other cathedrals we’ve seen elsewhere.
We walked around the entire exterior of the cathedral, admiring the architecture and then came upon a series of scaffolds where work was being done to clean and restore the stone. The difference between the before and after was dramatic. We were so happy to have come when the work was almost completed, it would have looked entirely different in its former state.
We walked back to the Plaza Major past several hotels and restaurants that had worked the El Cid into their names. It’s clear the residents are proud of their local hero, though it may be that they are playing off the fame of the Hollywood movie starring Charleton Heston and Sophia Loren. It’s hard for us to know.
We had a light breakfast at a café on the Plaza, sitting in the warm November sunshine, and then set off to collect our luggage and leave the city. At the last moment, I suggested to Anil that we drive to the top of the hill overlooking the city for a quick visit to the fortress and the viewpoint. I’d read that a signpost at the mirador indicates that Timbuktu is only 3150km from Burgos. Whoever added that detail sure had a sense of humour.