“…Sigüenza, ninety miles from Madrid, remains a quiet spot in an empty landscape. It sits among narrow valleys celebrated by Camilo José Celar in his ‘Journey to the Acarria’” – Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’
As this was the beginning of Holy Week and because of a frenzy of worship there were restricted opening hours for the cathedral so as we were sure that it was open this lunchtime we made our way along two splendid old streets named after more heroes of the Reconquest, Calle de Cardenal Mendoza and the Plaza del Obispo Don Bernardo to the weather scarred main doors that were thrown back on their creaking metal hinges on account of the Semana Santa.
The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 is known in Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and in legend the focal point of the story is the heroic tale of Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar or El Cid, the National hero of Spain,embellished by history to become a giant of a man and revered by many as being single-handedly responsible for the victory of the Catholic Kingdoms over the North African Moors.
But whilst El Cid was by reputation a great warrior and soldier he was only one of many who contributed to the Crusade and there were other equally heroic figures and one of these was Don Martín Vázquez de Arce who is celebrated in Sigüenza cathedral.
Don Martín Vázquez de Arce was born three hundred years or so after El Cid (The Reconquista took a very long time) somewhere in Castilla and began at an early age to serve the Mendoza family of Guadalajara, the city where his father worked as a secretary to the family whilst living in the city of Alcala de Henares. By all accounts he was the epitome of the heroic knight, trained in the arts, literature and warfare. He served as a Page of the first Duke of the Infantry and accompanied the Spanish troops in various campaigns in the Vega of Granada.
He tragically died a young man when in July 1486, only twenty-six years old he fell into an ambush by the Moors whilst campaigning and although according to a contemporary chronicler he fought bravely and killed many Muslims the Spanish knights were heavily outnumbered and he was eventually overcome and slain.
Six years later, in the year that Granada fell and the Reconquest was complete his body was recovered by his father and moved to Sigüenza where he was laid to rest in a private chapel and a wonderful monument made in the finest stonemasons workshops in Guadalajara was placed over his grave in his memory.
For a small town the cathedral is an immense building and one of the most important late Romanesque buildings in Spain which was built to symbolise the power of Bishop Don Bernardo who began construction in the twelfth century. It has three naves and a main chapel with an ambulatory and a dome and around the outer walls are a series of commemorative chapels which reads like a who’s who of the local campaigns of the Reconquista.
Eventually we came to the jewel of the Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine which houses the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce where in what is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish funerary art is his alabaster statue decorated with the cross of Santiago as he lies serenely on his side while casually reading a giant book. The authors of the Spanish Generation of 1898 (a group of patriotic artists and philosophers) drew national attention to the statue by naming him ‘el doncel de Sigüenza’ – the boy of Sigüenza.
This statue is so important and so valuable that it isn’t possible to just wander unaccompanied into the chapel and there was a forty minute wait and a €4 entry fee so as we could very clearly see the statue through the locked gates I wasn’t inclined to wait around and contented myself by extending my arm as far as I could through the metal railings to grab a picture.
In the streets outside the cathedral there was a lot of activity and everyone seemed to be going in the same direction so we joined the line of people leaving through one of the medieval town gates and spotted a small market and with the scent of purchase in their nostrils and sensing a shopping opportunity the girls quickened their pace towards the line of flapping canvas and sagging wooden boards.
The first part of the market was vegetables and market garden stalls and in a second section there were second-hand clothing and junk stalls run by gipsies and the only one that mildly interested me was one that was selling various infusions as alternative remedies and reliefs for almost every known common ailment.
Leaving the market it occurred to us that we had practically done everything there was to do in Sigüenza and we really wanted to leave something for another day so we returned to the hotel to collect the car and drive to the nearby town of Atienza.