“Upon the gates of Burgos there is a dim scratch, in the shadow of the arch, which romantics variously interpret as indicating the length of the Cid’s sword” – Jan Morris
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Burgos and we located the hotel without too much difficulty and checked in. I had chosen the Meson Del Cid because of its location and because the hotel web site boasted about the panoramic views of the Cathedral.
Unfortunately our room didn’t have a panoramic view of the Cathedral or its celebrated ornate front door as we were allocated a room at the rear with a view of a tiny courtyard and the back door of an adjacent church and I immediately decided (perhaps unfairly) that this was most likely going to adversely affect my customer review scoring.
I was especially keen to visit Burgos because the first time I was there in 1985 I dashed through with indecent haste on a road trip from the Algarve to the English Channel and at that point we were seriously behind our schedule and didn’t have time to stop but mostly because this is the spiritual home of my Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar, better known as El Cid.
There was time for a brief excursion into the city but with a full day ahead in Burgos we ignored the sights right now and looked instead for a likely restaurant for later. The one that we selected served a nice evening meal, but not the best that we had had this week and our mistake was not to have the menu del dia which was being served up by the plateful to the pilgrims who made their way inside.
My way of getting our own back on the hotel for the disappointing room was to boycott their expensive breakfast at €11 each and instead found a good alternative at only €4 each just around the corner in a place with the tempting aromas of the first meal of the day, pungent coffee, sizzling eggs, newly fried churros and the faint hint of charred toast.
It was a miserable cold morning and immovable grey clouds filled the sky, the walkers were all wearing their warmest clothes and most people on the street were taking the sensible precaution of carrying an umbrella. We walked first to the Plaza Mayor which isn’t going to get into my favourites list because although it was large and colourful the place was spoilt by the inappropriate placement of recycling containers where, in my opinion, there should have been pavement tables.
From the Plaza we walked to the river through one of the original city gates, the Arco de Santa Maria, and then along a boulevard, Paseo del Espolón, lined with trees like lines of Greek dancers each with their hands on their partners shoulders and then towards the Plaza del Cid.
Once over the river we crossed a bridge lined with statues depicting the heroes of the Reconquesta and then, there he was – El Cid, looking fearsome with his grizzled beard, wild cloak flowing madly, his sword La Tizona, too big for an ordinary mortal, extended ahead of him, his eyes fixed ferociously on an enemy army as he led a charge against the Moors sat on his magnificent famous white horse Babieca.
Only one other statue is the equal of this one in all of Spain – that of Francisco Pizarro more than five hundred kilometres away in the Plaza Mayor in the city of Trujillo in Extremadura.
The weather stubbornly refused to improve so we decided that it was time to visit the Cathedral, the third largest in Spain after Seville and Toledo and we walked to the great Gothic construction with its balustraded turrets, needle-pointed pinnacles, statues of the Saints and steel grey filigree lace towers soaring above us, went inside and grudgingly paid the €7 entrance fee.
Actually this turned out to be very good value for money because I would agree with the travel writer Jan Morris that this is perhaps the finest Cathedral that I have visited in Spain, better than both Seville and Toledo and with an audio guide thrown in.
It took some time to visit all of the chapels on both sides and eventually reach the centre of the building with its huge grey columns reaching up above us supporting a magnificent ribbed central dome where underneath in pride of place was the resting place and tomb of El Cid and his equally famous wife Doña Ximena Díaz Actually I was expecting something a bit grander but the great National hero of Spain is buried under a rather simple marble gravestone.
Through the magnificent stained glass windows we could see that there were occasional shafts of sunlight so with the weather improving Kim began to get restless so we hurried our pace for the remainder of the visit but I did manage to slow her down long enough to visit the Cathedral museum where amongst the exhibits were the travel chest of El Cid, which I am fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to use as Ryanair cabin baggage and a blood thirsty statue of Saint James the Moor slayer.
These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a similar statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.
A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement explained that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ. It might also be a case of political correctness. In 1990 there were one hundred thousand Muslims living in Spain but by 2010 this had risen to over one million.
Saint James is in danger of becoming a bit of a Nigel Farage! Burgos Cathedral on the other hand, for the time being anyway, appears not to be so sensitive.
With the sun now shining we returned to the streets and walked along a steep path through pleasant woodland towards the castle of Burgos. There was once a medieval castle on the site but the current fort was built by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, was the only castle that the Duke of Wellington failed to capture and which was destroyed again by the French when they retreated and left in 1813.
It has been restored again now but opening hours seem to be very limited and today the iron gates were firmly closed and locked so we walked back to the city and returned to the river and walked in both directions before selecting a pavement bar on the Paseo del Espolón and sat in the hot sunshine with a San Miguel.
I liked Burgos, probably most out of all the cities that we had visited this week and I was glad that we had chosen to spend a couple of nights here. Later we found an alternative restaurant for evening meal where the food was excellent and we were in the good company of some Camino walkers and at the end of the day there was a walk back to the hotel through the quiet streets under the waxy glow of the iron street lamps casting their curious shadows into the corners of the Plazas and streets and overhead there was a clear sky which made us optimistic about the next day.