Tag Archives: Spain postcards

Travels in Spain – The City of Burgos

Burgos Cathedral

“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.

El Cid Alvar Fanez Burgos

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.

Greek Dancer Trees Burgos

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.

El Cid and Babieca

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.

Burgos Cathedral, Spain

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.

Saint James at Santiago de Compostella

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.

Plaza Major Burgos Spain

Catalonia, Greek and Roman Antiquities and the World’s Oldest Profession

Empúries Greek Statue

“here then, is the proper setting for things Roman, – not Hadrians’s Wall or Bath or St. Albans in cold, wet Britain at the outer edge of the civilised world, but Empúries… on the edge of the great tideless sea – Mare Nostrum.”            John Payne – ‘Catalonia, History and Culture’

The Ancient City of Empúries in Catalonia…

As I said, I had no real expectation of seeing the excavations at Empúries but then Kim took me by surprise and without any prompting suggested a visit.  I expressed my astonishment and reminded her that only recently she had told me that she didn’t especially like ancient ruins but then she corrected me on this point and being more specific told me that she didn’t mind visiting archaeological sites but she would prefer not to go every day!

So with that misunderstanding sorted out we drove to the entrance and paid the very reasonable admission price of €2.40 – so reasonable in fact that it didn’t raise my expectations very much above zero!

How wrong I was however, because this was a very impressive site indeed.  At the lower level we walked through the two thousand five hundred year old Greek city which turns out to be the most important Greek archaeological site anywhere in Spain so rather surprising then that it is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains for the time being on the tentative list already having been rejected once.

After the Greeks came the Romans and they made some improvements and adapted the city to their own preferences and style and later when militarising the peninsula built a whole new city further inland and here we walked around the remains of the Forum, the Temples, the Amphitheatre and sections of the old city wall and inside these the public baths and the once grand villas of the city patricians.  It wasn’t on the scale of Pompeii or Herculaneum of course but as only an estimated 20% of the site has been excavated then who knows what treasures lay buried under the parched dusty fields.

Empúries L'Escala Catalonia Spain

Between the Greek and the Roman cities there was a small but informative museum with a chronological history of the site and several display cases with largely unimportant finds on account of the fact that all the interesting stuff is in a museum in Girona.

After the Romans left the city was occupied by the Franks, the Visigoths and the Moors and then in the Middle Ages it began to be dismantled and used as a quarry and a convenient source of building materials for new towns and villages springing up along the coastline.

Deconstructing the Roman empire…

This is something that has always perplexed me. The Romans built a great city with roads and aqueducts, fresh water, sewage and waste disposal systems, palaces and gardens grand villas decorated with mosaics and statues and then medieval man came along during the dark ages and tore them down – not to build something better but to construct something significantly inferior.

I would like to have overheard the town planning debates and the rationale applied to do this. “We don’t need stone roads”, they’d probably say “a muddy track will do just as well because we don’t need chariots and trucks either.” “We don’t need all these fancy sewers, we’ll dig a hole in the middle of the village to take a crap!” “We can’t really see the point of all these aqueducts and fresh water filtration systems, we’ll just drink the dirty river water!  “And finally we don’t need all of these fine villas with their air conditioning and shady gardens, we’ll take them down and use the stone to make the foundations for some mud huts!”

Spanish highway prostitution…

After an hour or so walking around in the blistering heat of the afternoon we left Empúries and set off back on the road towards Figueres along some busy main roads.  At a roundabout Kim spotted a young girl dressed all in white and looking like the women in the eighties pop group Boney M with thigh high boots, a mini skirt so short it was almost superfluous and a tight top at least two sizes too small to accentuate her bust.

What on earth is she doing?”, asked Kim and I told her that she was a prostitute, “No”, said Kim, “Yes”, said I, “No”, she repeated as she twisted around in her seat to look out of the rear window “Yes”, I said again and then told her the sordid story of roadside prostitution in Spain which for some is a real problem.

Well, I say a problem but it depends I suppose on your perspective.  It doesn’t seem to be a problem to the authorities who do nothing about it, it doesn’t seem to be a problem to the sex tourists who come to Spain to find a prostitute by the roadside and it isn’t a problem to the organised crime gangs who control this lucrative business and is probably the reason the authorities cannot stop it.

It certainly is a problem however for the girls, many of whom come from Eastern Europe and have been lured here by the promise of housing and employment and then find themselves trapped into sex slavery repaying their travel and accommodation costs, being kept permanently short of cash so that the debt never gets repaid and living in fear of beatings and abuse.

Here in Catholic Spain, in a country that prides itself on conservative family values, the country of the evening paseo in the Plaza Mayor and where children’s clothes shops are full of expensive embroidery and lace this nasty business all seems so grossly hypocritical, where people turn a blind eye to something that they cannot possibly approve of.

I can’t imagine anyone, except Xaviera Hollander perhaps, choosing prostitution as a career but to quote Thomas Hobbes life for these unfortunate women can be “nasty, brutish and short” and in the twenty-first century in mainland Europe it is something we should be collectively ashamed of.

I must confess to being a sort of Dorling-Kindersley tourist flitting between palaces and museums, historical centres and plaza mayors, beaches and mountains – picking out the best and turning a blind eye to the crime and the grime but there was no way of missing it here.  To be fair I have never seen that much of this roundabout prostitution in other parts of Spain but here in Catalonia it seems to be a particular issue that surely needs urgent attention.

I read once that the police in Llieda have addressed the problem by requiring the women to wear yellow hi-viz jackets so that they do not present a hazard to motorists and I have to say, come on Spain – I don’t think that that is adequately dealing with it!

Sadly of course it won’t get dealt with quickly because as we know prostitution has been around for a long time and a visit to a Roman antiquity such as nearby Empúries with their well advertised brothels  is ample evidence of that.

Pompeii Brothel__________________________________________________

Related Articles:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

Verona

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Northern Spain, Asturian Coast and Ribadesella

Cantabria Coastline Beach

The Beaches of Asturias…

This was the final stage of the long journey and we kept stubbornly to the coast road and took our time as we stopped off regularly at beaches along the way.

The first that we came to was just outside of the town of Llanes and we took the road which swooped down to Playa de Toro which translates as the beach of bulls and although I can find no explanation for this  I assumed that it was on account of the natural sculptures, little pronounced pinnacles – rocky outcroppings leaping up out of the caramel sand, skeletal survivors of the erosion action of the sea on calcareous rock and which, with a little imagination could be said to resemble a herd of black bulls charging into the surf.

Read the full story…