December 2014: a week ago I was making my way with difficulty, due to the crush of crowds, through the big chilly Christmas market beside the Cathedral in Barcelona, wishing that some German had a stall with hot mulled wine. However, almost all the stalls were selling figures little and large and umpteen landscape accessories for nativities, including many versions of Catalonia’s favourite nativity figure, El Caganer, The Shitter. No mulled wine when you need it:
(We don’t want the Shitter too large!) Soon after, though, Cristina and I drove from Gijón through the dramatic Asturian mountains of misty snowy precipices, then east across the mainly flat and blank meseta tableland to one of the notoriously coldest cities in Spain, Burgos—and there in the Christmas market outside Burgos Cathedral indeed was mulled wine when I needed it even more, prepared in the style of Düsseldorf, as the proprietor explained. Oh joy, with cloves. Mulled wine, shared here with a naked pilgrim, since Burgos is on one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela a very long way away:
Many sculptural persons are present in the city, both modern persons:
…and more ancient persons (ride that dolphin, Luke!):
(Warning: There might be quite a lot of photos in this post, just in case you are a slow looker.) For some strange reason (= ignorance) I’d thought that Burgos was an industrial city. But this capital of Castille—where the Spanish language first manifested itself in the 10th Century Valpuesta manuscripts—is quite compact, and is lavish with illustrious ancient spick and span buildings… such as this Palace of the Constables of Castille where Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic couplet, received Columbus after his second trip across the Atlantic, probably coming through this very doorway:
Here is a gateway to Burgos:
…within which is a pharmacy museum:
I did like this door:
For what reason did pharmacists of old use the semen of a lamb? Of an agnus castus? This should mean ‘without blemish’, or even ‘chaste’, though since when did lambs have semen yet? When that happens, doesn’t a lamb become a ram, an agnus become an aries? And this surely cannot refer to the ‘holy lamb’, another possible meaning? I await enlightenment from Adam Roberts, whose Latin is much better than mine:
From the tower of the gateway we looked down on pollarded plane trees:
…which a presumed cohort of expert gardeners are patiently waiting to fuse together:
…whilst also busy tending long esplanades of mature inventively geometrically yew topiary which look two hundred years old yet as if trimmed yesterday with nail scissors. Everything hereabouts suggests considerable civic wealth both past and present.
The vast Cathedral is over the top in late Spanish rococo which out-rococo-s even rococo. There are avalanches of cherubs in restored Disneycolour:
Here the Madonna suckles an elf:
And a swashbuckling pirate angel puts her best leg forward:
The drum and cupola are made of royal icing:
As Cristina remarked, one motive of a cathedral is to make people feel insignificant. Towering 3-D gilding:
…contains panels of intricate allegorical detail (bottom right, two inward, this one):
An unassuming stairway ascends, so that an ecclesiastic dignitary can address crowds outside:
This chap, above a lovely café-restaurant, is a copy of the same automaton fellow high up one wall inside the Cathedral who opens his mouth every hour, as he sounds clang-clong, to gulp any flies, hence his name Papamoscas, which also means simpleton. Like other restaurants in Burgos, this one had its historic ovens for roasting lamb and chicken inside the dining room, warmth being so important.
The reason why Cristina and I drove to Burgos was for her gig as translator of the Game of Thrones books with Aloña Fernández, a journalist from Madrid specialising in TV series, at the Book Museum, Museo del Libro Fadrique de Basilea (Travesía del Mercado, 3), curated by slim, mercurial, hatless-in-Burgos Javier.
Fadrique de Basilea (aka Fred the German) printed 75 books during 30 years in Burgos in the 15th Century, making him one of the printing greats. The four floors of the narrow but tall and very deep museum showcase reproductions and originals in association with Siloé, publisher of stunning facsimiles of ancient books. Cristina was presented with a perfect-looking page from the medieval Bestiary of Don Juan of Austria which is full of basilisks, minotaurs, cyclopses, salamanders, as well as moles and rabbits and porcupines—the original of which is in a local monastery—along with a scholarly 293-page volume of transcription and commentary. Cristina received the eagle page; I always loved The Eagle comic but this surpasses that. The following isn’t from the book but from the Cathedral, but you get the bestiary idea:
Here, the local then regional then ‘national’ champion El Cid leads the charge over a bridge across the pleasant rushing little river Arlanzón where mallard ducks dabble, and wagtails wag their tails:
taking us from the magnificent to the utterly stupendous: the Museum of Evolution which must have cost twenty million Euros. Or fifty million, I don’t know. (Worth every penny! Evolution deserves a Cathedral as much as Superstition does, even if Superstition has caused sublime, and middling, and bizarre cultural art.)
Particularly effective, when you reach the top floor of the museum, is to look down from a vast balcony with a bird’s eye view upon several sloping plantations of vegetation uprooted from the nearby Atapuerca Mountains:
…through a cunning screen which overlays images of Early Man and beasts in motion (not as in El Caganer)—the distant past reanimated convincingly. Atapuerca is the archeologically astonishingly rich site where European “Adam” lived 800,000 years ago.
An excellent place to commune with Hominims.
This untampered photo of the side of the Museum repays study, since what you see is clearly impossible—note the red car disappearing from our dimension:
The photographer abominates the above photo as shown; only love condones the photo appearing in public, since this is how I perceive the world.
The black pudding of Burgos, incorporating rice, is much drier than the normal hot moist morcilla pig-blood sausages, crisping beautifully, a delicious World Patrimony Heritage Black Pudding. (For non-British readers I should explain that “puddings” are sweet desserts—except when they’re aren’t sweet desserts but are savoury fried Black Pudding, fried White Pudding, ovened Yorkshire Pudding, or steamed Steak & Kidney Pudding with suet pastry—is that clear?)
We stayed at the welcoming, warm, cheap Acuarela Hostal, a computer in every room, mere minutes on freezing foot from the town centre—and right next door to the gorgeous bar Qué Thomas (“Which Thomas?”, this being a witticism since “¿Qué tomas?” means “What are you having?”) with high maroon velvet chairs in its big smoking area and a bathtub dedicated to Hendrick’s half-full of illuminated simulated Gin, inscribed just above the liquid level with: “Bathe if you like, though don’t expect a towel.” I myself am allergic to gin for life after an unfortunate episode at a party when I was sweet 16, but the Ribera del Duero (usually superior to most Riojas) was lovely.
Sorry there’s no autobiographical photo of the actual black pudding. I was too busy eating it for the photographer to get a chance. But here’s pretty much what it looked like, only more so:
Great post Ian. You saw more of Burgos than I did in my afternoon and overnight stay. The local tapas trail is one of the best I’ve experienced.
We missed out the castle walls part due to the cold… But unlike cold Ávila, Burgos is definitely due a return visit even though it’s about 4 hours from here by car (including café solo stops). Xmas in Madrid this year, then on Boxing Day we’re heading by high-speed train for 10 days in Córdoba, Sevilla, then Cádiz, none of which I’ve seen yet. Glad you liked the post! That means I should do another, about the 3 Andalusian cities.
You’re right, Avila is a see once place–even though inside the old walls I didn’t find it cold in December. Cordoba is a gem, good food and drink in the Arab quarter. Seville and Cadiz I’ve still to visit. While you’re in Seville try and take a trip to Italica…. I think it’s about 10 km away, I want to go there and you can tell me what it’s like. Eagerly awaiting Watson’s Book of Spain and Cristina’s accompanying book of recipes from all the places you visit.