Burgos was the capital of Old Castile for almost five hundred years, the home of El Cid in the eleventh century, and the base, two centuries later, of Fernando III, the reconqueror of Murcia, Córdoba and Seville. It was Fernando who began the city’s famous Gothic cathedral, one of the greatest in all Spain, and Burgos is a firm station on the pilgrim route. During the Civil War, Franco temporarily installed his Fascist government in the city and Burgos owes much of its modern expansion to Franco’s “Industrial Development Plan”, a strategy to shift the country’s wealth away from Catalunya and the Basque Country and into Castile. Even now, such connotations linger – the Capitanía General building still displays a 1936 plaque (admittedly, under protective glass) honouring Franco, the “supreme authority of the nation”.
But Burgos is also a changed city, much scrubbed and restored over the last few years due to its candidature for European City of Culture for 2016. Every paving stone in the centre looks to have been relaid, and while it’s no longer a clearly medieval city, the handsome buildings, squares and riverfront of the old town are an attractive prospect for a night’s stay. Despite the encroaching suburban sprawl and a population of almost 200,000, when it comes down to it, Burgos really isn’t that big. You can easily see everything in the centre in a day, and while its lesser churches inevitably tend to be eclipsed by the cathedral, the two wonderful monasteries on the outskirts are by no means overshadowed.
The casco histórico is totally dominated by the Catedral, one of the most extraordinary achievements of Gothic art. Its spires can be seen above the rooftops from all over town, and it’s an essential first stop in Burgos. The cathedral has emerged from a lengthy period of restoration, looking cleaner than it has for centuries, though visiting it has been reduced to something of a production line, with a separate visitor centre, well-stocked gift-shop and one-way flow inside to keep tourists from worshippers.
Moorish influences can be seen in the cathedral’s central dome (1568), supported on four thick piers that fan out into remarkably delicate buttresses – a worthy setting for the tomb of El Cid and his wife Jimena, marked by a simple slab of pink veined marble in the floor below. Otherwise, perhaps the most striking thing about the vast interior is the size and number of its side chapels, with the octagonal Capilla del Condestable, behind the high altar, possibly the most splendid of all, featuring a ceiling designed to form two concentric eight-pointed stars. In the Capilla de Santa Ana, the magnificent retablo is by Gil de Siloé, a Flanders-born craftsman whose son Diego crafted the adjacent double stairway, the glorious Escalera Dorada.
The tourist route through the church leads out of the main body of the cathedral and into the spacious two-storey cloisters, and beyond this to a series of chapels that house the Museo Catedralicio, with its collection of religious treasures and two El Cid mementoes, namely his marriage contract and a wooden trunk. The light-filled lower cloister also has an audio-visual history of the church and its architecture, including a look at the various restoration projects.
Principal landmark along the leafy Burgos riverfront – right on the Puente de San Pablo – is the magnificent equestrian statue of El Cid, complete with flying cloak, flowing beard and raised sword. The city lays full claim to the Castilian nobleman, soldier and mercenary, born Rodrigo Díaz in the nearby village of Vivar in 1040 or thereabouts. Actually, his most significant military exploits took place around Valencia, the city he took back briefly from the Moors after a long siege in 1094, but no matter – El Cid (from the Arabic sidi or lord) is a local boy, whose heroic feats (not all strictly historically accurate) have been celebrated in Spain since the twelfth century. His honorific title, Campeador (“Supreme in Valour”), is some indication of the esteem in which he’s always been held, though there’s generally a veil drawn over his avarice and political ambition, not to mention the fact that, as an exiled sword-for-hire in the 1080s, El Cid turned out for Moorish princes as easily as for Christian kings. He died in Valencia in 1099, and the city fell again to the Moors in 1102, after which his wife Jimena took El Cid’s body to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, south of Burgos, where it rested for centuries. The body disappeared to France after the ravages of the Peninsular War, but husband and wife were reburied together in Burgos cathedral in 1921.
The most highly venerated place of worship inside the cathedral is the Capilla del Santísimo Cristo de Burgos, which contains a cloyingly realistic image of Christ (c.1300), endowed with real human hair and nails and covered with the withered hide of a water buffalo, still popularly believed to be human skin. Legend has it that the icon was modelled directly from the scene at the Crucifixion and that – miracle of miracles – it requires a shave and a manicure every eighth day. The chapel, however, is closed to anyone clutching a cathedral visitor’s ticket – worshippers enter instead via the Puerta de Santa María outside.
South and east of Burgos lies a quartet of renowned sights – ancient hermitage, lavish abbey cloister and two very different restored towns – that are all easy excursions by car. They would make a fine, if busy, day’s tour from Burgos, or can be seen en route to Soria, down the N234, though for an alternative overnight stop it’s a hard choice between the dramatic parador at Lerma and the small-town charms of Covarrubias.
The small town – village really – of Covarrubias, 40km south of Burgos, is superbly preserved, with many white half-timbered houses and an air of sleepy gentility throughout. Set by an old bridge overlooking the Río Arlanza, the casco histórico is arranged around three adjacent plazas of ever increasing prettiness. The late Gothic Colegiata de San Cosme y San Damián is the main church, crammed with tombs that give an idea of the grandeur of the town in earlier times. The whole ensemble is studiously quaint, and attracts weekend tourists in numbers, but it’s not yet overwhelmed – there’s an antiques shop and a classy butcher-deli or two, but there are also locals tending to brimming flower boxes and children playing around the worn stone crosses.