Valladolid, at the centre of the meseta and capital of the Castilla y León region, ought to be dramatic and exciting. Many of the greatest figures of Spain’s Golden Age – Fernando and Isabel, Columbus, Cervantes, Torquemada, Felipe II – lived in the city at various times, and for five years at the turn of the seventeenth century it vied with Madrid as the royal capital. It had wealth and prestige, yet modern Valladolid – a busy, working city of 400,000 – lost much that was irreplaceable, as many of its finest palaces and grandest streets were swept away during subsequent centuries. Nonetheless, much that remains is appealing in a city centre of restored squares and gleaming churches, including a series of excellent art museums, one of which holds the finest collection of religious sculpture anywhere in Spain. While it doesn’t have the overriding beauty of Salamanca, or the stand out monumental presence of Burgos or León, Valladolid is an easy city to like – whether it’s the pretty shaded gardens of the Campo Grande, or the student bars lined up under the shadow of a majestic Gothic church. The best time to get a sense of the city’s historic traditions is Semana Santa (Holy Week), when Valladolid is host to some of the most extravagant and solemn processions in Spain.
Outside the city, there are easy side-trips to the handsome small towns of Tordesillas and Medina del Campo, both now on the quiet and sleepy side but, like Valladolid, also boasting significant histories.
Felipe II was born (1527) in Valladolid, and in other circumstances perhaps his home city might have become the permanent Spanish capital, and not Madrid. As it was, Valladolid was only briefly the capital (1601–06), but Felipe’s birthplace, the Palacio de los Pimentel (c/Angustias), has a memorial plaque, and his statue is over the way in Plaza San Pablo. Another surviving palace, Palacio de los Viveros (c/Ramon y Cajal), is where the royal teenagers Fernando and Isabel married in 1469, later to be the “Catholic Monarchs” of a new, triumphant Spain; while the widely travelled Miguel Cervantes spent a few years in the city, too – what’s thought to have been his house (Casa Cervantes, just off c/Miguel Iscar) is now a small museum. However, the city is perhaps proudest of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón), who died here in 1506 – Valladolid devoted an entire year in 2006, and spruced up the old town, to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the old mercenary’s demise, and there’s a replica of the house he died in, known as Casa Colón, on c/Colón.
The most extraordinary sculpted facade of all in Valladolid is that of the Colegio de San Gregorio, adorned not just with coats of arms and crowned lions, but sculpted twigs, naked children clambering in the branches of a pomegranate tree and long-haired men carrying maces. Considered to be from the workshop of master sculptor Gil de Siloé, it’s very much like icing on a cake – Jan Morris, for one, was convinced that the flamboyant facade must be edible. The collegiate church was built by the Bishop of Burgos – Chancellor of Castile and confessor to Queen Isabel – as a theological college, and was richly endowed, most obviously with a gleaming two-tier courtyard of twisted stone columns, and an upper gallery that’s a sculpted Plateresque flight of fancy of heraldic, mythic and regal symbols. Inside, too, the building has been majestically restored and now contains the unmissable religious art and sculpture collection of the Museo Nacional.
The stunningly presented collection from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries includes some of the most brilliant works of the Spanish Renaissance. Set in majestic galleries on two floors, ranged around the San Gregorio courtyard, the hugely expressive statues, sculptures, retablos and other artworks were often commissioned directly for churches and monasteries, and it’s rare to see such vibrant pieces at these close quarters – while if you look up, almost every gallery has its own antique coffered ceiling of gilt and painted wood, transplanted here from other religious foundations.
Sixteenth-century artists such as Alonso Berruguete (1490–1561), Diego de Siloé (1495–1565) and the Frenchman Juan de Juni (1507–77) adapted the classical revival to the religious intensity of the Spanish temperament, and the results are often magnificent and sometimes quite beautifully brutal: weeping crucifixion wounds, severed heads, cadaverous bodies, agonized faces and rapt expressions fill the galleries. The dissolved Valladolid monastery of San Bento el Real provides two pieces that are typical of the richness and power on display: its retablo mayor has a life-sized St Benedict almost striding out from the surrounding scenes of his miracles, while in an upper gallery sit the intricately carved and painted choir stalls, preserved in their jaw-dropping entirety.
Palacio de Villena
Across the street from the San Gregorio facade stands the Renaissance Palacio de Villena, used as the museum’s centre for temporary exhibitions and public events. It also contains one final, and extraordinary, flourish, namely the so-called Belén Napolitano or Nativity tableau – in an eighteenth-century Neapolitan street, between the hanging laundry, itinerant musicians and fruit sellers, the three Wise Men troop towards the manger on camels.