.
the diary thing 
.
06.30.00
.
 burgos
.
 
WE HAD PASSED BURGOS a day earlier, when our bus took the highway past the city. The plains of Castille are broad enough that you can see a town from far off, without being in its particular proximity. Burgos sat off to our left, somewhat entrancing, its cathedral towers huddled against a green hill.

Up close, the town is only slightly less picturesque. We're staying, unfortunately, in the newer part of town, in a bustling block of offices and apartments all too familiar to anyone acquainted with a modern Spanish city. We have enough time in our hotel for a quick shower before heading out for dinner.

A dinner that, it would seem, is hardly anyone's heartfelt desire. After lunch and drinks and wine and tapas on the way from Santo Domingo, we'd probably be happy enough with a glass of beer and a bag of chips, but dinner has been booked, and off we go.

The restaurant, the Meson de los Infantes, seems aptly named when our sampler plates start arriving: calf's brains and baby lamb's feet and veal and suckling pig stand out in my memory -- a repast of meat, in addition to the usual chorizo and morcilla and cheese, from a variety of creatures that never lived to see the bright side of adulthood. It's all very tasty, but we're punchy and tired and slipping down the dizzy slope of jet-lag. That doesn't stop the drinking, on the other hand, and things quickly get out of hand.

The owner, a jolly, garrulous older man with excellent English, tells us about his days as a tour guide, when Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren stayed in the city filming El Cid, a lavish 1961 historical epic with Heston as the Cid, Burgos' medieval hero in the fight against the Moors. He was their translator for their stay in the city. Sophia Loren, he tells us, had sat in the very seat where Marguerita is sitting, and Heston in Bob's chair. The producer, he tells us, came to Spain to make a series of grand, historical epics, and had ended up a bankrupt. Bob had been reading the medieval epic poem about the Cid before he left, and I had seen the movie not long before, a remarkably bad film, even for Charlton Heston. I had warned Bob about it just that day.

Bob, a usually quiet, reserved presence most of the time, gets a few in him and regales us with stories of travelling the far east going hand to hand with vicious bouts of diarrhea. One particular story, about an eight-hour boat ride down the Mekong Delta, hoping for a rest stop in vain, sends the group into hysterics. Marguerita, our leader, tops it with a story of a latrine in Goa inhabited, it would seem, by eager, hungry pigs. Michael recalls a bout of the runs in Nevada, where a particularly intense bowel movement was punctuated by the shockwave of the last underground nuclear test in the continental United States. We stumble through the gates of the old city and head back to our hotel, giggling and howling all the way.

I'm such a sucker for a good shit story.

.

 
"Not altogether out of the world, yet having but few dealings with it, Burgos stands upon her hillside waiting, perhaps, for the coming of Jesus."
.
- Cities of Spain(1925)
Edward Hutton

 
Spain -- day three. A bit of architecture talk.
on the road from Silos to Burgos
on the road from Silos to Burgos
.

BREAKFAST IN BURGOS is grim -- a half-glass of warm orange juice and a tepid cup of bad coffee. My mood isn't brightened when Dennis lets me know that my cat died the previous day. Checking out of the hotel, the desk clerk hands me a message that K. has been trying to get hold of me. I'll have to wait till Salamanca to call her.

We're off to the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, home of the platinum-selling Chant monks. If we can get there on time, we might catch most of a Gregorian mass. Alas, by the time we've all checked out, met up with our guide for the day, and driven out of the city, we'll only catch the tail-end of the mass. The monastery church seems almost new to our eyes, made of crisp, gray stone, in an unadorned neo-classical style. It's only a couple of hundred years old, pre-pubescent by Spanish standards. The acoustics, however, are remarkable, and we scatter through the church, into far-flung pews, to enjoy a few minutes. I'm the only one who crosses himself before I take my seat -- old habits die hard.

The gift shop displays one of the monks' platinum records, and features the whole of their catalogue, along with a fine selection of other trinkets. We're let into the cloister by our guide, a massively pregnant woman with a gruff, barking voice and an emphatically nasty command of English. She assaults us with random tidbits of information about the cloister and the church, the occasional anti-clerical joke brought home with a throaty cackle.

The monks' good fortune has benefitted their home immensely, and the cloister is undergoing extensive restoration -- compared to the crumbling arches and melting stonework in Nájera, Silos is a showcase. The tour over, part of the group wanders through the little, enclosed waterworks outside the monastery toward a little stream and the hill beyond, topped with a tiny church and the monks' graveyard. The sun is bright and we're feeling a bit constricted, so it takes a while for Marguerita, Fernando and our guide to collect us for the ride back to Burgos. I get the feeling, just at this moment, that most of us would have been content to stay in the pretty, dull little town of Silos for the rest of the week.

.
.
Burgos
Burgos
.

BURGOS WAS THE CAPITAL of the Nationalist Government during the Spanish Civil War, a stronghold of conservative Catholicism and fascist support. My map of the town still shows an "Avenida del Generalisimo Franco" running alongside the river, ending just by the Arco de Santa Maria, an elaborate old city gate studded with turrets and statues.

The town has a feel I'd almost call "Germanic", with stout, prosperous-looking citizens in loden coats and sensible shoes walking the tidy, orderly streets. The river that runs through the center of the town was, like the broad stream in Najera, probably once a lot wilder, judging from the broad bridges that span it. Today, it's a pleasant, slow-moving watercourse bordered on each side with lawns and trees, a long, thin park under the bridges, dotted with young couples. 

My guidebook for the trip is a bit out of date. I picked up Edward Hutton's The Cities of Spain at a used bookstore before I left, when I noticed that Hutton, who made his trip through the country sometime in the early 1900s, had visited the same cities I'd be seeing. I know almost nothing about Hutton, but can assume quite a few things based on the book. He was probably educated at public school and either Oxford or Cambridge, and came from the prosperous middle class. His worldview was formed by the "aesthetic movement" that embraced everything from Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites to Swinburne and Wilde. His knowledge of art and architectural history is unimpeachable, inasmuch as his opinions are adamant and stated with passionate verbosity.

Like most Europeans, Hutton is convinced of -- and a little in love with -- an image of Spain as place of "sad ascetic dignity", a tragic place that history has made glorious and then conspired to humiliate. Never mind that, as an Englishman, Hutton was probably convinced of his own country's proud complicity in that humiliation, with the sinking of the Armada. When he made his trip, Spain's further humiliation had just recently been underlined with the loss of Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. It was this same streak of romanticism about the country that drew Hemingway there, years later, and inspired the International Brigade in the Civil War. It's an image that dies hard, and which was practically turned into the country's epitaph under Franco's long tenure as Caudillo.

HUTTON DOESN'T HAVE much to say for the cathedral in Burgos. Flipping ahead, he's no more enthusiastic about the great churches in Valladolid or Salamanca. Like most educated bohemians of his time, he believes in the simple beauty of the middle ages, and seems to regard much of the renaissance, and indeed most of subsequent art and architecture, as a steady fall from grace. As for the ornate stonework of Burgos' cathedral, "we soon grow a little weary of it, and find ourselves wondering what simple beauty has been destroyed to make way for all that elegance, that fragile glory of delicate pinnacle and carved goldsmith's work."

I have to say that the cathedral does seem over-decorated, with baroque and neo-classical additions welded onto the gothic bones of the building. I can only compare it to the gothic churches of Barcelona, which were burned clean of their gold-painted plasterwork and carved wood by the anarchists during the Civil War. No such desecration happened in Burgos, of course, with the result that the churches of Barcelona -- Santa Mario del Mar and Santa Maria del Pi, in particular -- seem broad and airy, their stonework singed but naked, while Burgos' cathedral is a bit more like an untidy museum, with the tombs of the Cid and his wife under the transept, renaissance staircases and rococo sacristies. 

There are almost no points on the floor where you can see clear across the building, as the interior has been filled with choir lofts and chapels and altars. In one chapel, a huge, rough marble slab sits next to the elegantly finished sarcophagi of the High Constable and his wife. The slab was intended for his son, who decided later that he wanted to rest for all eternity some distance away from his parents. Like the town, Burgos cathedral shows signs of being lived in, of having been as silted up with time as the river that runs through the place.

.
photos
and writing 
©2000
Rick McGinnis
.
.
...the past
back to diary index
send me mail
the future...