The ‘Other’ Capital of Spain: Valladolid


Throughout the centuries many cities have enjoyed being the center of the Spanish Monarchy; however, all of that was due to change in 1561 when Philip II chose to make Madrid the Capital of his Empire. Nonetheless, Madrid’s hegemony as sole capital of Madrid was challenged under the rule of Philip III, when from 1601-1606 the young King decided to move the Capital to Valladolid.

Founded in the 10th century, upon Celtiberian and Roman ruins, the town of Valladolid has played an integral role in shaping the political culture of the kingdom of Castile and Leon. For instance, in 1469 the Catholic Kings, Isabel and Ferdinand, were married in the city center. Although floods of its surrounding rivers damaged many of the historic buildings, those that remain offer a glimpse to its greater glory.

I headed to Valladolid for a short weekend excursion to see the Convent Santa Clara of Tordesillas, which is in a town to the west of Valladolid. However, given the historical importance of the city I thought it would be best to combine the two trips into one, especially due to their physical proximity. Thus my Saturday afternoon and evening were spent in Valladolid proper, whereas my Sunday was spent in Tordesillas.

Fortunately, it no longer takes three days of travel to arrive in Valladolid and by board the Ave train you can reach the city within an hour. Leaving the train station, I first came across the Plaza de Columbus and then attempted to head towards the historic center of the city; however, I erroneously decided to trust google maps instead of my intuition and went in the completely wrong direction. At least this meant, I saw a little more of the outskirts of Valladolid.


Fountain of the Plaza de Zorrilla


Academy of Caballería

Once I finally corrected my error, I quickly made my way to the center, walking along the backside of the Cathedral and the University. Although I snapped the few photos below, I left my actual exploring for after I checked into my hostal and dropped off my backpack.


The University of Valladolid


Statue of Cervantes, who resided in the city when he published Don Quixote 

With my touristic map in hand, I left the hostal and started on my trek throughout the historic center. I couldn’t have had more luck, as I ran straight into the Convent Las Descalzas Reales of Valladolid. The convent was founded in 1550 under the name of Our Lady of Piety. Various noble homes in front of the Chancillería were bought in order to construct the nuns’ cloister and the convent’s church. Upon the declaration of Valladolid as the capital, Philip III, not only changed the convent’s name to Our Lady of the Asumption, but also its appearance, hiring Francisco de Mora to re-design the convent’s architecture. However, these new plans were not implemented until 1615, long after the court had moved back to Madrid.

Of importance, many of the stipulations included in Philip III’s plan, clearly reflect both the convents of the Encarnation and Las Descalzas Reales in Madrid, displaying a correlation between these different royal foundations. Although it is currently considered Patrimonio Nacional, visits to the interior are not possible. I was told that potentially in July they will open the convent a few days to the public, but I will no longer be in Spain and will have to wait for a chance to see this convent.


Convent of Las Descalzas Reales Valladolid

The Convent was very well situated within the historic part of the city, as are its counterparts in Madrid. Within a few steps one comes across both the Church of San Pablo and the former palaces of the city, both central seats of power in Valladolid.

The Church of San Pablo was comissioned by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, in 1445, which was connected to a dominican monastery. However, additional reforms were made throughout the 17th century to create the building that stands today. Both Philip II and Philip IV were baptized in the church, seeing as they were both born in the palace alongside the church.


Church of San Pablo 

To its right is the Palace of the Pimientel, where Philip II was born. I was not actually able to enter into the interior of the palace, only its vestibule as a tour was getting ready to leave. Here there are contemporary painted tiles depicting the life of Philip II while in Valladolid, from his birth to his baptism to later events that affected the city during his rule, such as the great fire of . For his baptism they constructed a wooden passageway on the second story to connect the palace and the Church of San Pablo to make sure that he could travel to the church without touching the ground floor, which was a common custom used throughout the Habsburg reign.


El Palace of the Pimentel


View of the Patio of the Palace of the Pimintel

Behind the Palace and Church of San Pablo is the Museum of Scupture, which since its founding in 1842 has sought to collect works from convents and monasteries that were dissolved in 1836 by the act of desamortization. Currently the museum is housed in various buildings, which comprise of the College of Saint Gregory, the Palace of Villena, The House of the Sun, the house and church of Saint Benit the Elder, the last of these were the private home and funerary chapel of the Count of Gondomar.

The main collection is found in the College of Saint Gregory, where there are approximately 20 rooms, each dedicated to displaying different types of sculpture, the marjority of which are dedicated to expounding religious themes and subjects.

I personally loved the connection between the architecture of the 15th century palace and the various displays of scultpure. Although many of the pieces did not come from the same convent in a given room, nor were constructed at the same time, together they gave a clear picture of the life size pieces found in monasteries throughout the region.I most frequently come into contact with small devotional objects that were placed within niches and chapels and it was very illuminating to see such a wide display of pieces that highlighted the connection between the saints’ bodies and our own.

Moreover, I throughly appreciated the handouts that were available in each room to further explain themes and ideas presented by the collection, particualrily the attention paid to the various ceilings that were incorporated into the displays. For an overview of the best pieces of the work, please click here and below you will find some of my photos from the various exhibition halls.


Entrance to the College of Saint Gregory


The first exhibtion room – various types of sculptures and art objects


Patio of College of Saint Gregory


Example of an Altarpiece


Sculpted Choir Cells 


A funerary sculpture beneath a gilded wooden ceiling


The upper floor of the College of Saint Gregory 


An exhibition room with life size scultpures of saints


Cornices of the upper cloister of the college of Saint Gregory 

After leaving the Sculptural Museum, I decided to visit the Museum of the House of Columbus.  I must admit that I expected the visit to display a 16th century home, and was throughly surprised to find a modern exhibition space. It appears the only original part of the home that has been maintained is its location within Valladolid. Columbus spent his final years in this house after completing his four journeys across the Atlantic Ocean, and this is the house in which he died. The Museum, thus, serves as a conmemoration of those journeys by describing each one in detail on each floor. It was a rather Kitsch musuem designed for a younger audience, with displays of dried clover and ginger to visually demonstrate the spices that Columbus sought in his travels. Maybe if I had not gone in with the expectation of seeing a 16th century home I might have been more impressed, but I left the museum thoroughly disappointed with what I had seen.


Museum House of Columbus 


Entrance to the House of Columbus

After leaving the museum I decided to pick up the suggested tourist route on my map to see the rest of the city. Starting at the church called “La Antigua” I wound my way throughout the historic city perimeter.


The Cathedral of Valladolid, although unfinished, was designed by Juan de Herrera, the famous architect who finished the Escorial for Philip II. The intention was to construct the largest cathedral in all of Europe; however, lack of resources and problems with the structural foundation, hindered its completion.


Side view of the Cathedral


Facade of the Cathedral


Backside of the Cathedral

Before making it to the River Pisguera, I stopped at a local bar for some light refreshments and to give my feet a quick respite seeing as I had been walking for the better part of four hours. I don’t know how well you can tell from the photo below, but the river has sandy banks and although I thought it was too chilly to swim, there were bathers on the far banks.


River Pisguera 

From the river, I found my way towards the Plaza Mayor. Originally, this area held the market for the entire town;however, a fire in 1561 completely destroyed all of the market stalls and surrounding buildings. Under the design of Francisco de Salamanca it was rebuilt and became the first fully enclosed arcaded market in Spain. The subsequent Plaza Mayor of Spain would be based off of these plans.


Plaza Mayor

According to everthing that I had read, the best place for tapas was around the Plaza Mayor and since Valladolid is famed for having the best tapas I decided to hunt down a few places to try. The first two were chosen because there were many elderly Spanish couples eating inside. This method does not always work, but 9 times out of 10 it will ensure that there is good quality food, and this was one of those nights when they did not disappoint. From there I decided to venture to Los Zagales de Abadia which is famous for their award winning tapas. I tried the Tierra-Mar-Aire which was the winner of the 3rd Competition of Tapas of Design in Madrid Fushion in 2007, which appeared smoking on my table. It was quite a fun treat, but is not something that I will need to eat on a regular basis. All in all, it was the perfect conclusion to a long day of sight seeing.


Building that states it passes the Higene laws of 1904


Tapa Tierra Mar Aire from Los Zagales de Abadia

Sunday morning I awoke extremely early in order to catch the only morning bus to Tordesillas. From as early as the 13th century, the town has been a favorite of the kings and queens of Castile and Leon.  In fact, Isabel negotiated with the Portuguese crown over the terms of  the Treaty of Tordesillas in x. Moreover, Juana la loca, the mother of Charles V was locked away in the Convent of Santa Clara in 1509. She would remain locked away in the royal palace until her death in 1555. Historians currently believe that she was most probably not as insane as contemporary writers would have you believe, for many used her mental problems, such as depression, to usurp her control of the crown. It is easy to think that after many years locked away, punished with silence and other inhumane treatments that Juana did in fact become mad. Unfortunately, the palace were she was kept fell into dissuse and by the 18th century was, according to Charles III, beyond repair and destroyed. Therefore, we no longer can visit the rooms of this neglected queen. That being said, the city honors her entrance each year in early March where one young woman of the community who is 29 years old, the age of Juana when she entered the city, is chosen to play the role of Juana. She is accompanied by a young girl who represents her daughter that arrived with her.  In this way, the history of her enclosure is never fully forgotten and remains an active part of the cultural fabric of Tordesillas.

It was a sleepy Sunday morning and I had arrived long before any of the shops opened which gave me the chance to explore the relationship bewteen the various buildings, most of which were located alongisde the river.


My first view of Tordesillas


The Plaza Mayor of Tordesillas 


A Painted Door in Tordesillas


A wooden Sculpture with hands reaching out


The Church of San Antolín


The Convent of Santa Clara


The Convent of Santa Clara


A view of the River


A Mural on one of the streets

Before I knew it, it was time to enter the Convent of Santa Clara, the reason for my entire trip. I first attended the mass in the Church, where the 8 nuns who are living within the convent still sing in polyphony. I, then, attended the first tour offered of the site, to get a better feel for the relationship between the various rooms of the complex.

The site was originally a palace, finished under the King Pedro I. Pedro was enamored with Islamic arquitecture and it it thought that he hired some of the same architects who designed parts of the Alhambra to design his palace in the 14th century. Upon his death he left the palace to his daughter Beatriz, under to the implication that she would convert the palace into a convent which would perpetually pray for their souls. Therefore in 1365 the Pope Urban VI gave the officals decrees to found the Royal Monastery of Santa Clara. Amongst the nuns of the community, were the names of the daughters and widows of the most noble families in Castile.

As with all palaces that are later converted into convents, the various rooms are drastically changed to better serve the needs of the community. This sometimes results in destruction of other beautiful works of art. Our guide strongly lamented the many places in which the nuns “destroyed”or rather re-employed the Islamic architecture for thier own needs. One such example was the Golden Chapel, whose ceiling was originally covered in gold. However, due to the spread of the plague the nuns covered the metal in white calcium to stop teh spread of the disease, and therefore, the intricate woodwrok is white instead of gilded. Although not one to neglect the importance of the palatial buildings, I tend to prefer the history of how the nuns employed the various spaces of their site, which is not the typical thread of these types of tours. Instead, the guide attempts to highlight the importance of the site through listing its collection of antique pieces, the earlier the better. Thankfully, now that I have an idea of the spatial relationship between these various spaces, I can supplement my knowledge with other articles and books written about Santa Clara to get a better idea of how the nuns lived in this convent.

I, unfortunately, cannot take you on a visual tour of the complex because we were only allowed to take photos of the exterior and the first patio, which at least will give a glimpse of the detailed Islamic architecture that was part of the original palace. I did buy the book of the site, primarily for the phenomenal photos that it contains and am more than happy to share it with anyone would like to take a peak.


Entrance to the Convent of Santa Clara


The First Patio


Another view of the First Patio

After finishing the tour of Santa Clara I headed towards the Casas del Tratado (Houses of the Treaty). It is here that Isabel and Juan of Portual negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas (1492), which divided the Americas into Spanish and Portuguese territories. This treaty had an everlasting effect on the shape of the Americas and is the reason that in Brazil they speak Portugese and in the rest of Latin America they speak Spanish because each country could only colonize the territories found on their side of the longitudinal line.

Today, they have turned the Houses of the Treaty into a museum that explains how the treaty came into being. There are also reconstructions of some of the key buildings of Tordesillas that are no longer extant, such as the Royal Palace. The only thing is that none of the documents on display are original and all of the maps included are also facsimilies. I know that there are preservation, logistical, and security concerns at play, but I was really looking forward to seeing the original treaty.


A reproduction of the Royal Palace of Tordesillas


The Copy of the Treaty signed by Isabel


The Copy of the Treaty sign by Juan 


Facsimilie of the dividing line of the Treaty of Tordesillas

Apart from all of the history, Tordesillas and its surrounding countryside is renown for its wine. I, desperately, wanted to visit a Bodega while I was in the area, but did not have the means to go to another city. Fortunately, my friend Bea recommended a bodega with the city of Tordesillas, called Bodgea Muelas.

When I arrived, both of the current owners were in the store front and Reyes, the younger of the two offered to give me a tour of the caves of the bodega. As she explained, most of the buildings in Tordesillas sit on top of such caves, that were once used to make wine. However, over time many have stopped production in these areas and the caves have fallen into disuse. At their bodega, their goal is to continue producing wine in the same fashion as their great great grandfather who first bought this cave. Therefore, instead of large quantities of product, they strive to create the highest quality wine possible, even if that means there is less of it. Not only did I fall in love with the historic site and presentation of the Bodega, which displays in the shop different documents surrounding the familiy’s involvement in wine production, but also with their final product. At the end of the tour, I was given a Cata (Tasting) of their different selection of wines, they are primarily known for their Tintos; however, do make a pure verdejo, which is incredible. My only problem was deciding which bottles to bring back with me to Madrid.

Apart from her love of wine, Reyes is also a jewlery designer, with many of her pieces inspired by wine (To see some of her pieces click here). These one of a kind works capture her spirit, her love of family, tradition and culture, and her desire to share that love with anyone who walks through the door. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have gotten to know her, and am looking forward to seeing her at her next pop-up show in Madrid.


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas


Bodega Muelas

Reyes gave me a few suggestions of where to eat like a tordesillana in Tordesillas. Unfortuantely, the first place, which was also recommended to me by a few passerbys was full for the day. I was able to get into the second restaurant and had a delicious meal. Afterwards it was time to catch the bus back to Valladolid where my train back to Madrid awaited me. Despite its lack of preparation, this trip was filled with serendipitious moments, which have given me an apprecation of all of Spain’s countryside.


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