A few weeks ago, although now it feels like ages ago, I traveled to Burgos, Spain for my last weekend getaway to visit the Convent Las Huelgas. That Saturday afternoon, after finishing practice I climbed aboard to ALSA bus to Burgos and arrived early that evening. Since I was not meeting my rental host until later that evening, and I knew that her place was located near the Cathedral of Saint Mary, I thought it would be best to spend the evening visiting the revered site of worship. Construction began in 1221 following typical French Gothic plans; however, the majority of the changes to the structure occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Cathedral was later renovated in the 19th and 20th centuries. For more information about the Cathedral, please see its webpage here.
From the outside, the numerous crenelated spikes and towers suggest the beauty of the cathedral’s interior. Yet, even this decorous exterior does not prepare you for the splendor inside. Initially, you enter through the side doors, where there are two funerary chapels flanking either side. The entire perimeter of the Cathedral is filled with ornate chapels, each donated by a different local family and decorated according to their whims and desires. Although there are many splendid altarpieces found throughout these chapels, the most beautiful part of the Cathedral for me was the decoration of the ceilings. Each chapel approached the ceiling differently, some extended visually the images found on the other walls, others used decorated crenulation to move the eyes towards the intricate vaulting that culminated in the family’s coat of arms. The best ceiling decoration, however, was not found in a rotating chapel, but rather the central vault, right as one entered the choired section of the Cathedral. Below are images found from the different chapels and the interior of the Cathedral to give you a glimpse of its beauty.
After visiting all of the main parts of the Cathedral proper, I continued my visit to the attached cloister where they explained the different phases of construction and displayed devotional pieces from their collections. Some highlights of their collection include the Mary Magdalene by Leonardo Da Vinci and the Virgin of the Rosary sculpture from China. I loved this sculpture from Macao because although this is the typical posture for a Virgin and Child sculpture, both people represented are given oriental features highlighting where it was produced.
As I stepped back out onto the streets of Burgos I came across a local procession; however, this was not of the religious type. The lady with whom I stayed told me that every weekend a group of friends will get a permit to hold a procession in the streets. Typically, she said one group will start in the early afternoon and another will pick up where they left off in the late evening. Her knowledge of these processions came from her flat’s location on one of the main streets that they pass along. I followed the procession along, like many other people in the streets swaying to the live music until we reached the Plaza Mayor where I broke away to view its vast expansive space.
I decided to take full advantage of the daylight and continued to explore the rest of the city to the best of my ability. Although the Convent Las Hueglas was not that far away from the city center, I knew there was a possibility I would not be back on Sunday for more exploration after visiting the convent and wanted to see as much as possible before I left. From the Plaza I climbed to the top of the Park of Castile to overlook the entire city. It was filled with youths drinking in the back woods excited for their Saturday night revelry.
On my descend, I stopped by the Museum of Saint Steven, which houses the collection of altarpieces. Unfortunately, the Museum is only open during the summer months, July and August, which is a common trend in the city. This is because peak tourism occurs in these months and it is not economical for them to be open in other months – at least that is what they claim.
As the sun began to set, I set off in search of dinner. I first headed to a posh bar that had a Michelin star, where I tried two funky tapas with a glass of wine before heading to the next place. I have learned that these places are fun for the experience of exotic renditions of traditional fare, but if you’re interested in actually curbing your hunger, it’s much better to go to a dive bar where you will be sure to get enough food. I waited to order Morcilla, a traditional blood sausage dish that is made in Burgos, until I found a dive bar, because there are certain things you just want done the traditional way. While a soccer game was playing in the background I struck up a conversation with the table on my left who were giving me suggestions on where to eat the following day. With a full content stomach, I headed back to my room to get a good night’s rest.
Sunday morning I awoke relatively early in hopes of making it to the convent on foot before the tours began, so that I could glimpse part of their religious services. As I cut across the river and parks, I joined many pilgrims who were on their way to Santiago Compostela because that journey runs straight through Burgos and consequentially Las Huelgas. Unfortunately, I made a wrong turn mistakenly reading the sign that pointed to the convent equivocally and ended up at the faculty of law of the University. By the time I righted my wrong, I had doubled my walking time.
As I strode into the main patio in front of the Convent in search of the ticket office a man standing on upper balcony window telling all of the people gathered in the patio that the convent was closed for the day. There were approximately 20 or so people, who like myself were rather miffed as to it being closed. He kept reiterating that it was a holiday for workers and they would be open on Monday. The problem was not that the convent was closed, it was the lack of communication that it would be closed. Almost everyone who was there could not go and visit another day. I expressly made this trip that particular weekend because according to Patrimonio Nacional it was not closed and best coincided with the rest of my schedule.
Desperate to get inside, I asked him politely if they were still holding mass. He told me that I could in fact attend mass, but I had to agree to stay the whole hour. Without hesitating I told him that I would be more than willing to stay. A few other people decided to join the mass, whereas the others left the grounds. Those of us who stayed were rather fortunate because we were given a brisk tour of the whole convent because the nuns do not use the large church for their services, but rather a small chapel located inside the cloistered part of the church, which is why we had to follow the security guard into the sanctuary. The austere chapel differed from the rest of what we saw leading up to the chapel; however, the mass was a beautiful display of faith especially shown through the polyphony music. I tried to soak up all of the various spaces and images on our way out and decided that although I was not able to see the entire convent on a tour, my trip was not for naught, because I was able to experience the convent, something that most tours do not allow us to do.
After leaving the mass, the man in the window had disappeared and many people were gathering in the patio trying to figure out what was going on with the convent. One couple from Madrid asked me if I knew where they could buy tickets and I explained that it was closed today. They then suggested that we all go to the Monastery Cartuja de Miraflores (click here for a virtual tour of the monastery). Initially, they wanted to take the bus, but some locals told us that the buses only run in the summer (again there really is a preferred season to visit Burgos) and that our best way to visit this gem would be in taxi. The building dates to a palace commissioned by Henry III in 1401. His son, John II, later converted the palace into the Carthusian monastery. A fire destroyed much of the building in 1452 and its reconstruction was not finished until the end of the century, under the reign of Isabel I of Castile.
As we walked crossed the threshold of the chapel, which was divided into three separate spaces, we were initially struck by the light scent of roses perfuming the air. We all kept looking for the flower arrangements only to learn later that it was an extract made by the monks to highlight the sacredness of the site. The monks sold this perfume in their shop and I bought a small bottle to bring a little of Spain to Boston with me this fall.
The decoration of the high altar made up for the sparse decoration found in the first two rooms, starting with the gates separating the two spaces and culminating in the rich decoration of the altarpiece. The wooden carved altarpiece uses high relief and gilding to portray the exaltation of the Eucharist. Right in front of the altar in the shape of an eight-pointed star is the tomb sculpture commissioned by Isabel I of Castile to honor John II of Castile and his wife. Seeing as he transformed the palace into a monastery, it is fitting that his tomb sculpture be present in this chapel. The intricate carving of the alabaster not only captures the likeness of the royal couple, but also displays flora and fauna with such detail that scholars can accurately name the different species.
In the side vestibule there was an exhibit displaying other prize pieces of the monastery, which is still active. The portrait of Isabel I of Castile caught my attention as I have seen many different versions of this queen throughout my travels, but many portray her as a young queen rather than in her later stage of life as this one does. We were not able to visit the cloister or other spaces of the monastery, but could hear the monks chanting their morning prayers as we left.
From the monastery, we all headed back to the center of Burgos where I left my new friends to have lunch at a local place that had been recommended to me the previous night. I just lucked out and missed the crowds and was able to receive a table. (As I left there were approximately twenty people waiting patiently to eat.) Next to the restaurant was a touristic chacuterie and although I would not normally stop at a tourist place to buy local goods, given that it was Sunday and nothing else was open, i decided that it was my best bet to bring traditional morcilla back to Madrid with me.
Since there were still a few hours until my bus left, I visited the Church of Saint Nicolas, located right next to the Cathedral. This tiny temple was founded as a church in 1408 on the ruins of a Roman temple. The main altarpiece is all carved in stone, which given the detail and precision with which it was carved does not appear to be stone, but rather a more plastic medium.