“The cathedral in Burgos,” my Spanish teacher said, “is spectacular.”
“As nice as Toledo?” I asked.
That was enough for me; I had to go.
Burgos is a city located directly north of Madrid, in the province of Castillo y León. It is located at high altitude on a plateau, so it’s both chilly and windy. But there is plenty of history to compensate. The city was once the capital of Castile, a legacy which has left it with lots of fine architecture, most notably the Burgos Cathedral, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
We took our classic approach: Blablacars and Airbnbs. The ride up was long and pleasant. It was only the GF and I, and the driver. The driver was a young man from Galicia who was living in Burgos, working as an air traffic controller. He spoke slowly and with a clear accent, which gave me the pleasant illusion that I was fluent in Spanish. After two hours we arrived. Our Airbnb host was just as nice, a freelance dietician who gave us restaurant and bar recommendations and offered us herbal tea.
Soon we were walking towards the center of the city. As usual in Burgos, it was a cold, cloudy day. But I didn’t care; I was about to see one of the finest cathedrals in Spain.
But first we had to eat. I was hungry. So as soon as we got into the sight of the cathedral, we ducked into a bar for some croquettes and tortilla and coffee. While there, we asked the barman where the entrance to the cathedral was.
“Right around that corner,” he said, in Spanish. “But before you go in, go to the Iglesia de San Nicolás, a very nice church.”
He was right. Just next to the cathedral is this little church, and it’s definitely worth going inside. The central altarpiece is incredible, a towering monolith of white marble carved into an army of angles. There are so many little figures and scenes in it that it would be impossible to look at it all; in fact, the carved reliefs are so tiny that they form only surface details, elements of an abstract pattern. Also of note was a fine Renaissance painting on wood of the Last Judgment.
But now it was time for the cathedral. We walked out of the church and looked at it. It was stupendous. The cathedral of Burgos is one of Spain’s lesser known treasures, at least to outsiders. Although my knowledge of architecture is scant, I believe that this cathedral is the finest example of French Gothic in Spain. I can try to describe it, but a picture will do the job much better.
We walked around the outside for a while, just taking it in. The massive building is impressive from every side. Sculptures stand above the doorway, their noble robed figures looking down on the viewer with infinite calm. Reliefs are carved into the exterior walls, of men, of animals, of abstract decorations. Above one doorway, now unused, is an excellent scene of the Last Judgment, each figure looking like it had been carved yesterday. The whole thing is bristling with spires, over twenty of them, impaling any poor clouds that get too close. The Toledo Cathedral is a granite fugue, a marvelous blend of point and counterpoint, a magnificent jumble of different elements, whereas the Burgos Cathedral is a symphony of stone—balanced, unified, pure gothic.
After we drunk our fill, we went inside. The entry ticket came with an audioguide included. Thinking that we’d practiced enough Spanish that day, we got the guides in English. There were two narrators, a man and a woman, and both of them spoke with such soothing tones and such calm slowness that I felt I was being deliberately lulled to sleep, not informed.
The inside of the cathedral is not as splendid as its outside, which it not to say it isn’t nice. There are fine Renaissance paintings, old Romanesque frescos, impressive sculptures, admirable altars—but nothing which stuck in my memory. Well, there were a few things. First was a wooden figure of a man’s upper half sticking out from a section of the ceiling, high up above; in his hand was a mallet (I think), which he used to strike a bell every half hour. It was a mechanical doodad. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see him in action; but his smiling, impish, bearded face struck me as out of place in a cathedral.
And then there was the central cupola. This was unlike any I had ever seen before. Instead of a large dome crowning the building, it was filled with small windows in an intricate pattern; standing underneath and looking up, it looks like heaven itself is opening up. The audioguide explained how it was created, but I don’t remember now, and even at the time I couldn’t believe it. It is so high up and it looks so delicate, it is impossible to believe it was made from stone.
Right below this is something even more special: the tomb of El Cid Campeador, the half-legendary warrior from the Spanish Middle Ages. The tomb is nothing special to look at—just a slab of granite on the floor—but the man certainly was. El Cid is the star of the first major work of Spanish literature, El Cantar del Mio Cid, an epic poem where he is portrayed as a tireless warrior for Christianity against the Muslims. (The real story was, as usual, more complicated.) I actually read this poem right before I moved to Spain, as a way to get into the right mindset. Thus, standing there before his tomb felt a bit like standing in front of Washington Irving’s old room in the Alhambra: like I had completed a circuit. I love moments like this, when past and present are suddenly thrown together, because it is in these times that we can feel how much we’ve changed and how much we’ve stayed the same.
After hurting my neck from looking up at the cupola, and taking my share of photos, we were back out on the street. It was time for lunch.
On the recommendation of both our driver and our host, we went to Casa Pancho, a restaurant near the cathedral. Even though it was early for lunch, the place was already bustling. We decided to eat in the bar so we could have tapas. They had a wide selection. But I knew what I wanted: morcilla. This is Spanish blood sausage, and the morcilla in Burgos is supposed to be the best in Spain. I ordered two tapas of morcilla to start. It was great, so much better than other morcilla I’ve had here. Then I ordered pepper stuffed with morcilla in a spicy sauce, and it was even better; and after that, a piece of bread topped with a quail egg, a hot pepper, and morcilla. Everything was delicious—and so cheap!
A waiter came over to clear our plates.
“How did you like the food?” he asked in Spanish.
“It was great. Really delicious.”
“Oh, you speak Spanish well!” he said. “Where are you from?”
“We’re from New York,” I said.
He gave GF a quizzical look.
“No, I mean where are you really from?” he said. (GF is Chinese-American.)
“Well, my parents are Chinese,” she said.
“Oh, what part of China are they from? Bangkok?”
“What?” GF said, realizing that Bangkok isn’t even in China.
“Bangkok?” he repeated.
“No, they’re from the south of China.”
“Oh. And where are you from?” he said, turning to me.
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “A real New Yorker.”
Then he gestured at GF, and pulled his eyes back in reference to her Asianness.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
The waiter smiled, and left.
This is actually not the first time this has happened in Spain. To be honest, neither of us were very offended. It’s just ignorance, not malice. The guy obviously didn’t know anything about China; he didn’t even know that Bangkok is in Thailand. Still, it’s pretty shocking to be on the receiving end of such straightforward racism.
In any case, I still highly recommend Casa Pancho. Both of us left satisfied and happy. In fact, the food was so good and so reasonably priced that the meal stands out in my memory as one of the best I’ve had in Spain.
The next stop was Las Huelgas. This is a large monastery that is situated a bit outside the city center. It took us about twenty minutes to walk there. It is an impressively large building, its gray form stretching hundreds of feet.
I was exited to go in; but when we got there we found that it was closed, and it wouldn’t open for another forty minutes. These long Spanish midday breaks! We retreated to a café to kill time. On the television, the news was playing; they were covering the story about the castle in the south of Spain, the Medrera castle in Cádiz, that had been restored in such a hideous way, essentially turning the old castle into a block of concrete. The news story compared it to the other famous botched restoration in Spain, the ecce homo in Borja that an elderly Spaniard had famously turned into ‘Beast Jesus’. In fairness, restoration is difficult, delicate work. But it shouldn’t be the occasion to turn a piece of heritage into modern art.
Finally it was time to go. We paid and went to buy our tickets.
“Is this to visit now?” the woman asked, as I was paying.
“Yeah, now,” I said, not understanding why she was asking.
“Okay, follow her,” she said, pointing to her colleague.
We did, and soon discovered that we were with a group. We were on a tour; the only problem was, the tour was in Spanish. Our guide was a woman with short gray hair, who seemed very professional. Sometimes I understood almost everything she said, other times almost nothing.
On the inside, the monastery is eerily empty. There are many walls completely bare of decoration. But there is also much of interest. One thing that I remember in particular were the many sarcophagi spread throughout the space. For a long time the monastery had served as a royal burying place; lots of kings and queens from the middle ages can be found here. Another thing that struck me as very interesting was the preponderance of Moorish ornamentation on the walls. I don’t know how long Burgos was controlled by the Moors, but they certainly left their mark on this monastery. Some decorations on the walls could easily have been in the Alhambra. Well, not exactly, for many of the decorations had the royal emblem of Castile as well as Latin inscribed into the pattern—a wonderful example of syncretism in history.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures, and I couldn’t understand a lot of the tour, so beyond this I can’t say very much. I’m not sure if they offer tours in English, actually. But if you understand Spanish, it’s certainly worth visiting.
By now it was late. The only thing to do that was still open was the Museum of Human Evolution. It sounded good to me, since I studied anthropology in college, but GF wasn’t terribly excited about it. But what else would we do? We walked there from the monastery—about twenty minutes—and searched around for the entrance. The museum is in a cluster of big buildings, and the entrance is actually not well marked. We walked around for about five minutes before asking somebody, who pointed us in the right direction. Ahead of us in line to enter was an American man, who took the opportunity to complain to the woman at the front desk that the place is hard to find.
“I was looking for twenty minutes!” he said.
“Yes, sir, it’s not very good,” she said.
He paid and went inside; we did the same.
The Museo de Evolución Humana is housed in a huge building. The best way to describe the museum is that it looks expensive. Lots of money had been spent here. Everything was new and shiny. Indeed, it looks like they had money to spare, since they didn’t use the space efficiently; probably more than half of the volume of the building is totally empty.
The first floor (or floor zero in Europe) is dedicated to the archaeological sites in the Atapuerca Mountains, just a few kilometers away from the museum. The site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site now, is known for being the location of the discovery of the oldest known European hominin fossils, Homo antecessor. The preservation conditions in the caves were excellent so many fossils and tools have been recovered by the archeologists. There was lots of detailed information about the sites and the excavation, but both of us were so tired that we didn’t stand and read all of it.
On this floor there were four raised platforms, the tops of which were covered in a very realistic imitation landscape, with fake trees, shrubs, and grass. These are meant to be the environment of the Atapuerca Mountains. You can walk into the bottom of these platforms, as if walking into the caves; and inside are all sorts of fancy displays, with replicas of bones, tools, and audiovisual presentations. Again, lots of money.
The second floor (European first floor) is dedicated to the theory of evolution. There is some information on Darwin; copies of the first-edition of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, which I found very cool. There is even a replica of half of the HMS Beagle—life-sized!—the ship on which Darwin made his famous voyage around the world, collecting all sorts of data for his as-yet unformulated theory of evolution. You can walk inside the ship, which is decorated to with old-timey stuff to make it look as it would have when Darwin was on board.
Nearby is a timeline of life on earth, from bacteria to fish to reptiles to mammals. Next to that is a larger timeline, arranged in a semicircle, of human evolution. It is complete with replica skulls of hominin fossils, making the gamut from Australopithecines, to Homo erectus, to Neanderthals, and finally to us. But more impressive were the life-sized models of these species, all of them excellently made, quite lifelike. Last, there was a giant bundle of wires, as big as a truck, which was supposed to be a model of the human brain. You could even walk inside, but there wasn’t much to see. It did look expensive, though.
The next level up was about the history of technology. In glass cases were stone tools from different stages of our evolution, ranging from simple choppers to finely crafted arrowheads, as well as replicas of wooden and bone tools. There were projectors playing presentations about cave art, and also a large circular metal contraption that you could enter. We walked inside to find that it was a cartoon presentation on the history of fire, going from the first fires used by our ancestors to interstellar travel. The screen wrapped around the circular space; and there was surround sound, with about five speakers. For the last time, lots of money.
The last floor was a confusing jumble of objects, and then a gift shop. We looked around for a moment, and left. My final assessment of the museum is that they ought to do a lot more with the space they have available, and concentrate more on content and less on wowing their visitors. You don’t need special effects to make science cool; science is already cool, because it makes the world comprehensible. This is not to say that the museum is bad or not worth visiting; there is much to praise. But everything seems designed to impress rather than educate; the space feels ostentatious, not intimate. I think these problems can be remedied.
It was late now, and we had only one more stop: the Taberna Patillas. This was a bar recommended by our host because every night they have free music. We ate a quick dinner of pizza and then huddled into the corner of the bar, drinks in hand, waiting for the music to start. We waited, and waited. The bar gradually filled up. Half an hour went by. I began to lose hope, but then I heard the sound of someone tuning a guitar. I looked, and it was only the bartender playing softly for his own amusement.
As we waited, we took the time to examine the decoration. Every inch of the walls and even the ceilings was covered in old ads, postcards, portraits, posters, photographs, and other paraphernalia—all related to musical performances. There were framed and signed pictures of musicians, and little passport sized photos of men and women. On one wall there was a big painting of the bar itself, with the bartender playing the guitar. Next to it, a guitar hung; and nearby was a mandolin. There were t-shirts, banners, and scarves as well. The place had character.
After forty minutes a group of men walked into the bar and sat down at a table near ours, two of them carrying guitars. All of them were late middle-aged, with graying hair, all wearing collared shirts and sweaters. Everyone around grew quiet and turned their seats to face the men. The two guitarists tuned; then one of the other men stood up. He looked like the oldest of the bunch; he had snow white hair swept back across his head, and an equally white goatee.
The guitarists started playing, running through a few bars. Then the man started to sing. He had a strong voice, almost operatic. When he sung, he held his body in a stiff posture, his shoulders thrown back, his chin raised, gesticulating dramatically with his hands. I don’t remember the song—I hadn’t heard it before—but I really enjoyed it. He finished with a flourish and everyone burst into applause; then he began on another, this one more mellow. One guitarist played rhythm, while the other played little embellishments in-between the singer’s lines. It was fantastic.
After three songs, the singer bowed and made his exit. But the band stayed on. Many of them were also talented singers; and they could sing in harmony. Maybe it was the atmosphere, maybe it was the beer, maybe it’s because I was tired and had seen so much that day, but I thought the music some of the best I’d ever heard. It was so intimate, and so direct. If you find yourself in Burgos, go to Taberna Patillas at about 8:30, and wait.
After about an hour, we left. We were both very tired. I don’t know how long they kept playing, maybe very late indeed. This is Spain, after all.
Our next stop was Logroño. We took a Blablacar there the next morning. The drive from Burgos is about an hour, through some nice countryside. I remember in particular a church that had been carved into the side of a cliff.
For part of the way, we were accompanied by two college-aged girls. I only mention them because they immediately struck me as odd. In Spain, greetings are important. When you get into a car, you often perform all sorts of contortions so you can—like a proper human being!—kiss one another on the cheeks and make introductions. But these girls, who were Spaniards, sat timidly in the corner and gave us nervous smiles. And even though my Spanish was halfway decent by then, I found it impossible to communicate with them. Eventually we stopped in a small, no-name town on the road to Logroño, and they hastily got out without even a word of goodbye. I looked around at the town, which struck me as one of the seemingly identical, featureless towns one drives through on the way to the major cities. Why were they here? Were they running away or something?
“Weird people,” the driver said, as we started driving away. I’m glad I wasn’t the only person to think so.
Anyway, shortly thereafter we were in Logroño. Now, the most popular and, in my opinion, the most delicious wine in Spain is from the Rioja region, and Logroño is its capital. The region is known for its highly drinkable, affordable, and versatile red wines. Our plan was to visit a bodega, which is the Spanish word for winery. (As a side note, I can’t help finding this word funny, since in New York City a bodega is cheap mini-mart. I don’t know why the word signifies such different things.)
That was why we were here—or, rather, why I was here. GF can’t drink wine. Unfortunately for her, GF inherited the recessive genes for alcohol intolerance, which I believe is fairly common among people of Asian descent. As the name suggests, alcohol intolerance is the same sort of thing as lactose intolerance; it is not an allergy—which are due to the immune system—but a genetic lack of a specific enzyme that allows you to break down alcohol. (I’m not a doctor, I’m just a man with an internet connection.) As a result, when GF takes even one tiny sip of alcohol, she gets red in the face, a stuffy nose, an upset stomach, and is overcome with the urge to sleep. It’s a mess.
Our host was out of town, so we were shown in by the host’s mother, a terribly nice woman. She answered all our questions, gave us recommendations, and even made us reservations for a tour at a winery. Specifically, the Campo Viejo winery. But there was one problem. When she left, we realized that she was under the impression that we had a car; the winery was well outside of town, and when I called to ask if it was possible to walk there, the man said “No, no, take a taxi.”
But we were feeling stingy and we didn’t want to pay for a cab. Google Maps said it would take an hour, and that was exactly how much time we had before our tour. So we decided to walk. Our phones soon led us out of the city and into the surroundings countryside. There were no sidewalks, but the roads were mostly empty. We were walking fast, afraid to miss the tour. Soon we came to a fork in the road; our phones told us to go left, but there was a sign for the winery on the road to the right, so we took it. I wondered why Google Maps didn’t tell us to go this way, but then I realized the reason: it was private property. I began to panic, thinking that we were going to get arrested. But there wasn’t anyone around. The road curved up a hill—a sharp turn that was dangerous for us since the cars turning the hill wouldn’t be able to see us. We walked far away from the road.
In just forty minutes we were making our way through rows and rows of grape plants. Or at least I think they were. To my eyes, they looked like stunted trees; don’t grapes grow on vines? In retrospect, it is obvious that the fields looked like this because it was winter. But this was my first (and so far, my only) trip to a vineyard or a winery, and thus nothing made sense.
Finally we arrived, and right on time. The tour began. And unsurprisingly, it was in Spanish. The only things I’ll say about our guide is that, first, he was a welcoming and knowledgeable man; and second, he looked exactly like a winery tour guide.
At a generous estimate, I understood about 20% of the tour. Probably more like 10%. But here’s the outline. To start, he took us outside where he talked about the grapes. Then we went downstairs where he told us about the history of the place. Next he led us into a massive room where hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine were sitting on racks; he had to shout to be heard over the giant fans, which kept the room at a constant temperature, pressure, and humidity. After that, we were shown the factory. On metal platforms suspended twenty feet from the ground, we walked among about forty gigantic metal tanks. He told us about the distillation process, and I understood none of it. But even though I didn’t understand what any of the equipment was for, I think there is something terribly exciting about being around big, shiny, high-tech equipment. I felt like I had stepped into the future, and it smelled like fermented grapes.
The last stop was most impressive of all. A ramp led us down to another massive room at the bottom of the building. Our guide switched on the lights, and suddenly I saw thousands of wooden barrels, all pilled atop one another, stretching out before me like the ocean. Each stack was about ten barrel’s high, and I couldn’t possibly count how many stacks there were. To pick a number out of a hat, there must have been at least 30,000 barrels. It always amazes me that we can develop things like wine-making to the pitch of perfection, an exquisite blend of science and art, and yet we cannot solve problems like poverty. I suppose there’s more profit in the former.
Finally it was time for the tasting. Our group gathered around the bar, and the guide began pouring out classes of white wine. He tried to talk us through the process to properly taste wine, but I had downed my glass before he’d even started. We tried two different reds after that, both excellent. And I had it good, because I got to drink GF’s wine too. I liked everything, but I don’t know a thing about wine; it all tastes pleasant but rather similar to me. Case in point: the thing I remember most fondly from the tasting was not the wine, but the free chorizo and bread sticks that I munched on ravenously.
Best of all, we didn’t even have to walk back. There was a nice Spanish couple from Burgos on our tour, and one of them was very excited by the opportunity to practice his English with us. He spent the whole tasting chatting with us; and when we finished, he offered to give us a ride back to town.
“Do you trust me?” he said, as we climbed into his car. Normally this kind of comment would send chills running down my spine; but in the mouth of a non-native speaker, it seemed nice and innocent.
Well, we survived. In just ten minutes we were back in town. Since we didn’t have any plans beyond our wine tasting, we decided to kill time before dinner by visiting all the chuech buildings in town. Logroño is situated along the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route that runs along the north of Spain. This route is clearly marked with the classic cockle shell insignia; and even though it was cold and off-season, we saw a handful of dutiful souls, wearing blue rain jackets and lugging around giant backpacks, making their way through the town.
My recollections of these church buildings are somewhat vague now. None of them is impressive on its own, especially after the Burgos Cathedral. But taken together, the churches of Logroño are quite lovely. We went to four or five in quick succession. I remember one church with an attractive arched doorway. The inside was empty, except for a lonely priest sitting in the confessional booth; and in the cold silence of that stone building, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the lonely priest, waiting for a congregation that seldom comes.
In another church, a young man was practicing the organ; it was an impressive sound, even if the playing itself wasn’t impressive. After that we went to the Iglesia de Santiago del Real, one of the largest churches; and as we wandered through the entire, examining the chapels and altars, a man came in, kneeled down on a pew, and prayed. Three minutes later he got up and left, the thud of the heavy wooden door echoing ominously through the cave-like interior.
“I wonder what it’s like to be a catholic in one of these places,” GF said. “Does it add to the experience?”
“Shut up,” I said.
I had been wondering the same thing. For the two of us, all the altars, chapels, and architecture of Catholicism are simply art; our appreciation is purely aesthetic. It must be a different thing completely to look upon the giant crucifixes in the stone buildings, and see the Truth of the Universe. Sometimes I feel sad that these stronger, more spiritual pleasures are cut off from me. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out on something really great by being completely secular. But so it goes.
Last we went to the cathedral. We weren’t able to look around, however, because there was a wedding being held. When we peeped in, the groom and the bride were kneeling before the altar while loud organ music was playing. The priest was standing nearby. Catholicism may be fading here, but it’s certainly not dead.
Finally it was time for dinner. Our plan we to eat on the Calle Laurel, the famous street for food in Logroño. The street is so narrow and so full of people during meal times that no car could make it through. Restaurant after restaurant is packed into the small stretch of street; and in each restaurant you can see plate after plate lined up on the bar, waiting for you to partake. Many of these dishes are ostentatious in their presentation: meatballs are served in a wine glass, covered in a bright red sauce; ham is suspended like a flag on a ship from toothpicks sticking out of the top of a croquette.
To avoid the crowd, we got to the street a bit early (7:30), picked a restaurant, and dove in. We ordered whatever caught our eye. But to my dismay, as soon as I chose a dish the waiter took it and stuck it in the microwave. I thought it would be made fresh to order. The food was still good, but a bit dry, with bit textureless, and one croquette was still cold in the middle. We went to another bar and got the same treatment; and ditto in a third bar after that. All told, we samples six different bars before calling it quits, most of the food only moderately good. But thankfully we saved the best for last. To finish we walked into a bar that served only mushrooms. They are the simplest things in the world, cooked in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt; and they are delicious. If you’re in Logroño, find the restaurant with the grill filled with mushrooms and dig in; it’s cheap, relatively healthy, and scrumptious.
We ate our fill and went home. The next morning we took a Blablacar back to Madrid, riding with a couple of guys from Senegal; they both worked in a meat factory in Cuenca. One of them slept the whole time, but the driver was a sociable fellow and we talked in accented Spanish the whole way back.