Castilla y León

by Don Harris | January 2010

We find the most accessible Castilian city for the international tourist is Segovia, not far north of Madrid. It sports a dramatic Roman aqueduct, a fairy tale castle to which we have taken our kids many times, and a cathedral with a wonderful organ and proud, horizontal organ pipes jutting out ready to bathe the area with rich sound. However, speaking of rich, Segovia is where, over the years, we have spent many an hour savoring luscious roast suckling pig and lamb. Segovia also has a precious collection of Romanesque church architecture.

A personal favorite of ours in this region is the sweet, melancholy medieval city of Soria. It is a mythical town, a poet’s town, where it is satisfying to linger under the trees, along the cobblestone streets, and by the small Romanesque churches. 

The other favorite of ours is León, with her simple and pure Gothic cathedral — a house of stunning stained glass. Adjoining it is the Basilica of San Isidoro, a place to which we return repeatedly. There we duck our heads and enter the royal pantheon of twenty-three kings and assorted royalty. The Romanesque frescoes, which cover the walls, are priceless, rivaling the painted churches of Romania. 

There is so much more to the autonomous region of Castilla and León. We remember approaching the dramatically walled city of Ávila with almost a sense of awe. So much history has occurred within her walls; perhaps the most significant is the monastery where Santa Teresa initiated her sweeping spiritual reforms. In conjunction with her confessor, San Juan de la Cruz, she revolutionized the life of the Church from her time forward. It is a small city now, a little off the beaten track and therefore quite enjoyable.

Further off the beaten track is the venerable Zamora and her neighboring city, Toro, which boasts a splendid Romanesque church—one of the most architecturally pure—and several substantial red and white wines that are now getting their due.

In the midst of the old city is a plaza devoted to the Lusitanian Homeric hero Virianthus, who repelled Roman attacks on Zamora a dozen times between 147 and 139 BC before being betrayed.

Zamora’s heavy fortifications are amazing. They were built in response to many ferocious confrontations between the Muslims and Christians. After the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Asturias in 723, the settlement was a strategic site and control regularly shifted from the early 8th century through the late 11th century.

During the 12th century, the city was extraordinarily important for its strategic position in the wars between the Kingdom of León and the Arabs to conquer the Iberian Peninsula. As a result, the city preserves many churches and buildings from that time. Zamora, with its twenty-four Romanesque churches, has more than any other city in all of Europe. The city is more than a museum, however; its Semana Santa processions are among the most profound in Spain. Next to Zamora is the historic city of Valladolid, which has a magnificent museum filled with Semana Santa processional platforms with their dramatic woodcarvings, mostly from the 17th century.

Just south of Valladolid is another amazing city—Salamanca, home of one of the first universities in Europe. Today it is the site of many language schools, since the Castilian language spoken here is purported to be the most pure in Spain. Nearby is the Dehesa, the medieval forest meadows where the fabled Iberian pigs are raised.

For extreme contrast, one can head north to Burgos, which boasts one of the most extravagant late Gothic churches in the world. Built over a period of several centuries, it is an amalgam of many Gothic styles. The result is breathtaking—especially the many slim flying buttresses. Down the road in the meadows is Monasterio de San Miguel Escalada, a fascinating Mozarabic structure built in 913 AD. In the other direction, 2 miles from the walls of Burgos, is the looming Real Monasterio de Santa María de las Huelgas. It was run by a very powerful series of abbesses and was also the site of the marriage of Edward I of England and Eleanor of Castile.

There is so much more to this, the heart of historical Spain—Romans, Lusitanians, Moors, Christians, warring princes and princesses, the knight El Cid, wine, roast meat, and art galore.

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