Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Day 4. Burgos

Burgos is a beautiful city, built at the confluence of two streams (the main one being the Arlanzón River). One of them provides the city with a set of scenic pools, crisscrossed by bridges, whereas the Arlanzón is a green corridor much favored by couples in love and energetic power walkers. These innocent-looking streams carry some punch, however, and in the last 100 years have jumped their banks a couple of times and flooded downtown Burgos under several feet of water.

Today we became official pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago. We got our pilgrim passport, and have now the right to bear the cockle shell that distinguishes those embarking in this trip of faith. I didn’t know this, but after Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela is the third main site of pilgrimage in Christendom, so we feel honored and humbled to be part of this sacred tradition.

After being anointed we spent the day visiting Burgos, which we found to be a beautiful and charming city that manages to blend, in an extraordinary way, architecture and traditions that go back to the Middle Ages with bold modern architecture and a lively lifestyle. I have crossed many dreadful Spanish cities, where all you see are drab high rises, so I was delighted to see that Burgos is noting of the sort. Places of note are the gothic cathedral, the statue and memorials to El Cid, the fortress, the promenade by the river, the university, and the Museum of Human Evolution.

Most of the cathedral space is open to tourists and has been tastefully arranged as a museum of the XV and XVI centuries. We were fascinated by the masterpieces in painting and sculpture, but then again that is true for many of the beautiful churches and monasteries sprinkled throughout the city. The place of honor in the main nave is the burial of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, best known as El Cid, and his wife Ximena. I read the saga of El Cid when I was in junior high, just like any other Mexican student, and I was not sure if it was fact or fiction. I must confess I remember little and will have to read it again, but I vaguely remember he was lord of a small state, that he helped consolidate the kingdom of Castile, and that he extracted a solemn promise of good rule from the first Castilian king (something like the agreement of King John to Magna Carta in England).

We had a fabulous lunch, I of a mushroom omelet followed by morcilla (a piquant blood and rice sausage that is the specialty of the city), and Raúl of spaghetti followed by cod fish in a parsley sauce.

After a walk around the fortress (which we could not visit because it is only open on weekends) and magnificent views of the city, we headed toward the university. Here again the Burgaleses have accomplished a tasteful blend of old and new, with the core of the complex being a XVI century hospital that has been beautifully renovated. Funny thing, however, is that the whole university was deserted. After much walking we finally found a guy enjoying a cigarette break outside of the library and we asked him why no one was there. “It is Friday. Nobody comes to school on Friday.” I am sure my students would think this an extremely civilized costume!

Raúl had to attend to some of his business via the internet, so we parted ways and I went for a long, long bike stroll along the Arlanzón River and all the way to the Aguas Blancas forest east of the city. This is the equivalent to Chapultepec in Mexico or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Since the day had been beautiful and sunny, and the afternoon was no less balmy and gorgeous, the Burgaleses were out there en masse, doing what people around the world do when the winter comes to an end and the first sunny weekend finally sets in.

Much relaxed I biked back to town to visit the Museum of Human Evolution. It was one of the finest pieces of museography I have seen in a long time. First there was a very clear explanation of the geomorphology of the surrounding area, which is dominated by a limestone substrate and thus has well developed karstic topography. There are sink holes, caves with extensive horizontal galleries, and caves with deep and sharp vertical drops. Sometime in the 1950’s a cut made for the passage of a train sliced through the clay-filled core of one of these caves, and exposed archeaologic layers filled with human remains. To name but two of the main discoveries, in one of the caves, at a level that must have formed between 1,000,000 and 800,000 years ago, archeologists found a mandible of Homo heidelbergensis, which is the oldest human fossil in Europe, and which pushed back the migration of hominids from Africa into Europe. The second find was a steep pit which apparently had been used by Homo nenaderthalensis for the disposal of their dead 500,000 years ago. They seem to have used little ceremony in disposing of the bodies, simply hurling them down the chasm. A bear would fall in from time to time, no doubt attracted by the stench of rotting flesh. The find is significant because from it they recovered a 95% intact skull. The area where all these discoveries were done is called Atapuerca (and in fact we drove through it yesterday without recognizing its significance), and is in all respect as amazing as the caves of Starkfontein in South Africa, or Chokotiuen in China.

The day finally concluded with another fine meal of paella and rabbit stew, this time generously irrigated with a bottle of fine Rioja. It is a hard life, but someone has to live it!

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