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Early Foundations of a Pilgrim Town

In the center of Celtiberian territory, Romans seem to have been the first settle in Burgos where they built a small, fortified settlement on the hill.

Burgos’ next human occupation was as a cluster of 9th century villages on the frontier between Muslim and Christian Spain. These huddled around a protective central castle, forming a burg, where Burgos derives its name.

Through the 10th and 11th centuries Burgos grew into an important political center and a popular stop for pilgrims, both for its monasteries and churches with shrines and relics to visit but also for its excellent infrastructure to house and feed pilgrims.

With the creation of the first independent territory of Castile under its first count, Fernán González, Burgos became Castile’s capital in the 10th century capital. The town rose further in importance in the 11th century as the capital of the unified kingdoms of Castile and León. It remained the capital until the seat of power was moved to Toledo in 1085. Burgos has remained a powerful political and economic center.

Resting place of El Cid and his beloved Jiména

Burgos is also the home of El Cid, born Rodrigo Diaz.

Diaz was a mixed character, not the heroic knight he has been cast in poetry, song, and story. Being the seat of so much power and money over the centuries, Burgos has a distinctly bourgeoisie mood, even if it is also a warm and welcoming city today. As such, I find the real Rodrigo Diaz is a good counterbalance.  He later became known as El Cid—an Arabic name of honor conferred on him by both his allies and enemies in both Muslim and Christian Spain. Al-sid, means Señor, Sir, or Lord.

In the 11th century Diaz went off to fight for both Muslims and Christians, depending on who paid his way and favored him at the moment. It was thanks to an epic poem and the passage of time that we remember El Cid less as the opportunist and more as the romantic mercenary knight of medieval Spain.

(Just as we cast Roland as Charlemagne’s nephew who fell to Muslim attackers in Roncesvalles, when he was actually a Breton Count in Charlemagne’s army and attacked by Basques who probably asked Muslim allies to help rid their land of the imperialistic Franks.)

El Cid’s statue fills up the center of the square in Burgos named after him where he is seen at his most romantic, mounted on his mighty horse and holding his sword, called Tizona, where nearby on the Puente de San Pablo right in front of him stands his beloved wife, Jiména, the first stone sculpture in a procession of other stone personalities who line the rest of the bridge. They all were El Cid’s contemporaries and defined 11th century Burgos.

Given the wealth and political ambition showered upon this early Castilian capital, Burgos is full of sacred monuments, such as the churches of San Nicolás de Barí, San Esteban, and San Gil, and the Miraflores and the Huelgas monasteries, but none compares to the complex, many-layered Gothic cathedral.

One other place compares for spiritual focus, one that by contrast is quite small, quiet, humble, yet still beautiful. That is the Church of Santa Clara located across the Arlanzón River from the cathedral.

Spain’s three largest cathedrals are in Seville, Toledo, and Burgos. Five centuries—from the 13th to the 18th—went into building the one in Burgos. It is both grand and complex, layered in religious, esoteric, and political imagery.

El Cid and his wife Jiména’s tombs lay beneath the stones at the transept. Few un-sainted mortals receive such a place of honor and fewer still in one of Europe’s most powerful cathedrals. (The only other place like this on the Camino is at Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral with Saint James’ tomb under the transept.) Both certainly rode fierce and devoted horses. Both had amazing swords. Both had booming voices and matching tempers when struck with injustice. (Noted in the Gospels, Jesus called Saint James the Greater and his brother John the Apostle, the ‘sons of thunder’ for this reason.)

But there the similarity ends. El Cid fought for the Muslim kings as well as for the Christian. El Cid performed no miracles; all his amazing exploits in battle arose from sheer cojones and chutzpah. But in the end, he was the hero Castile needed to march forward in its frenzied vision of a unified Spain, and there, El Cid fit the boots.

After such an immense site of both sacred and political power, consider a walk across the river to the church of Santa Clara. This smaller, more intimate space is perfect for engaging the purer work of the spirit in simple meditation. In Santa Clara this is possible through the daily prayer cycle of the Clarist nuns. Their church is connected next door to the Clarist convent.

Santa Clara sits at the crossroads of the streets Calle Ramón y Cajal and Calle Santa Clara. The street level has risen above the original 14th century stones at the entrance, giving the appearance that they have sunken. Step down and through the small Gothic archway and enter a rounded, candle-lit nave.

The iron grill in back serves as a barrier to the private space where the cloistered nuns enter and pray, but neighborhood locals and visitors alike are welcome to use the front space near the altar.  The small interior offers a rare experience of usually grandiose Gothic architecture applied instead to an intimate and more human-scaled space.

The Camino continues through Hornillos del Camino, Hontanas, and the monastery ruins of San Antón to Castrojeríz.

At A Glance


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