Best-known for its mild white cheese and Ribera del Duero wines, Burgos has plenty more tasty morsels in store for the visitor – the most striking of which is arguably the spectacular Gothic cathedral, a masterpiece of architectural design that draws in crowds from all around the globe. Its majestic spires tower above one of Spain’s cleanest, most attractive and best-preserved cities – a city that is at once progressive and forward-thinking but with one foot firmly rooted in its splendid past.
Wrapped up within gentle green hills, cornfields and a vast expanse of unspoilt countryside littered with hidden hamlets, isolated villages and northern Spain’s ubiquitous dairy farms, Burgos is an island of stunning artwork, sweeping boulevards and elegant plazas.
This beautiful provincial capital lies to the north of Castilla y León, a huge but sparsely-populated region that breaks up the sharp contrasts of the dry, red meseta and the emerald mountains of bordering Cantabria.
Burgos is the epitome of classical Spain, outshining even the nearby and equally-renowned Salamanca, the ‘Oxford’ of Spain, for its intricate architectural detail – making it the ideal destination for culture vultures seeking to get away for the weekend and explore more of the country’s hidden treasures.
Burgos Cathedral: artistic splendour
Visible from almost anywhere in the city centre, an overwhelmingly intricate display of Gothic architecture that puts Notre Dame in the shade, it is easy to see why it took more than 500 years to build Burgos Cathedral, the third-largest in Spain.
No detail has been spared in the painstakingly-sculpted exterior of this powerful, uniquely-beautiful and imposing temple, the first stone of which was laid by King Fernando III of Castilla in 1221.
Most of the basic structure was built in the 13th century but the final touches were not added until the 1790s.
The main door at the front is adorned with a six-point rosette topped with a gallery bearing the sculptures of eight Spanish monarchs, a design typical of cathedrals in France and in fact inspired by the one in Reims.
The much larger Puerta del Sarmental, next to the ticket office, is reached by climbing a long, sweeping staircase at the top of which is a sculpture of Jesus with the apostles writing at their pulpits.
If you were knocked sideways by the stunning exterior, be prepared to be completely bowled over once you walk inside. The artistic splendour reminds the visitor that those who commissioned these works were not short of money and were keen to make sure their wealth and status were on display to all.
Painting and sculpture styles change face throughout the building, a mark of the many centuries that the cathedral’s construction spanned.
The first room that the trip leads you to is the Capilla de la Visitación, where signs of the talent of Renaissance artists is clearly displayed. A marble sculpture of the prostrate figure of the Bishop of Cartagena appears almost lifelike in its detail.
Along their travels, visitors will be overawed by the enormity of the solid-gold main altar, the flamboyant Baroque detail of the domed ceiling in the Santa Tecla chapel, the intricacy of the Gothic and Neo-Gothic nave central, the colourful religious imagery, and the attractive 16th-century gilded stairway (Escalera Dorada), a masterpiece of the purest Italian Renaissance style.
After seeing the 30 or so rooms that the cathedral is divided into, the trip takes you to the cathedral museum, four chapels that house relics such as golden chalices, crosses, tapestries and paintings collected or donated over the last eight hundred years.
A veritable shrine to bishops, archbishops and canons, a rogues’ gallery of the entire Diocese of Burgos throughout the ages is exhibited in the Santa Catalina chapel, part of the museum, which also holds a couple of belenes, or Nativity scenes.
Burgos’s pride and joy, the cathedral became a UNESCO heritage site in 1984 and is enough to put Burgos on the world tourism map on its own, even without the help of the city’s other spectacular monuments, plazas, bridges and peaceful riverbank walks.
Walking in the pilgrims’ footsteps
Burgos’s location on the well-trodden pathway to Santiago de Compostela, the ancient cathedral city that to this day brings thousands of pilgrims to its doors, together with its buoyant wool trade, helped its economy take off in the Middle Ages and the wealth of elegant monuments is testimony to this.
Many of these are scattered throughout the city’s numerous parks and gardens, which lie on the banks of the river Arlanzón.
Parque de la Isla is ideal for strolling around in spring or autumn, watching the leaves change colour and taking in the Castilfalé arches and the impressive 12th-century Romanesque portal.
Near the cathedral, the mediaeval turreted Arco de Santa María leads onto the Paseo del Espolón, a tree-lined avenue that runs alongside the riverbank and a neatly-tended garden with yew-trees carved into various animal shapes.
The Paseo ends at the Plaza del Mío Cid, home to the Teatro Principal and the 1950s sculpture of the hero Burgos shares with Valencia. El Cid Campeador, born Rodrigo Díaz in Vivar in 1043, became a legendary figure when he fought alongside the Moors who then occupied most of Spain.
Switching camps at the age of 49, he conquered Valencia on behalf of the Christians and became a governor of the city until his death.
Díaz’s nickname, given to him by the Moors, came from the Arabic sidi, meaning ‘lord’, and although he lived out his post-conquest days in Valencia, his body lies in Burgos Cathedral along with that of his wife Jimena.
A little further afield
While the city of Burgos is crammed with so many fascinating sights that the visitor is sure to run out of time, it is worth pacing yourself and heading a few kilometres out into the province to see more of its countryside and enjoy the gentle pace of life in its unspoilt villages.
Like the provincial capital, the small, rural towns are beautifully-kept, clean and well-preserved, a credit to their proud inhabitants.
Wine-lovers will instantly recognise La Ribera del Duero - 80 kilometres south of the capital, this picturesque district not only lives off its extensive vineyards but worships them, too. In its capital, Aranda del Duero, a sanctuary is dedicated to the town’s patron saint, the Virgen de las Viñas (virgin of the vineyard), and the nearby town of La Vid – literally, ‘the vine’ – has a monastery dedicated to Santa María de la Vid.
East of Burgos is the Cañón del Río Lobos nature reserve, with its imposing mountains falling to a verdant, densely-forested valley and the 10th century village of Salas de los Infantes which, despite its diminutive size, is heavily-visited because of its dinosaur museum.
The museum houses artefacts from dinosaur days through to Roman times, including reconstructed scenes of everyday life from the earliest Stone Age civilisations onwards, and models of hatching dinosaur eggs together with real dinosaur bones and teeth.
Rich in history and splendid architecture and surrounded by stunning, ever-changing countryside, Burgos is, quite simply, a work of art.