I was told that the Castilla y Leon Region is not normally the ideal place to visit on a first trip to Spain. However, after discovering the romance in the region, as well as getting to know the people, I can only say I beg to differ.
Arriving in Madrid, I made my way to the Castilla y Leon region discovering that it makes up about one-fifth of the entire country. The cities and towns I visited were Burgos, Salamanca, Segovia, Valladolid and Zamora, each as unique and charming as the locals living in them.
First Stop Burgos
I first arrived in Burgos in the afternoon and was treated to a city tour by a guide who was not only pregnant, but expecting her baby any day. By the end of my trip she had phoned to say she had a baby girl. We suggested she take a few days off before going back to work.
What continued to astound me during my entire time in Spain was the history in this particular region, both rich and pure and not at all what I had presumed about the country. In Burgos we began our tour at the Arch of Santa Maria, one of the twelve gates of the wall of the medieval city. Built in the 16th century, it was new compared to what lay inside the walls. The Cathedral in Burgos suggests an opulence not found in Catholic churches for many centuries. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site the first stone of the temple was laid on top of an ancient Romanesque church in 1221.
Upon entering the cathedral, I walked through the Royal Door or Door of Pardon and was immediately struck by an open facade bespeaking centuries of history. The ground plan of the cathedral is a Latin cross surrounded by 19 chapels, the vestry and a 13th century cloister. Tombs, paintings and statues adorned the individual chapels leaving me mesmerized by the simple, peaceful images of those that played an ever-so-small role in the identity of the Cathedral throughout time.
The people in Burgos are neither hurried nor slow moving. I sensed everyone going about their business. I quickly learned to look forward to daily lunch and siesta, a time when shops close and families and friends enjoy each other’s company.
A short drive from the center of Burgos I found myself at the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardena, a 9th century abbey currently inhabited by Trappist Monks. After visiting the El Cid chapel where a series of panels by Juan de Juanes and Ribera still exist, I took a turn quite out of character and bought a rosary, still smelling of roses now a month later. It’s a small reminder of the charm that I found in a town so steeped in history.
Next Stop Vallodolid
We had been told that the Castilla y Leon region could be a bit wet during spring. It was in Vallodolid we found that to be true. Opting for a walking tour, we finally made peace with the car observing the rather cosmopolitan city through the window protecting us from the downpour outside.
Vallodolid was a small farming village until 1074 when a prominent count was granted a lordship here. Several centuries later another grand occasion marked Vallodolid’s name in history as two Catholic monarchs wed in the palace of Vivero followed by the birth of Philip II.
Whatever the Vallodolid appeal was that I found, Don Quixote enjoyed it, too. He wrote the first part of his book in this town. He must have discovered that same history and charm that I experienced as I observed the busy streets and ancient churches.
Zamora was not Won in a Day
Tiny streets, drops of rain, and churches with history going back to the Knights Templar, Zamora was one of my favorite stops along the road. Described to me as a variable Romanesque museum, this small town of 64,421 people holds the motto “Zamora was not won in a day.”
I got a real feel for the past at the Traitor’s Gate, an old entrance to the town. There are also the remains of a castle built from Arab construction, still complete with tower, gate, and moat.
Weekend in Salamanca
I stayed in a robust part of Salamanca and, on a weekend no less. It goes without saying that the people of Salamanca do know how to stay awake and party. For a quiet, romantic getaway, it’s best to stay somewhere away from the city center.
My first historical stop was the public university built in the 13th century. The doors are still open today with rich narrative and design bespeaking the annals of the region. While visiting the university, there was a particular classroom and story that made an impression on me, not only about the people, but also about the beliefs that have come and gone throughout the ages.
In the early 16th century, Fray Luis DeLeon taught Theology at the University. During this time he translated the Bible into Spanish. Because of his translation, the Spanish Inquisition imprisoned him. He spent five years locked away. When he was released he immediately returned to his classroom, again to teach Theology – his first words to his class being “Como deciamos ayer, which translated means “As we said yesterday.” It was his way of saying that his five years of imprisonment had gone by, but his ideas concerning his Biblical translation had not changed. The marker outside the wall of his classroom repeats his stoic words and a statue of Fray Luis DeLeon commands the courtyard.
Salamanca was designated as the European City of 2002. Rightly so as it is very walkable and welcoming to tourists. Striking me with awe was the historical significance of the city’s two cathedrals. The new cathedral was completed in 1733, however the old cathedral, connected to the new one, predates that by many centuries.
The main square in Salamanca was a short walk from my hotel. The square is built in an 18th century, Baroque style, the town hall being the dominant feature surrounded by restaurants and shops offering both locals and tourists a place to enjoy the afternoon.
On my first day in Salamanca, I broke from routine and found a pizza place off the main tourist street. I was craving food from home, and sure enough I was not disappointed. Imagine, a good pizza in Salamanca, Spain. The guides were right to be proud of their home.
Last Stop Segovia
Before leaving Spain I spent one more night in the Castilla y Leon region, this time in the town of Segovia.
A beautiful town with old Roman aqueducts, I was immediately reminded of the ones I had seen in Rome. Built in the 1st century, the aqueduct was meant to carry water to the upper part of the city. The Segovia’s aqueduct is considered one of the most well preserved monuments of Imperial Rome. It is so important, in fact, that Segovia was named part of the Heritage of Mankind in 1985.
There is more to the city than just this one attraction. I found myself winding up streets and turning down back alleys leading to hidden and long-closed doorways. Making my way back into the sun, I immediately saw the Cathedral, brilliant, built in the 16th century and standing as the last Gothic architectural monument to be completed in Spain.
I also did a quick tour through the Alcazar of Segovia. The Middle Ages saw the Alcazar as a favorite home to the monarchs of Castile and it was from here that Isabel left in 1474 to be proclaimed queen. Because of the Alcazar, Segovia has often been referred to as the Stone Ship. The profile of the Alcazar castle sitting atop the rocks and seen from a distance reminds the approaching visitor of a prow of a ship, while the Cathedral tower resembles the mast.
It’s hard to explain the romance of the Castilla y Leon region; the history, the solitude, the many churches and, certainly the people, make this a place where love is in the air. It’s certainly true as well that a nightly stop at one of the Spanish paradors will enhance the experience. Parador is translated as “stopping place”. I ended up spending almost every night at a different, and, might I say unique, one.
The Spanish government oversees the paradors, which include about 80 in the country. The concept has been to rehabilitate old castles, mansions, monasteries and historic buildings. Most of the paradors are located in scenic areas and reproduce the characteristic style of the region in which they belong.
Paradors along my pilgrimage path in Castilla y Leon
Parador Nacional De Turismo De Lerma
Plaza Mayor, 1
Parador Nacional De Tordesillas
CRTA Salamanca, 5
Parador Nacional De Segovia
CRTA De Valladolid, S/N
How to get there
The national airline of Spain is Iberia, but American-run airlines fly into Spain as well. I flew from New York to Madrid and from there used an automobile to visit the Castilla y Leon region.
Rita Cook lives in Los Angeles and is the editor of Premier Bride magazine. She also has a romance novel coming out this winter called “Angel’s Destiny”.
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