Camino Day 13 – Burgos

We have the whole day to spend in Burgos, the first day without serious walking since we began.  We start with a visit to the Cathedral, and end up spending three hours there. It’s beautiful, it’s overwhelming, we are sedated by our audioguides. We see Brian and Mary the old Canadians and they are rushing through.  We see an organist enter one of the side organs and listen for a while after he begins playing. I take photos of weird monsters and bizarre grotesqueries, like the painting of a devil cutting off a martyr’s boob, and a carving of a devil-man with a tail and a face in his torso in a scene dedicated to Santa Casilda. The doll above the clock, whose bizarre openmouthed grin has earned him the nickname of the flycatcher, Papamoscas.

The Cathedral is so stuffed with art that it’s difficult to take it all in. We learn a bit about the saints, many of whom have pilgrimage connections, as we do. We stop by a gruesome oil painting of a woman getting her breast lopped off by a devil, and learn that Saint Agatha was tortured and killed by a heathen Roman ruler who initially wanted to marry her. She had dedicated her virginity to god, and refused his advances, and the ruler turned his attention to vengeance and torture. Perversely, Catholics revere her as the patron of breast cancer patients. It’s a pattern among the saints, whose guidance is sought on matters more closely related to their gruesome deaths than the lives they led. Saint Batholomew, who was flayed alive, was worshipped as the patron saint of tanners, for example. And what does Bartholomew know about tanning?  His experience with flaying was probably not conducive to careful learning the craft. During his exposure to the technique, the poor saint was probably not paying close attention, distracted by incredible pain and likely making an effort to think about literally anything else other than the specific techniques used by his torturers and murderers.  The story was similar with Saint Lorenzo, baked alive, and forced to hear the prayers of cooks wondering whether the roast was properly done.  The list goes on and on. Forcing the saints, in their immortality, to constantly be reminded of their deaths and martyrdom, the worst moments of their short brutal lives, seems pretty callous to me.

We see a lot of images of San Roque and his dog, with what seems to be a frisbee in his mouth. Finally, I think. A light-hearted saint who just wants to play outside with his loving pooch.  It turns out that the disc in the dog’s mouth is not the world’s first frisbee, but bread that he carried to the saint when he was starving in the wilderness.

The art raises a lot of less-immediately-answerable questions as well. Why does Santa Catalina stand on a man’s head?  What’s with the weird devil who has a face in the torso, near the chapel of Santa Casilda? Who thought it was a good idea to paint over some, but not all of the sculptural adornments, making some of the statuary look cheap and two-dimensional? Who are those weird warrior men whose bodies are covered in hair?

We admire many other pieces that we barely have time to wonder about. The wooden carved door showing sinners in the mouth of a dragon. El Cid’s resting place, under a grand dome. A lonely cherub, cradling a skull. Griffin heraldry, in statues and wooden carvings. A pilgrim version of Saint James kneeling dramatically, hand over heart. A pilgrim version of Mary, with the shell on her crown, and the dagger/cross of saint james on her dress. Magnificent gilded altars with backdrops that stretch to the high ceilings. The lid of a bishop’s stone coffin, carved with a likeness of the deceased that was so vivid that the sculptors painstakingly carved elbaorate floral patterns into his robs and the pillow where he’d rested his head. A statute of a beheaded saint, labeled S. Victores, holding his own head in his hands like you see sometimes in Halloween costumes. I note another “cannibal Mary” for my collection – I’m always amused to see statues of the Mother and Child where the child’s head is incongruously missing. There’s a guilt-ridden example in NYC’s Cloisters museum, which sparked my theory that the mother is eating the baby like an oversized chocolate bunny or something.

We buy harmonicas but we are shocked by the prices. I end up spending 46 euro and Dorcinda spends 39. Both are Suzukis, and hers is heavy where mine is light and bright-toned. The woman at the shop, once she got rid of a customer with an obscenely crying baby, laid out a large selection of German and Japanese harmonicas for us. It was either pay up, or get a Chinese-made harmonica for 12 euro and the shopkeeper’s eternal disdain.

She was patient with our questions in halting Spanish, and she beamed when we told her we were on pilgrimage. She’d done it years ago with her kids when they were aged 7 and 8, and it was a highlight of her life. People are more human on the Camino, she told us, and I agreed. She told us she sells a lot of harmonicas and ukuleles to pilgrims these days.

We took a tourist train for 4.60 apiece. It’s a huge mistake – we’d forgotten how many of the streets were cobblestone. It’s a spinal stress fracture or broken tailbone waiting to happen. Also, the information comes in spanish, then french, then English, so by the time it gets around to saying “on your right, you’ll see…” the landmark its discussing has long since passed us by. I start giving Dorcinda a heads up from the Spanish so she doesn’t miss everything.

After the tour, we go up into a museum in an arched gate in the town walls. There’s a room dedicated to El Cid, which claims to hold his left radius arm bone.

The day has passed us pretty quickly, so we decide we don’t have time for the Evolution museum, or the monastery of huelgas. I go for the book museum which is close, cheap, and doesn’t seem like it will take too long.

While Dorcinda was visiting yet another church in Burgos, I stopped to check out a book museum. I saw that they had a reduced price for desempleados, and explained that I was unemployed in the US, if that counted. The woman selling tickets said, in English, and with a bit too much conviction for my liking, “I believe you.” A little embarrassed by her certainty, I explained that I was unemployed because I was on pilgrimage, and was pleased to learn that pilgrims got in for free. I learned a bit about the process of making vellum from sheepskin, the competition among monks for scribe work (which exempted them from manual labor) and early printing processes. They had a few originals on loan and a lot of replicas of famous old books, including a Guttenberg bible, early Encyclopedias, and those funny maps where people drew Europe in the former of a reclining woman or Asia in the former of a horse. Relevant to this trip, they had a replica of the Codex Calixtinus, the first pilgrim travelogue and a collection of official prayers and stories relevant to St. James, and a book on the Order of St James, which was devoted to defending the pilgrimage route. There were some great illuminated manuscripts and odd bestiaries as well.

We met Steve for dinner at Morito, and enjoyed some great tapas. We’re joined by Zoltan, who doesn’t eat much since he was sick earlier that day. The barmaid yells out my name with each plate that’s ready. And she yells with gusto back to the kitchen when a new order comes in. When we leave, she yells out a goodbye. It’s pretty great.

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