For a lot of people, the word ‘Burgos’ is inextricably linked with the Word ‘cathedral’. When I first moved to the northern Spanish city, the first question almost all of the locals I met asked me was ‘Have you seen the cathedral yet?’ Considering its colossal size in relation to the rest of the buildings in the comfortably-sized city it would be quite surprising if I hadn’t seen it, its uppermost tower-tops being visible for miles around. However, despite deserving its role as pride and joy of the locals, the mighty catedral is by no means Burgos’ sole attraction.
In fact, for those of us who love to feel at one with nature Burgos’ main appeal lies not at its centre but at its eastern and western peripheries. Located in the region of Castilla y León, the city is roughly halfway between Madrid and Bilbao, but walkers are more likely to see it as being just over a third of the way from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. For those undertaking the world-famous Camino de Santiago, the city will be among the more intriguing places to stop for respite. For those of us lucky enough to have lived in Burgos, the nearby sections of the walking route can become a quick-and-easy gateway into paradise.
What can a marked path such as El Camino give a city, other than multitudes of backpack-laden tourists and a trail of shells and yellow arrows painted all over the roads, trees and signposts? Well, for avid walkers, runners and cyclists – all of which are aplenty in this area – the benefits cannot be understated. On many a weekend morning I was out clocking up some miles along the superbly laid out trail, and the variety of people taking advantage of it never failed to delight me. Regardless of the time of year I would inevitably encounter fellow runners exercising on their regular circuit, cheerful walkers lugging their backpacks in the direction of Galicia and cyclists of both types. And whether the passing party consisted of lycra-clad bikers hauling a month’s worth of clothing on their backs or a couple walking the dog, the same contented greeting of ‘Buen Camino!’ would be uttered.
As well as my regular runs on the trail, both of a solo nature and with Tragaleguas, the athletics club I became such an enthusiastic member of, I also availed of the opportunity to do complete stages of the Camino on three occasions. The first, using my somewhat unfit-for-the-purpose bike, saw me travel against the yellow arrows to the previous stopping point, a tiny village called San Juan de Ortega. Once passed the long straight section entering (or in my case, leaving) the city past a series of industrial buildings I suddenly realised just how remote some of Burgos province was, passing through fields and across muddy tracks which my unimpressive vehicle struggled to overcome. As for San Juan de Ortega itself, its hidden-away feel really gives a sense of having escaped the world for a few hours. My return journey to Burgos city involved a detour to pass through Atapuerca, the site of some highly-lauded archaeological ruins.
Another bike ride in the early stages of the summer brought me in the opposite direction to Hornillos del Camino, a charming village at the bottom of a hill so steep that cycling down it seems a bit on the life-risking side while cycling back up becomes such a struggle that dismounting and walking becomes necessary before reaching the summit. In general though, the trail leaving Burgos to the west is more bike-friendly than the one arriving in from San Juan de Ortega. A highlight of this out-and-back day trip was stopping at a water fountain and becoming involved in a typical Camino-chat with a walker aiming to reach Santiago by the end of the month, giving me a somewhat surreal feeling for a man merely out for a morning cycle.
However, as much as I love the thrill of rushing through the wind on two pedal-powered wheels, an Easter holiday experience with my parents was enough to show that the real way to experience the magic of El Camino de Santiago is on foot. With the two of them having flown over from Ireland on our week off work, the three of us set out from my sometime home in the direction of the aforementioned Hornillos del Camino, spending a night there before continuing to Castrojeriz the following day and crossing the provincial border to Frómista (Palencia province) the day after that. A three-day stint is hardly enough to make for a heroic story, but the effect of losing ourselves in the northern Spanish nature was simply incomparable. It was windmills galore with little other signs of human disturbance on the landscape for much of it, while the communal spirit amongst all fellow pilgrims further heightened the feel-good vibe. Regardless of age, nationality or any other characteristics, everyone out there is on the Camino and making the most of it, as can be seen in the way hotel guests freely converse and fellow walkers fall into step to share parts of the journey. One piece of advice though: bring a quality backpack. My small and overloaded rucksack was causing my back no shortage of pain by the end of the third day!
Of the three aforementioned stopping points, Castrojeriz merits a special mention for the beauty of its ancient architecture and the cheerful vibe about the town. Frómista is similarly pleasant if slightly less scenic, while Hornillos’ small size makes it a perfect place to rest and recuperate whilst still enjoying the sense of rural relaxation. There are also plenty of villages to pass through between these stopping points, although the inconsistency of their distribution means that it’s a good idea to always have some food and drink on you just in case you go for a while without seeing civilisation.
Completing the entire Camino remains an ambition of mine, and my experience of the route on either side of the city I had such a fantastic experience of living in has a lot to do with that. For anyone considering tackling the unique adventure, the province of Burgos has a lot in store for you, and if you are tired by the time you get there (which is very likely!) the city is well worth a few days of your time. As well as the cathedral, check out the castle overlooking the city and its surrounding area. Complete with walkways through the ruins and displays on the area’s history, it makes for a very pleasant few hours.
The human evolution museum is arguably the most outstanding of Burgos city’s attractions, its building a beacon of modernity that somehow fits so seamlessly into the backdrop of ancient constructions. Taking artefacts and findings from the aforementioned archaeological site at nearby Atapuerca, the museum gives a fascinating account of our beginnings and of how we’ve since adapted to be the humans that we are now.
The book museum is another thing you won’t find anywhere else, and despite its small size it makes for an interesting visit. Starting on the top floor with the origins of writing on parchment and finishing on the first level with e-books, it contains some very notable exhibits detailing how books have moved with the times. Furthermore, you might get a ticket to this museum included when you go into the castle, so head uphill to that first!
Like just about everywhere else in Spain, Burgos has a local culinary speciality which the locals take enormous pride in. Somewhat resembling black pudding, the rice-containing blood sausage known as morcilla rivals the cathedral as the most loved aspect of Burgalés culture. With the area between the two main squares (Plaza Mayor and Plaza Santa María) hardly lacking in quality restaurants, there should be more than enough opportunities to try out this delicious and deceptively-filling local product. And if you’ve just walked 25km or so that day you’ll be more than ready for some!
However, every silver lining does have a cloud, and in Burgos’ case it’s the weather. If you travel there, bring sun cream, warm clothes and rain gear. You will probably need all of them, quite possibly within a two-day period. The climate in that part of Spain is a long way from the southern sunny beaches with which so many associate the country, as I discovered when almost every Skype call home involved several minutes of persuading relatives not to be jealous of me for living in the constant sunshine when in fact the rain was bouncing off the pavement outside. The sun does shine every now and then, but a cold biting wind tends not to stay away for too long, while in the early months of the year the snow can cover all there is to be covered for a few days at a time.
All in all, Burgos is a beautiful city, combining both ancient and modern architecture, located in a province rich in picturesque countryside and charming villages. The Camino de Santiago allows one to experience all of these things within a day’s walking, and the satisfaction gained is well worth the price paid in blisters and hunger!