Category Archives: Linguistic tour of northern Spain

Passing the centuries in Burgos

My friend Sue and I are now in the second week of our linguistic tour of northern Spain. Yesterday we hiked up to the fortress overlooking the city of Burgos and its Arlanzón River, and thus back in time to the early centuries of the Reconquista (details here). Today’s two excursions, to the Catedral de Burgos and the Monasterio de las Huelgas, carried us forward several centuries, through the era of El Cid, the political consolidation of most of Spain, and the successful pursuit of the Reconquista.

The Cathedral is built on a site of great linguistic interest: in 1080, the Council of Burgos took place in an earlier church at the same site. As described in this previous post, the purpose of the Council was to enforce the use of the Latin Mass in place of the vernacular that had sprung up in Spain. While touring the Cathedral today, I learned that just one year later, in 1081, the city of Burgos became the official seat (sede) for the province’s bishopric, or diocese. Clearly the Council had increased the city’s prestige: language matters! The first Cathedral of Burgos was built over the next fifteen years.

Informative sign from Catedral de Burgos, showing establishment of Burgos as religious seat one year after the Council of Burgos.

Another informative sign, dating the original Cathedral to within fifteen years of the Council of Burgos.

Today’s Cathedral is of further linguistic interest because it houses the tomb of El Cid, the Reconquista hero of the epic poem that is the first known work of Spanish literature. The tomb’s inscription includes the Latin version of El Cid’s name (Rodrigo > Rodericus) and that of his wife, buried with him (Jimena > Eximena). Above the cross you can also see a key line from the poem: a todos alcanza honra por el que en buen hora nació: very roughly, ‘everyone gained in honor because this good man lived’.

Tomb of El Cid and his wife Jimena in the Catedral de Burgos

Our second touristic destination of the day, Burgos’s Monasterio de las Huelgas, fast-forwarded us less than a century to the year 1187. The Monastery was founded by Queen Leonor, the British-born wife of Alfonso VIII of Castilla, and serves as a pantheon, or royal burial place, for this couple and their descendants. By Alfonso’s reign the Reconquista was going full blast, carrying the Castilian language with it. The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, a turning point in the Reconquista,  took place in 1212; a spectacular door hanging from the tent of Alfonso’s Moorish opponent, Muhámmad al-Násir, hangs in the Monastery’s Museo de Ricas Telas Medievales. It is a harbinger of the eventual fall of Granada at the hands of Alfonso and Leonor’s descendants, Ferdinand and Isabella, and thus the final victory of Castilian Spanish.

Pendón de Las Navas de Tolosa


In the cradle of castellano

Today my friend Sue and I got to know Burgos better. Our day involved two walks: the first to the Cartuja de Miraflores, a monastery whose location is marked with a red arrow in the picture below, and the second to the hilltop fortress Castillo de Burgos, from which this picture was taken. Near the center of the photograph is Burgos’s Plaza Mayor, marked by the colorful row of pink, yellow, blue, and white buildings. We found this a welcome change from the more uniform (though more ornate) plazas of Madrid, Valladolid, and especially Salamanca. You can see the spires of the cathedral to the right, almost hidden by the trees.

We reached the Cartuja de Miraflores by walking along the Arlanzón River, marked by the ribbon of green running diagonally through the middle of the photograph. (We followed these walking directions, posted on TripAdvisor.) This monastery belongs to the contemplative Carthusian order. We spent over two hours studying the famous altar and other works of art and architecture in the building.

The pathway along the Arlanzón is part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. We spotted several pilgrims, easily identified by their heavy backpacks and scallop shell insignia. Scallop shell markers embedded in the pavement also mark the portion of the trail that runs through Burgos itself. As I described in an earlier post, Burgos’s position along the Camino de Santiago helped bring the city into prominence.

Our afternoon excursion to the Castillo de Burgos was a deep dive into the history of Burgos — and Spain. Castillo in this case means ‘fortress’ rather than ‘castle’, and this particular fortress was constructed in the late 9th century, during the Reconquista, or the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Moors. Its construction was part of a deliberate effort to rebuild a Catholic population in the area as the Moors were being driven south. The city of Burgos thus began on the slopes of the hill, protected by the castle above, and slowly spread downhill toward the Arlanzón. This meant that its growth followed the opposite pattern of London, New York, and Paris, which began with riverside settlements, then spread outwards.

Ironically, as the Reconquista progressed Burgos spread so widely that the Castillo became irrelevant. A series of unfortunate events, culminating in the French occupation of the fortress during the Napoleonic War, then severely damaged it. It has only recently been excavated and partially rebuilt.

Sue and I heartily recommend both these excursions to anyone who comes to Burgos.


Another day, another Cervantes museum

I titled this post last week, before leaving for my linguistic tour of northern Spain with my friend Sue. As it turned out, our visit to the Museo Casa de Cervantes in Valladolid was not the high point of the day, though we did appreciate its peaceful garden, and the reliefs depicting scenes from Don Quixote, such as this one. The museum is located in the building where Cervantes lived from 1604 to 1606; the first volume of Don Quijote was published in 1605.
IMG_20160619_115108Valladolid was our stopover en route from Salamanca to Burgos, and well worth a visit. Its star attraction is the Museo National de Escultura, an extraordinary collection of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque religious sculpture housed in a magnificent convent. My favorite sculpture depicted Saint Anne and her three husbands (!!!) with the Madonna and Child. The husbands were carved with great individuality and detail.

Close-up of the three husbands of Saint Anne. On my screen, WordPress is showing them vertically elongated. You can click through to see the museum's own reproduction, and can select the same detail.

Sculptural detail: the three husbands of Saint Anne.

While in Valladolid i noticed this nice example of the arroba neutra: the contemporary and controversial use of the @ sign in Spanish to create suffixes that are neither masculine nor feminine suffixes. (The sign translates as “Welcome refugees”.) Anybody know how something like this is pronounced out loud?


After leaving Valladolid it was exciting to arrive in Burgos, since this was the city that inspired my trip: Burgos is the cradle of the Castilian language (though in Salamanca we were told it was Salamanca!). Our hotel directly overlooks the city’s cathedral. Five minutes’ walk away is the famous statue of El Cid, Burgos’s hometown hero, which turns out to be in the middle of a busy traffic circle! I found this rather undignified. All the photographs I’ve seen of it show the Cid silhouetted against the sky, perhaps with a bit of building. Now I know they were carefully composed.

view from our window

View from’s hotel window in Burgos


El Cid and his horse in Burgos, juxtaposed with more modern transportation.

While out walking we unexpectedly came across a status of San Millán de la Cogolla, the saint whose linguistically significant monastery we will be visiting in a few days. Although San Millán was a cave-dwelling hermit, the statue depicts him as a conqueror, standing boldly atop a collection of severed heads. Wikipedia helpfully explains that “Because of the monastery’s role on the traditional pilgrimage route, representations of Emilianus can be mixed with that of Saint James the Moor-slayer.”


Statue of San Millán de la Cogolla, in park along Río Arlanzón between Puente de San Pablo and Puente de Santa María


In Salamanca

Today was for the most part a day off from my linguistic tour of northern Spain. My friend Sue and I spent the day touring the standard sights of Salamanca, such as the Casa de las Conchas and the Convento de San Esteban. As I had hoped, we came across a good used book store (La Galatea), where I picked up three novels for my bookshelf, all by women: Laura Restrepo’s Delerio, Almudena Grandes’s Estaciones de Paso (actually a collection of novellas), and Soledad Puértolas’s Si al atardecer llegara el mensajero.

Today’s most linguistically relevant destination was the Universidad de Salamanca lecture hall named after King Alfonso X, known as Alfonso el Sabio (‘the wise’). Alfonso, who reigned from 1252-1284, was not only a scholar, and an early supporter of the Universidad, as described in the informative sign below, but also played a key role in standardizing the Spanish language. The prologue to El libro de la ochava esphera, a scientific treatise from a group of scholars in Alfonso’s court, states that he “removed the expressions that he felt were superfluous or duplicated and that were not written in correct Castilian (castellano drecho), and he added others that were more appropriate; and regarding the language, he himself corrected it” (translation from D. Pharies). The use of the term castellano as a language name is itself noteworthy.


However, my lasting impression of Salamanca will be of the architectural details that both Sue and I fell in love with. Here are our two favorites.

Escalera de Soto at Convento de San Esteban. The artisan managed to fit a sculpture of Mary Magdalene into the triangle formed between the railings above and the arch below. Mary is taking a break from reading in bed, where she is tucked in with a skull and her favorite jar of unguent.

Interior of Casa de las Conchas, showing stone carved into honeycomb (left) and basketweaving (right) railings.

The ghost of Celtic Spain

Today was without question the most exciting day so far of my linguistic tour of northern Spain with my friend Sue. We picked up a rental car in Madrid and drove west by northwest to Ávila, then southwest to Ulaca, the ruins of a fortified Celtic hill-town, or castro. Ulaca was on our itinerary because the Celts were one of the most important pre-Roman peoples in the Iberian Peninsula. They left their linguistic imprint on both Spanish vocabulary and toponymy (place-names). Spanish words of Celtic origins include álamo ‘poplar’ and serna ‘plowed field’; Celtic place-names include Segovia and Lugo.

I can’t recommend Ulaca highly enough. You need a car to get there, and you need to be in decent shape for the climb, but the ruins are fascinating, the views are beautiful, and the combination of granite rocks and purple and yellow wildflowers is unbeatable. The slideshow below tries to share some of the excitement that Sue and I felt today. It also has practical information about how to get to Ulaca and where to learn more.

Walking in Cervantes’s (baby) footsteps)

¿Don Quijote or Sancho Panza?

Like Gilligan’s Island fans trying to decide between Ginger and Mary Ann, visitors to Alcalá de Henares have to decide between their two favorite characters in Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha. Do you prefer the Don himself, the delusional would-be knight errant, or Sancho, his hapless but willing squire? Visitors can register their vote by choosing where to sit on the bench outside Cervantes’s childhood home, now a charming museum. You can see my vote below.

Don Quijote or Sancho Panza

Since Alcalá de Henares is a major stop on the Camino del Castellano, one of the inspirations for my linguistic tour of northern Spain, my companion Sue and I decided to spend a day there before leaving Madrid for Salamanca. Alcalá is known for its Cervantes connection and its university, founded at the end of the fifteenth century. Out two favorite stops were the Cervantes museum and the city’s cathedral. The museum is in Cervantes’ actual childhood home, although the furnishings and other decor are not original to the house. The curators have made a strong effort to recreate what the different parts of the house would have looked out, from the ladies’ sitting room, decked out Moorish style with carpets and low furniture, to the braziers in the middle of each room.

Lady’s sitting room in the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes

The cathedral stands on the spot linked in legend to the 304 C.E. martyrdom of the Santos Niños, two young brothers who declared their faith in Christ knowing that it would lead to their death. The cathedral’s crypt includes the rock on which they were supposedly beheaded, while its museum includes treasures like this priestly robe made in the Phillipines (shown below, alongside an enlarged view of one of the birds embroidered on it). The church was severely damaged during the Spanish Civil War and only repaired in the 1990s. It’s sad to think that this national treasure suffered, like so many Spaniards, from that tragic period in the nation’s history.



One final note: back in Madrid, we wrapped up our day with a quick visit to the Reina Sofía museum to pay homage to Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, which I used to see in New York’s MOMA when I was a girl (it went back to Spain when Franco died). Looking at the innocent victims screaming in agony, all I could think was: Orlando.


A non-visit to the Real Academia de la Historia

Today’s itinerary in Madrid was mostly non-linguistic. My travel companion Sue and I put in a full day of museum-going, tapas-hopping, and lots and lots of walking. However, we did come as close as we could to the Glosas Emilianenses, which are housed in the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid’s charming Las Letras quarter.  Here’s a picture to prove that we were there. You can just see the name of the institution above the doorway.

IMG_20160615_130054 outside the Real Academia de la historia

The Glosas Emilianenses are glosses, or marginal notes, on a Latin text found in the Monasterio de Suso in the town of San Millán de la Congoja. (The adjective emilianense comes from Millán.) They are of extreme linguistic importance because they are written in an early form of Spanish and thus constitute possibly the first written evidence for the language. (The first written Italian, I have to admit, is much more fun.)

Here’s a page from the Glosas. Unfortunately they are not on display in the Academia, as I confirmed before our trip. In fact, when Sue and I stepped in through the building’s open door, we were immediately shooed away. Next week, however, we will visit Suso together and will at least see where the Glosas were found.


A page from the Glosas Emilianenses

A visit to the Real Academia Española

Today was a dream come true for me: I visited the seat of the Real Academia Española. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know that I’m a big fan of the RAE. This visit was therefore a top priority for my linguistic tour of northern Spain. I also wanted to use the RAE’s library to look at a specific book that is not available in the United States.

The seat of the Real Academia Española, just behind the Museo del Prado

The RAE is not generally open to the public, but the head of the Academia Norteamérica de la Lengua Española, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, kindly contacted the RAE to arrange for me to take a tour. As it happened, a local public school had scheduled a class trip to the RAE on my preferred date and time, so I was simply added to this group of very well-behaved kids. We saw a video about the RAE (see below) and then visited the principal rooms, including meeting rooms, the lecture hall, and various libraries.

My two favorite rooms were the coat room and the plenary meeting room. The coat room is fun because each hook is labeled with a member’s name, and they are ordered by their year of admittance to the RAE.  I was happy to see the designated hooks for one of my favorite writers, Arturo Pérez-Reverte (whose work has popped up in my blog here and here), and the linguist Inés Fernández Ordóñez, whose research on leísmo I’ve cited here. The plenary meeting room is where the RAE convenes to vote on proposed changes to their dictionary, spelling guide, or grammar. One letter of the Spanish alphabet, either upper-case or lower-case, is carved into each chair around the table. This reflects that fact that each membership position on the RAE corresponds to a letter: when member P dies, for example, a new member is appointed to position P. Our tour guide made sure to point out, however, that each member is NOT responsible for the section of the dictionary corresponding to his or her letter. (Perhaps this is a common misconception?) They aren’t even required to sit in their corresponding chair.

RAE plenary meeting room. A different letter of the alphabet is carved into each chair.

When I get home, I’ll have to write additional posts to share other tidbits I learned about the RAE, and also the fruits of my research session in the RAE library.