Lives of the Saints

On a pil­grim­age of Span­ish food and wine, Sara Wax­man finds a re­gion still rich with roy­alty and re­li­gion

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CASTILLA Y LEON, the two an­cient king­doms of Spain, sits on a plateau sur­rounded by moun­tains. And, true to its na­ture, dur­ing my visit it rained for a few hours each day. The lo­cals say: “Nueve meses de in­vierno y tres meses de in­fierno,” nine months of win­ter and three months of hell.

The Golden Age of Spain re­veals it­self within a breath­tak­ing land­scape painted in broad brush­strokes. There are eight UNESCO Her­itage sites here. Cathe­drals, mu­se­ums and churches of stag­ger­ing pro­por­tions are filled with or­nate carv­ings and sculp­tures and daz­zling walls, ceil­ings and al­tars em­bel­lished with gold, gold, gold! Yet, the un­der­ly­ing bru­tal his­tory of re­li­gious zeal is not lost on us. Veni, vidi, vici. The Ro­mans, Visig­oths, Moors and Chris­tian zealots left their in­deli­ble mark. As we travel through the prov­inces, a historical novel comes to life.

At the in­tel­lec­tual heart of Sala­manca is its Univer­sity. For four cen­turies it reigned as the world’s most pres­ti­gious Univer­sity in one of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tions. Christo­pher Colum­bus came here in 1486 and made an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to seek back­ing from the Univer­sity for his search for the pas­sage to In­dia. Stu­dents did not sit at desks, nor did they write notes. They leaned on log perches and mem­o­rized the spo­ken word. There are sev­eral walls with names of suc­cess­ful Phd. stu­dents writ­ten in blood. Su­per-trendy in the 13th century. Walk­ing through th­ese per­fectly main­tained colon­naded halls, rooms and chapels is hum­bling; we’re aware that grace­ful restora­tion has erased the dam­age of the Napoleonic Wars. An ABC film crew has just fin­ished shoot­ing Still

Star-crossed, a new se­ries set in post Romeo and Juliet times. The lo­ca­tion is a build­ing

em­bel­lished with stone scal­lop shells, Casa de Con­cha, and it’s front court­yard. Much of the pop­u­la­tion of 160,000 is made up of for­eign and lo­cal stu­dents and, on week­ends, they’re out par­ty­ing till the wee hours in the rab­bit war­ren of tapas bars on San Justo and The Gran Via.

Lunch is at the out­door ter­race of Res­tau­rante Don Mauro, in the sunny Plaza Mayor. We’re sur­rounded by huge stone build­ings un­der the dour gaze of 60 faces of im­por­tant fig­ures in the coun­try’s his­tory. Wine is on the ta­ble here as nat­u­rally as salt and pep­per at home. And the clas­sic dishes have right­fully earned their rep­u­ta­tion: hearty gar­lic soup with thick chunks of bread; ja­mon Iberico and lo­cal chorizo, lomo and salami. At Pala­cio de San Este­ban, an an­cient con­vent turned ho­tel, hav­ing en­joyed a splen­did break­fast in what was once the church vault, I leave Sala­manca feel­ing very vir­tu­ous in­deed.

THE KING­DOMS OF Castille and Aragon were united in Val­ladolid, with the mar­riage of Fer­nando and Is­abel, in a way, cre­at­ing the ori­gin of Spain. It was the birth­place of Kings, Philip II and Philip IV, and it is where Colum­bus died. The in­fa­mous Grand In­quisi­tor To­mas de Torque­mada who con­vinced the King and Queen to make the Edict of Ex­pul­sion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, lived in Val­ladolid for a time. This is a city that in the 17th century vied with Madrid as the royal cap­i­tal, but over the cen­turies, it’s palaces and grand streets disappeared. In one day, we do a walk­ing tour of this cap­i­tal city of the re­gion and learn its sig­nif­i­cant his­tory. A visit to the charm­ing house and gar­den where Cer­vantes lived, with its pol­ished wood floors, book­shelves and fur­ni­ture is a high­light.

The cul­ture is re­flected in its ar­chi­tec­ture, food and wine, and its mu­sic. Tonight, we’re in luck. The Sym­phony Orches­tra of Castilla y Leon is per­form­ing at the mag­nif­i­cent, modern Cen­tro Cul­tural Miguel De­libes con­cert hall, and the acous­tics are as­tound­ing. With souls soothed, it’s time to as­suage our hunger. At Los Za­gales, a ta­ble awaits. Wine and tapas. Even the ta­ble wines are great, as they should be, since viti­cul­ture in Spain goes back 6,000 years. This kitchen has wit. Our first tapas dish looks like a half smoked cigar, and re­ally, it’s cured beef rolled around minced beef to be sea­soned with herbal ash. Next is a small white bowl with a domed lid, named Obama in the White House. Un­der the lid is a poached egg and roasted black mush­rooms. No sur­prise that Los Za­gales has won many na­tional tapas con­tests. It’s af­ter mid­night, and we’re still en­joy­ing the wine and tapas, and in no hurry to leave. In the wee hours, the streets are still filled with peo­ple. It’s Satur­day night in Val­ladolid.

This me­dieval city of Bur­gos goes back to 884, and for those who are on the fa­mous pil­grim­age walk, El Camino de San­ti­ago de Com­postela (the way of St. James), this is an im­por­tant stop. The city is dom­i­nated by the 13th century, Unesco-listed Gothic Cathe­dral of St. Mary. We en­ter through the west side and mar­vel at the or­nately carved twin spires, and once inside, the de­vout Catholics in our group are brought to tears in spite of them­selves. And even for oth­ers like my­self, to ex­pe­ri­ence the an­cient his­tory of re­li­gious prac­tice, to learn of the bish­ops and no­ble­men whose lives formed that his­tory, is fas­ci­nat­ing. The dome of the main nave fea­tures a Moor­ish-style vault and the 16th-century Ital­ian Re­nais­sance style Golden Stair­case by Diego de Siloé. Within the im­mense sanc­tu­ary are 19 chapels in the side naves, and through­out are valu­able al­tar­pieces, paint­ings and sculp­tures. To see first hand the splen­dour that ex­ists on ev­ery inch of this mag­nif­i­cent ed­i­fice is to­tally over­whelm­ing. Leg­end has it that the 11th century hero, El Cid, is en­tombed here. We de­part qui­etly and are grate­ful for the lovely walk­way, the Paseo del Espolon. A stroll un­der the cen­turies-old trees, lined with pleas­ant shops and cafes, is a tran­quil respite, and a good place for a much­needed glass of wine.

EN­TER­ING THE WALLED and tur­reted me­dieval city of Ávila through one of its nine gates makes me feel like I am on the set of a movie. Ev­ery­thing is so clean, the streets, the build­ings and even the stone walls look as if they had just been built. Ah, no pol­lu­tion here. On a Sun­day we watch a Saints Day pa­rade. A statue of the saint, dressed in colour­ful robes, is car­ried on a cloth-draped lit­ter in the midst of a pa­rade to the church doors. A bride and groom dressed for their wed­ding, wait pa­tiently on a bench un­til it’s time for them to en­ter and have the mar­riage per­formed. A most in­ter­est­ing church is the Con­vento de Santa Teresa, which was de­signed as a con­vent for Carmelite nuns. The main fea­ture of the in­te­rior is the room in which Saint Teresa was born, which has been con­verted into an op­u­lent Baroque chapel. The al­tar dis­plays an al­most life-like statue of Saint Teresa de­pict­ing the mo­ment of her vi­sion of the Cross. The work is richly or­na­mented and adorned with jew­elry and pre­cious fab­rics. In the naves of the church are count­less beau­ti­ful sculp­tures. The tale of Saint Teresa is one of the most in­ter­est­ing of many fas­ci­nat­ing historical sto­ries. Walk­ing along the quiet street on our way to lunch, I drop into La Flor De Castilla, a pretty sweets shop and buy a box of Santa Teresa candy.

If you have ever won­dered where storks come from, this species are hap­pily alive and well in Castilla y Leon and build their gi­ant nests of twigs and branches on church steeples. Sci­en­tists are per­plexed as to why th­ese gi­ant birds have stopped their an­nual mi­gra­tion to the Sa­hara from which they usu­ally re­turned by Fe­bru­ary 3rd. Can it be cli­mate change, or have they, too, dis­cov­ered that this beau­ti­ful lush land is a great place to live?

Cielo de Sala­manca Claus­tro San Este­ban

Tapas at Los Za­gales.

Plaza Mayor Bench at Sala­manca Univer­sity. Bodega Mu­cientes in the prov­ince of Val­ladolid.

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