Last Updated on 28th February 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Boasting no fewer than 38 altarpieces, countless chapels, ornate religious imagery, and of course, being the final resting place of the legendary El Cid, there are few reasons why you wouldn’t want to visit Burgos Cathedral on your next trip to Spain. Here’s an insider’s guide to the best of this UNESCO listed ecclesiastical building, as well as hidden gems, forgotten corners, and a history worth reading about!
If you’d asked me what the town of Burgos was famous for prior to our visit, I’d have probably replied with ‘where?’ However, after visiting the city in the Castilla y León area earlier this year, I soon grew to love the charm and beauty of this Northern Spanish city, and I’m sure that you will too, if you only give it a chance…
After all, you’ll soon know you’re in the right place– i.e. the inner heart of the historic city centre- thanks to a medieval gateway heralding the entrance into the inner fold. During your travels to the city, you’ll soon encounter plenty of pilgrims, all making their way along El Camino de Santiago (which is popularly shortened to simply ‘El Camino’ or the Way of Saint James)- and Burgos city is a particular highlight of the 500+ miles route.
#ad | This post is sponsored by TRANSROMANICA, the Romanesque Routes of European Heritage as certified by the Council of Europe. All opinions, words, and photos, remains those of the editor.
The fascinating history of Burgos Cathedral
Burgos itself was founded in 884 by Diego Rodríguez Porcelos, the Count of Castile, though the surrounding region has been inhabited since time immemorial. An ecclesiastical building has stood on site since at least 1075, when the city was granted a Bishropic by King of the time, Alfonso VI “the Brave”.
Unfortunately, there is little surviving information about the original church, though it was most likely after the popular-at-the-time Romanesque style, similar to the stunning example in the nearby village of Santo Domingo de Silos. Soon enough, the original Cathedral was too small for the ever-growing needs of the city.
In 1221, a new Cathedral was constructed on the site of the original, before being consecrated in the year 1260. During the Middle Ages, Cathedrals would have taken many lifetimes to build and the very first architects and buildings would have had no hope of seeing their completion. As such, the names and details as to exactly who the original master builder was have since been lost to the passage of time.
In the following centuries, the aisle chapels were finally completed (after around two centuries where building work was paused), and many decades after the Cathedral itself had been consecrated. Today, just a few elements of the original Romanesque church remain, with the majority of the Cathedral having been built in the distinctly French Gothic style.
Of particular note to all the Francophiles out there: the link between Burgos Cathedral and France doesn’t simply stop after the adoption of the French Gothic. Instead, throughout the centuries later, many French writers visited Burgos and incorporated the inspiration they derived from the Cathedral into their works. Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo were two such writers, and some even go as far to claim that the automated clock of The Papamoscas actually inspired The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Due to the fact that the Cathedral took so long to build, almost every aspect in the history of the Gothic style can be found here; from Early Gothic to Flamboyant Gothic (and everything in between), almost every feature is represented within Burgos Cathedral. Since 1984, the Church has had UNESCO world heritage status.
A brief tour (and secrets) of Burgos Cathedral
Façade of Burgos Cathedral
Of course, as with any ecclesiastical building, the most important place to start is at the façade of the cathedral. Constructed in the Gothic style which was oh-so-popular during the 12th-century, the front of Burgos Cathedral certainly doesn’t disappoint!
After all, take away the spires atop the (almost) symmetrical towers and you’ll soon discover that the construction is very similar to that of Notre Dame in Paris. And, if you don’t believe me, then note that the decadent spires were not part of the intended design and were only added between 1442 and 1458 by the Colonia family!
13th-century Tympanum of the Door of the Sarmental (Sacramental)
Even if you’ve never heard of the word ‘Tympanum’ before, no doubt you’ll have seen one in the flesh. This technical word essentially describes the (usually) carved stone slab that sits above one of the main entryways to the church. That of Burgos cathedral is particularly spectacular thanks to the fact that it dates all the way back to the 13th-century and features several biblical figures.
One of the most beautiful chapels in the Cathedral at Burgos is that of the Constable Chapel. As soon as you step inside this calm and serene chapel, you’ll soon notice that the light levels change drastically. The particular interest of this part of the building is that it’s constructed in the late Castilian Gothic style, which is also often referred to as the Isabelline Gothic style.
In comparison with the otherwise sombre cathedral, the chapel is filled with intense sunlight, largely due to a huge skylight. This dome was added by the Colonia family (from what is now Cologne, Germany) as part of their expansive renovations of the Cathedral during the mid-fifteenth-century.
The final resting place of El Cid
Situated in the very heart of the cathedral, the final resting place of El Cid (full name Rodrigo Díaz de Viva- i.e. the famous Castilian folk-hero) can be found steps away from the beautifully carved wooden choir stalls which are by Bigarny and are in the Renaissance Plateresque style.
El Cid is buried alongside his wife, Doña Jimena underneath the Dome of the main nave which features a Mudejar vault. The Cathedral also holds among its collections a couple of his possessions. After marvelling at the tomb and features surrounding it, stay in the area to be equally amazed by the nearby Escalera.
Constructed in the 16th-century and easily one of the greatest treasures of the Cathedral of Burgos, the name Escalera Dorada is literally translated as ‘the Golden Staircase’. Modelled on the Italian Renaissance, the Diego de Siloé.
The steps actually lead out onto the Fernán González Street, though this entryway to the cathedral is inaccessible to the general public. In total, the staircase features nineteen steps, many allegorical figures, and a wrought iron French railing bearing angels heads and foliate design.
Saint Thecla chapel
Gilt gold and ornate carvings glitter under the low lighting of this area of the ecclesiastical building. The Saint Tecla Chapel was created in the 18th-century and is one of the newest additions to Burgos Cathedral. It is also here, on a daily basis, where Mass is held. During these times, the area is closed to tourists and the chapel is reserved solely for those wishing to worship.
The Papamoscas of Burgos Cathedral
If you happen to be within the walls of the Cathedral when the clock strikes on the hour, then you’re in for a treat. Every hour, when the big hand reaches the twelve, The Papamoscas is a 16th-century automated figure which opens its mouth as its arm simultaneously rings the bell to signal the time.
Things to do close to Burgos Cathedral
As one of the most important stops on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage routes, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of other cultural and historical attractions close to the cathedral. Set against the backdrop of the medieval city walls, you’ll want to bring your camera as there’s plenty of beautiful architecture you’ll want to remember for years to come!
Puente de Santa Marí
If you arrive in Burgos by car, then chances are that you’ll be parking up outside of the historic city centre (after all, the historic district of the Northern Spanish city is mostly car-free!) As such, your first historic monument in Burgos will be that of the Saint Mary bridge. Though there has been a bridge on-site for many centuries, that which you can stroll across today dates back to the 18th-century.
Arco de Santa María
Truth be told, the crowning jewel of Burgos, after its cathedral (whose full name is the rather long-winded Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María de Burgos), is the Arco de Santa María, a fantastic feat of architecture you’ll soon find yourself marvelling at during any trip to the city.
Paseo del Espolón:
Picture perfect plane trees line the predominantly pedestrian pathway that follows the course of the historic city walls. Dotted with benches and several cafés, this stunning walkway is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, and offers some of the best views of the river to be found anywhere in town.
Plaza Santa María
Head directly outside of Burgos Cathedral and you’ll soon discover the city’s main town square. Filled with an abundance of eateries, cafés, and bars, this is the perfect place to sit down and relax after a busy morning (or afternoon) exploring Burgos Cathedral and its surrounds. I particularly recommend sampling the local ‘tinto de Verano’ (literally translated as ‘summer red wine’). One part soda and one part table red wine, this drink is oh-so-refreshing!