Our copy of the Lonely Planet described Guadalupe as a ‘sparkling white village … set like a jewel in the green crown of the surrounding ranges and ridges of the Sierra Villuercas’, but we had been tainted by the incredibly white villages of Andalucía, and passed it by without realizing we had arrived. Even when we finally doubled back to find the tiny village with a population of under 2,500 people, we weren’t sure we were in the right place until we saw the signs for the ‘Real Monasterio de Santa Maria de Guadalupe’. I was happy to have been around the Spanish language long enough to know that ‘real’ means ‘royal’ and not the opposite of ‘fake’. It had felt like we were on a wild goose chase to find Guadalupe, I wanted the ‘real’ thing for sure.
We parked our car just outside the quiet central plaza and walked towards the towering Monasterio. There were very few people around but we knew that it wasn’t quite siesta time. I was sure the place was so very quiet because Easter was long past and there weren’t any religious holidays looming, or none that I knew of anyway. When we approached the gates, we found a sign telling us that the doors would open for visitors at 3:30pm, even though our guidebook had indicated that visitors could enter from 9:00am till 8:00pm. I supposed this must be the case at busier times of the year. We also learned that while there was no admission to enter the church itself, there was a fee for the guided tour, something else not mentioned in our book. It seems a great number of religious buildings have started charging fees; this may be due to the recent recession.
There was nothing to do but take a few photos of the exterior and have a light lunch at one of the open-air restaurants in the plaza. As we walked passed the small fountain in the middle of the plaza, I suddenly remembered that this was the place where Columbus had baptized two of his Indian ‘servants’ on July 29, 1496. The monastery’s first book of baptisms has a record of the event. Later, once inside, we would see a painting depicting this self same baptism. It is clearly an important historical occasion that the church wishes to honour.
As we lingered over our meal, and a glass of lovely red wine, we noticed that other tourists began to trickle in and take their places on the stone seats outside the monastery. We weren’t at all sure how many people they would let in for the guided tour so we hurried over to join the queue. While we waited, I started chatting with a couple seated next to me and learned they were Americans visiting Spain for the first time. They are nearing retirement and were keenly interested in our free-roaming ways. We had a great time exchanging ideas and tips of places and things to see and do.
At last we were allowed to enter, and I was disappointed to learn that we couldn’t take photos inside the monastery. We were taken to three different museums that are located inside a 15th century cloister. One houses an astonishing collection of embroidered altar cloths and vestments created in the convents during the 14th to 18th centuries. The other two focus on illuminated choral manuscripts and some fine paintings including a Goya, an El Greco, and an ivory crucifix attributed to Michelangelo. I obeyed the no photos rule while inside the museum, but did snap a quick photo of the interior courtyard of the cloister. The architecture was stunning and I knew I wouldn’t remember it adequately with all the other images of buildings fogging up my brain.
After the tour of the small museums, we were taken into the sacristy and after being instructed as to the solemnity of the occasion, we were offered the chance to view the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe up close and personal. It is housed high in the soaring altar, but visitors are taken to the ‘camarin’, behind the altar and the platform on which it stands is rotated for viewing. The faithful are allowed to kiss a fragment of her mantle if they wish to do so. I had heard that this is one of three black Virgins in Spain, but it was still surprising to see the mother of Christ represented with dark skin. I stepped forward with my hands folded in front of me, but didn’t opt for the kiss. The American couple stood near the back of the room and my guess, that they were Jewish, was later confirmed.
I think it’s wonderful that visitors of different religions are not barred from visiting such shrines. Here we had a non-Catholic, a Hindu and a Jewish couple, and no fuss was made whatsoever. I am often disappointed when I am not allowed into a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, a Mormon church, or a Muslim mosque because I am not of the faith. However can we learn to respect all religions and learn from each other if we are excluded? I am happy to report that more and more places of worship are opening up to visitors; let’s hope that the welcome is extended further yet.
I just realized that I haven’t told you anything about the Virgin of Guadalupe, and why this place is such an important pilgrimage site. Alphonso XI, on the site where legend has it, founded the cathedral in 1340 AD; a shepherd had seen an apparition and she had ordered him to direct the priests to dig at the site where she stood. The priests unearthed a statue of the Virgin, which had been hidden centuries earlier by Christians fleeing the Muslims. Guadalupe, Santiago de Compostela, and Pilar, eventually became important rallying points for the Christians when they began their reconquest of Spain from the Muslims.
In the late 16th century, the Christian Kings Ferdinand and Isabel financed Columbus’ voyage to the Indies. When he returned with tales of the riches awaiting the adventurous, many Spaniards from this region of Extremadura followed in his footsteps and they took their faith with them to the New World. Another peasant, in another land is said to have had a similar visitation from the Virgin in 1531 AD, and as a result, the people of Mexico revere the Black Madonna. It was from friends in Mexico that I first heard of Guadalupe, and when I found myself in this region of Spain, I was bound and determined that I would pay a visit. Anil was far less enthusiastic, but I would love to be able to tell my friends in Manzanillo that I said a small prayer for them here. And I did.
Sierra de Gredos
As I mentioned earlier, we decided to skip Salamanca for this part of our swing through Extremadura and head cross-country to Madrid via Ávila, spectacularly walled city. Our guidebook informed us that Ávila’s walls are the best-preserved in all of Spain. We decided to look for a place there for the night and head on to Madrid to return our rental car the following morning. We headed north from Guadalupe through some very low mountains and before long, crossed the major west-to-east highway that runs from the border with Portugal towards Madrid. What we didn’t realize was that we were moving into another province of Spain, Castilla y León, and that I should have moved from the chapter on Extremadura at the back of the Lonely Planet to the one near the front in order to read about the Sierra de Gredos.
As a result, we found ourselves climbing precipitous mountain roads with very little to see other that the incredible scenery. Actually, that’s not entirely true, we came upon the sweetest little turreted castle along the way and it quickly became my favorite of all time. The small highway we took ran parallel to an ancient Roman road, which was actually clearly visible in some places. What was clear was that the Romans had chosen the shortest distance between two points when they built the road, and took little notice of the steepness of the terrain. I seemed to me that the old road meandered far less than our modern road was required to do in order to accommodate motorized transport. I guess that if you have enough oxen and slaves, you can drag provisions for a massive marching army up the steepest of inclines.
We eventually passed the towering Pico de Almanzor, the highest peak in central Spain, rising to 2592m (8504 ft). The temperature dropped to the low teens as we climbed and there was little or no traffic behind us, or coming our direction. We worried a little about the car’s engine, reflecting on the fact that the ‘check engine’ light had come on a couple of days earlier and then had finally gone off when we refueled. We hoped it really was just a problem with bad gas and not something more serious. It would be terrible to be stranded in the Sierra de Gredos with the temperature so low in the late afternoon and us, with nothing warm to wear if we had to stay overnight.
At last we passed the highest point along the highway and we started to descend into a distant plain. We could see small farms and signs of habitation and it was a great relief that the car continued to run with no obvious problem. It wasn’t long before we rounded a corner to a view that took our breath away. Far off in the distance, beyond the wide plain below us, rose massive snow-covered mountains. I had no idea that this range, the Cordillera Central, which runs diagonally from west central Spain to the east, passes north of Madrid.
We eventually joined a main highway running east towards Ávila and I kept wondering why the walled city would have been situated in the lowlands instead of the natural fortress we had just left behind. I could only imagine that water must have been the issue that drove the inhabitants of the region to live on the plain and then construct the massive walls that still stand today, in order to fend off enemies bent on their destruction.
Within a half hour of joining the main highway, we could see Ávila’s walls off in the distance, and I looked forward to quickly finding a place to sleep for the night and then setting off to explore the historic center in the lowering light. I was so glad that we hadn’t made a booking in Madrid, we were tired after our long drive from Cáceres, with stops in Trujillo and Guadalupe, and then the surprise that the Sierra de Gredos presented us with. We’d had a full day and it was time for a light meal, a fine glass of local red wine, and a good night’s sleep.