Burgos Cathedral, A Gothic Masterpiece

With our unexpected detour to the charming Cave Hermitage of Tosantos behind us, our last stop before reaching Madrid was the town of Burgos, Spain.  Before leaving Switzerland, our friend AG had suggested we visit Burgos Cathedral, a UNESCO site and Gothic masterpiece. Without even looking at photos before we visited, we added it to our list, solely on her recommendation.  To date, it remains the most stunningly beautiful cathedral we’ve seen, unsurpassed in its architectural design and interior accoutrements!

Apartments lining the plaza have a phenomenal view of the cathedral.

While Trav navigated us to the cathedral with his map app, we wondered what to expect. Even when we parked on a side street just a block above it, we still hadn’t caught a glimpse of its spires.  Since it’s built on a hill, it was completely hidden behind the buildings below us. Zigzagging down a short series of curving cobblestone streets toward the catedral, I felt like a kid on Christmas day, when anything could be in the box.  The street abruptly opened into a small plaza lined with lovely apartments.  Suddenly the cathedral was just there, filling the entire city block like a sleeping behemoth.

Burgos Cathedral, Spain
The cathedral is truly incredible, quite unlike any other!
Cimborrio octagonal tower, Burgos Cathedral
From the West side of the cathedral, the Cimborrio octagonal tower is visible in the background.
West portal of Burgos Cathedral
West portal of Burgos Cathedral, Spain

Making our way through the plaza around to the front of the cathedral, the pleasant smell of marijuana floated past us on the warm spring breeze. Small groups of pilgrims from the Camino de Santiago lounged in the plaza, easily identifiable by the seashell adornment on their backpacks and walking sticks.  We found the ticket office and took one last look up at the impressive length of its southern face.

The entrance to the ticket office is on the south side of the Burgos Cathedral in San Fernando Plaza. With its myriad ornate towers spiraling toward the heavens, the cathedral is absolutely stunning against the Persian blue sky.
The main entrance is via the Sarmental Facade of the south face of the cathedral.

Construction on Burgos Cathedral began in 1221 upon the orders of King Ferdinand III. Though it was already in use within 9 years, work continued intermittently until it was officially completed over 300 years later.  Prior to 1221, modern humans had been living in the region of Burgos, Spain for so many millennia, it’s not even possible for my mind to conceptualize time on such a broad spectrum.

Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs all conquered and occupied the region before Spaniards reclaimed it in the 9th century. Building castles and establishing settlements to defend their newly regained lands, the Spanish created the town of Burgos as one such settlement. Founded in 884, it was a Christian enclave created by gathering together members of outlying land into this one central location to expand and protect Christendom. The cathedral stands as a testament to this holy objective.

Papamoscas (Flycatcher) Clock

As soon as we entered, I realized immediately that this church was as grand inside as it was on the exterior.  We were, however, rather startled when the reverent silence of the cathedral was abruptly broken by the clanging of a bell high above. The bust of a man perched above a large clock opened and closed his mouth rhythmically while ringing a bell to mark the time.

Why the clock is there, who created it, and why el Papamoscas opens and closes his mouth like a fish out of water is still a mystery. I found one rather interesting legend explaining its existence, but I really have no idea why such a strange and incongruous clock would be displayed in this particular church.

Papamoscas Clock, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
The Papamoscas (Flycatcher) Clock is visible in the upper right.
Visitors are dwarfed by the massive proportions of the cathedral’s elaborate arched hallways.

We gawked a bit just inside the entrance, then picked up our audio guides and started exploring.  As we worked our way slowly through each of the 15+ individual chapels, I struggled to focus on the audio guide pressed to my ear. The woman’s low, slow voice and measured words so complemented her esoteric explanation of the minute details of the cathedral’s trappings that I couldn’t listen.  I found myself trying so hard to focus on who commissioned what artist in what year to create this or that sculpture, retablo, or painting that I couldn’t just enjoy the beauty of the cathedral.

Imagine listening to a 2 hour history lesson from Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Crawley, and you’ll understand why I finally gave up on the audio tour.

Instead, I allowed myself to drift off and stare in fascination at every ornately adorned surface.

Chapel of the Presentation

The star patterned ceiling of the Capilla de la Presentacion is just one of many ornately designed ceilings in the cathedral.
Gold retablo of the Presentation Chapel, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
Gold retablo of the Presentation Chapel, Burgos Cathedral, Spain

Chapel of San Enrique

Elaborate retablo, or altarpiece, of the San Enrique Chapel

Chapel of Santa Ana

A massive retablo rises high over our heads in the Capilla de Santa Ana at Burgos Cathedral.

The Golden Staircase

The Golden Staircase, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
La Escalera Dorada (The Golden Staircase) was designed by Italian architect Diego de Siloé in 1523.  It later became the inspiration for the staircase of the Paris Opera.

Main Chapel & Altarpiece

Main chapel, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
The main chapel is at the heart of the cathedral.
The star shaped ceiling of the main chapel is surrounded by spiral walkways high above.

Central Nave & Choir

The beautifully carved chairs of the choir gleam.
Gleaming hand-carved wooden choir seating lines the walls beneath one of the cathedral’s organs.

Chapel of the Constables

After leaving the main chapel, we finally reached the Capilla de los Condestables, one of the most famous in the cathedral. The chapel is home to the tombs of Don Pedro Fernández de Velasco, a Spanish military figure, and his wife, Doña Mencia de Mendoza.

Also interred in the cathedral are the remains of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a famous Spanish nobleman and military hero.  More familiarly known as El Cid, the heroic deeds of this Christian knight were famously portrayed in the 1961 film with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

Capilla de los Condestables, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
Ceiling of the Chapel of the Constables, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
The Chapel of the Constables was built for Pedro Fernandez de Velasco and his wife, Mencía de Mendoza, benefactors of the cathedral. Their remains lie beneath this statue of them carved in Carrara marble. Even their little dog is immortalized in their tombstone.

Upper Cloister

The Upper Cloister (Claustro alto) is lined with beautiful stained glass windows.

Corpus Christi Carriage

Corpus Christi carriage, Burgos Cathedral, Spain
Corpus Christi Carriage, Burgos Cathedral, Spain

The Sacristy

The Sacristy (Sacrestía Mayor) is the room where the clergy dress and store items of value.

Wondering how it could be possible to top such a fantastic sight, we left the cathedral and returned to our car, grateful that we would finally reach Madrid in the evening.  We were looking forward to seeing our friend, AG, whom we hadn’t seen since she’d lived in Oregon years before.  This would be our first visit to Madrid, a city we’d always wanted to visit, and we couldn’t wait to experience it with AG, a local who’d grown up in Madrid.  Little did we know what she had planned for us!

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Burgos Cathedral, Spain

Know Before You Go
  • A single adult ticket at the time of this writing costs €7.
  • The audio guide is free.
  • Photography is allowed without flash.
  • The official name of this site is Catedral de Santa María de Burgos, or St. Mary’s Cathedral of Burgos.
  • Official website for Burgos Cathedral (ES)
Spain Road Trip Map

The yellow pins mark our travel for day three, from the Castillo de Monjardín in Spain to our friend’s home in Madrid. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.

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