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COVARRUBIAS

"Castile continues to depend greatly upon its climate, to the degree that if the Castilian sky appears to be so lofty it is probable because the Castilians have raised it, from hauing contemplated it so much." Miguel Delibes.

Text: Diego Diaz
Photos: Fernando Briones

COVARRUBIAS

The Cloister

The Museum

History

Recommendations

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Art
Ruins
Nature
Archaeology

I read these words written by Delibes, - born in 1920 in Valladolid, he is, perhaps, the contemporary author who has best been able to capture the soul of Castile and its people - before undertaking my journey and on the way, I looked up over and over again in order to see just how high the sky really was. But I was not successful. You almost always find what you are looking for and see what you have been taught to see, but not this time. As I crossed the plains, the horizon looked farther and farther away, even though I seemed to be heading towards it, but the sky, that obstinate sky, continued to hang just above my head and I felt that all I had to do was stand on tip toes in order to touch the cottony clouds with my hands. The firmament appeared bright, transparent and thick, but never far away. It resembled a gigantic mirror, reflecting the river, the farmlands, the roads and the poplars, and transformed everything before my eyes, like an abstract painter, into a canvas of light blue, white and gray, streaked with rays of sunlight. Autumn is an excellent season of the year for traveling in Spain. Temperatures are mild and the sun, which makes us desert the outdoors in summer, brightens up our every step. Autumn is deceiving, but it is not without its charm. It announces the approaching cold weather and snow, but it does so with warm colors and lukewarm rain. Its dusk's are unique: they are gradual, with slowly changing skies and migrating birds; they are tempered, but with a sudden, nasty gust of wind which forces us to pull out a sweater, smelling of mothballs, from the back of the closet. Here we have a bittersweet cocktail of nostalgia and expectation, a cocktail which mixes the silly yellow joy of the dry leaves in the contrasting afternoon light, with their sadness, a few hours later, when they break off and fall into the mud. It is the season of the grape harvest and the slaughtering of the pigs, when the grapes are crushed and the sausages are prepared.

The approaching winter, marking the initiation of a period of rest, and the recent harvest are celebrated. Besides, in September, there is no town without its festivities in honor of the Virgin: it is the last opportunity to dance in the streets before being shut up in the house in front of the fireplace for the long, lethargic winter. And just in case you have not realized it, my intention is to encourage you to travel through inland Spain during the autumn months, when all the summer hustle and bustle have subsided, the "summer vacationers" have all returned home and the towns have recovered their serenity and the locals, their customs. I am writing this article with a touch of autumn melancholy as well, for it is the last of this series. It need not necessarily be the last because there is no dearth of interesting towns off the beaten track, but something new is called for. Therefore, I would like you to accompany me through the lands of Castile, in fact, to its very core. Here a small county was born, which grew and grew through the vicissitudes of history until it reached the size of an empire. Come with me to Covarrubias.

The town Covarrubias is an oasis, even though there are no palm trees. Let me explain: as mountains surround it, this village is protected from the strong, cold winds, thanks to its natural defenses. The harsh climate of these lands becomes much milder here. The Twin Peaks of the Mamblas protect the town, which snuggles beside the Arlanza River. The waters appreciate the shade and the rustling of the many poplars and, in return, they flow along tranquilly and generously irrigate the many nearby orchards. Covarrubias enjoys the nickname of "Town of the Hundred Springs." It is not strange, then, that cherry trees abound. In spring, when winter is on the wane, their white flowers burst forth with joy and the friends I made during my visit have made me promise to return in that season so as not to miss such a joyous festival. Covarrubias has 800 inhabitants, called Racheles, an unusual appellative with no apparent relation to the toponym, for there is, in fact, none. It seems that 'Rachel' comes from the biblical name of Jacob's wife, who was famous for her beauty. It apparently occurred to the womanizer Count Fernin Gonzalez to call the local women "Rachelas" or "Rachels" because he thought that they were so beautiful. His compliment stuck and it became extensive to anyone belonging to this village. In fact, Covarrubias owes its name to its many reddish caves cuevas rubias-, which were carved out of the river walls by its waters. However, we should leave the curiosities aside for the moment and go for a walk.

The visit Making a good entrance into any place, even if it is a forest, is not a trivial matter. One of my superstitions is to size up and skirt around any spot, before selecting just the right entrance. In a forest, for example, I search for a very old tree, one which I look upon as a friendly doorman, and then, I choose the closest path to its branches in order to enter the woods, sure of having obtained its safe conduct or, at least, an initially good omen. What we are looking for in Covarrubias is precisely beauty, the most beautiful entrance and the one which best sets the mood is the archway of the Archivo del Adelantamiento de Castilla. Adelantado is what the Governor of a border province -Castile was such a province at the time- was called, and Adelantamiento was the corresponding institution. The Archives were constructed in the middle of the 16th century by order of Felipe II, Juan de Herrera, the architect of the Monastery of El Escorial, drew up the project and the work carried out by Juan de Vallejo. It is a solid, rectangular building, a bit of a monstrosity were it not for its eight buttresses which furnish it with a certain rhythm and character. The arch that spans it softens its severity, and invites us to cross beneath it. The King's coat of arms which proudly presides over the arch is obviously large, for it had to include in its quarters, the many states of the Spanish Empire.

The Archives' valuable documentary, historic-graphic and even artistic treasures, in the case of its manuscripts - the oldest dating back to 950 -, are no longer kept here. When we pass through the arch, a few steps farther on will bring us to the Plaza de Dofia Urraca. It is the Plaza Mayor or Main Square, where one can find all the hustle bustle of the town and where the words of writer and political Dionisio Ridruejo (1912-1975) take on maximum veracity: "Covarrubias is more than a mere repertoire of illustrious monuments. It is an atmosphere, one of those atmospheres trapped in Time. And, besides, this square does not suffer, as do the vast majority of them, from the sadness of having been abandoned." No, there is no abandonment or melancholy here. It is a charming, active town. It was justly awarded the Silver Medal of "Europa Nostra" from the UNESCO Foundation- due to the excellent state of conservation of its heritage. One merely has to observe the pure white of its limestone facades and the varnish, which highlights the brownish color of the wooden beams supporting its buildings. They are modest, rural homes, but ones, which are, nevertheless, well cared for. It is evident that their inhabitants are determined to assure that the beautiful geometry of their framework remains standing. The hotel, restaurant and town hall are found on the cobble-stoned square, under the arcade, and it is the ideal place for conversing while enjoying an aperitif.

Almost adjacent is another square, that of Dofia Sancha. Here we find a lovely popular dwelling of the 14th century which, like an old pirate, is supported in a most unusual manner on the four "wooden legs" -juniper pillars- of its portico. They say that there is a tunnel blocked up today- in its basement, which led to the Torreon or large fortified tower of Femdn Gonzdlez. This tower is, in fact, the jewel and emblem of Covarrubias. Admiring it is enough to take us back in history and we can easily imagine the raw reality of the 10th century, when this region was continually being subjected to military attacks. Count Ferndn Gonzdlez had it reconstructed in that century on the site of an ancient fortress. This gigantic, Mozarabic structure, "almost blind", for it has no windows, had to face very hostile enemies, with its truncated pyramid of three meter thick walls, without decoration of any kind. Its brutal and dry beauty is overwhelming. It is indeed handsome but no one ever smiles before it, for it is handsome like granite or pure, hard steel, and it was the site of many sacrifices and bloody battles. When the roof was set in place, the tower lost its battlements, which made it look even more solemn and closed in. The legend surrounding it is not pleasant either: it is said that Dofia Urraca was buried alive in narrow quarters opened up in the wall on the first floor. However, around the corner from the irregular square of Doha Sancha, we come to the most harmonious area of all Covarrubias: the Plaza del Rey Chindasvinto, a romantic, landscaped corner. The statue dedicated to Princess Christine of Norway welcomes us, like a young hostess. A Norwegian princess in such a remote area? The inscription it bears leaves us even more perplexed: "She came to Spain in 1257." We will talk about her later on, because now it is the Collegiate Church of San Cosme and San Damidn, which attracts our attention. If the Torreon is the symbol of the city, the Collegiate Church is its treasure. Let us have a closer look. In appearance, it is nothing more than a humble and inviting Gothic church (15th century), but its interior and its museum produce a wealth of emotions. The first of them is the light. We are accustomed to the tremendous back-lighting which demands so much from photographers when they enter a church blinking their eyes; those sinister shadows and those almost burning stained glass windows. However, the light of the Collegiate Church is diffused and enveloping, thanks, above all, to the magnificent rose window, which has an enormous diameter compared with the size of the naves, and to the splendorous reflection of its limestone, so white, and the diaphanous spaces of the chapels which face the nave without the conventional intention of being separated from it. The slender columns glow with joy and we feel a giddy tingling as we look up their full height. This is Gothic! The Collegiate Church is an invitation to song rather than to whispering and surely, mass is "celebrated" in it. A paradoxical joy, because the Collegiate Church is filled with the dead. There are more than thirty graves of illustrious persons and among the many sarcophagi, some stand out for their unique beauty. Those of Count Femdn Gonzdlez and his wife, Sancha, are located directly in the main altar. The latter demands our attention. It is a Roman tomb from the year 300, used "second hand" in order to hold the remains of the Countess. It is a real jewel of classic funerary art which must have received, in its day, the body of a magistrate. The medallion carved on the side, representing two patricians, is of great delicacy, as well as the bucolic scenes which accompany it. Another two tombs also stand out: that of the Abbot Garci Alonso (15th century), of florid Gothic, with a great wealth of detail and a certain smoothness which saves it from being overly elaborate, and that of Don Gonzalo Diaz (16th century), with a frontispiece in which the adoration of the Magi Kings is endearingly represented. Both tombs are the work of Aquino Egas, the engraver of the Catholic Monarchs. Hopefully you will be lucky enough to hear during your visit the sound of the church's small organ. It is a 17th century relic with wood decorated in bright, candid colors. It is considered a "Stradivarius" of an organ. As proof of it, Francois Chapelet, the great organist, obtained the grand prize of the French record industry on two occasions, thanks to his talent and the sound of the trumpets of this jewel.

The Cloister 
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"A complete quadrilateral allows the shade to play with the sun in the Four Corners and come out the victor." Bonifacio Zamora. There is no more peaceful place than the Cloister. The silence, the flowers, the murmuring of the fountain, the warbling of the birds. The Cloister of the Collegiate Church dates back to the 16th century and I especially like the wild aspect of its gardens. A very austere tomb in one of its corridors guards the remains of Princess Christine, the daughter of the King of Norway Haakon Haakonson. How did she get here? King Alfonso X (1221-1284) aspired, upon the death of William of Holland, to the throne of the Holy Gennatiic Roman Empire. He needed the support of the Norwegian king and in order to obtain it, he arranged for the king's daughter to marry one of his brothers. At least he allowed the presumably unfortunate young girl to choose from among them. After the long trip, Prince Felipe was selected and the couple was married in Valladolid in 1258. Christine died in Seville four years later at the age of 28, yearning perhaps for the greenness and the rain of her native Norway. Her remains, which had been moved to Covarrubias, were discovered in 1958. The coroner's report describes a corpulent young girl, 1.72 meters, (5.6 feet) tall, which must have been quite outstanding for the epoch. I imagine that the Spanish nobles felt a bit of a complex beside this "Snow White". A bell, which hangs beside her tomb, promises a boyfriend to any young girl who rings it. "What an empty, vacant look in your eyes, without your frozen lakes, without your fjords, without the remote lushness of your forests! (... ) Your hidden, petrified, lack of affection, your impossible return. " Antonio Popetta, local writer,

The Museum 
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In addition to what we have described in the Collegiate Church, we still have to visit the rooms of the museum. There is gold and silver work, clothing, documents. I can recommend the Mudejar coffered ceiling (15th century) of the Chapter House, a three-piece suit of green velvet embroidered in silk and brocade (15th century), part of the trousseau of the unfortunate Christine and a 17th century ivory Christ. However, it is in regard to paintings that we find true jewels. We must inevitably single out the panel "Christ Resurrected", by Diego de la Cruz (15th century). The pathetic expression of that Jesus is so realistic that it almost trembles and what is more surprising; it looks at you and at the camera, as a result of an aesthetic recourse, highly unusual for the epoch! The brilliant colors -and it has not even been restored! The intelligent composition and the magnificent finish make this a truly classic work. Afterwards -why not! the "Virgin of the Book", by Van Eyck (15th century), which is one of those very warm Flemish interiors in which the religious theme becomes domestic. The magnificent perspective and the open windows in no way disrupt the intimacy of that Baby Jesus who is looking at a book in his mother's arms and prevents the atmosphere from becoming too closed in, despite the abundant detail and its exquisite meticulousness. Following these works, we should mention those coming from the Church of Santo Tomds: three Spanish Flemish panels (15th century) by the excellent Diego de la Cruz: "The Visitation", "St. Lucy" and "Mary Magdalene'. If you like Renaissance painting they should not be missed. And two by Alonso de Sedano: "The Decapitation of St. Thomas" and another in which an unusual legend is depicted: The King of India invites the Saint to dinner. He refuses to eat pork, as he is Jewish and a servant -who is not at all tolerant of superstitious people- slaps him because of it. In that moment, a dog enters the room and bites off the sacrilegious hand of the servant and this scene is what is represented in the painting. "Last but not least", as the saying goes, a panel by Berruguete (15th century) in which St. Cosme and St. Damien, doctors, transplant a black leg to a white man (!), a work of great delicacy. There is also a 15th century Flemish "Pieta", a twin, but far more interesting, than the adjacent Castilian one of the same century.

I will finally cite the work considered the masterpiece of the Collegiate Church: a spectacular triptych by Gil de Sitoe Flemish sculpture in polychrome wood, which represents the Magi Kings (15th century). Its size and excellent state of conservation are surprising, but I feel that it has excessive technique, and limited inspiration. Rigid, almost like a caricature, I prefer, in any event, one of the paintings, which decorates the doors of the triptych, in which St. Cosme and St. Damien are represented. They have been decapitated, but are, nevertheless, standing up and holding their respective heads in their hands. And, speaking of sculptures, we should not miss the carvings of the Virgin of La Redonda and the Virgin of Mamblas (13th century) and their sweet smiles.

Let us go outside again and take a walk along the shores of the Arlanza River, beside a section of the ramparts (10th century) which has resisted the passage of time and man, so that we can digest in our minds the recently contemplated beauties. Just as on other occasions, I do not cease to be amazed at what I have seen today, and I can't help but think about what must have been the ancient wealth of this town, considering the many thefts, wars and spoliation it has suffered. When we reach the bridge, we should turn right in order to head towards the Plaza del Obispo Pefia (the illustrious son of the town and Archbishop of Quito who lived during the 16th century). It is the most genuine comer of Covarrubias. Very close by is the Church of Santo Tome (15th century), but it is closed to the public. if you want, you can walk up its Renaissance staircase and if not, 1, nevertheless, suggest that you talk with the priest, Francisco Javier Gemez Ona. He is often the guide at the Collegiate Church and, as he is so kind, he will become your best and most erudite host.

History 
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Covarrubias was supposedly inhabited as of 1000 BC The first historical reference is to the presence of a Celt Iberian tribe: the Turm6digos. The Romans constructed the first tower where the present one now stands and the Visigothic, King Chindasvinto, built a primitive church (7th century), where the Collegiate Church is located today. It is believed that this king put up the ramparts around the city, but that the Arabs destroyed them at the beginning of the year 700. As a result of the Moslem invasion, the entire area became "no man's land" and its settlers fled to the mountains in the North. Two hundred years of abandonment and silence followed. At the beginning of the year 900, Alfonso III of Asturias, in the North of Spain, managed to extend the border of his dominions to the South, until the Duero River. This became the natural border between Moors and Christians. Following along the Carolingian model, many different counties were created in this marca or border zone. The King rewarded his paladins for their services by granting them a title, lands and autonomy. They, in turn, took charge of the repopulation and the defense. The Arlanza Valley corresponded to Count Gonzalo Ferndndez. Thanks to him, Covarrubias was reborn as an important defensive stronghold before the frequent Islamic forays. Cantabrians, Basques and Mozarabs - Christians in Moslem territory- went to establish themselves there as colonists, attracted by the offer of fertile lands and the status of free farmers.

Gonzalo Fernandez's son, Fernan Gonzalez, is the great historical personage of the town. The current Town Hall was one of his homes and he rebuilt the superb tower. Feman Gonzalez, the Count of Lara and a clever man, took advantage of the fact that his lord, the King of Le6n, dedicated all his efforts to fighting against the King of Navarre, and so, he annexed the closest counties and proclaimed himself the independent Count of Castile (960) -the name is due to the many castles characteristic of this border area-, His independence implied the hereditary nature of the title and the ownership, and a greater military and taxation autonomy. In summary, he created a new kingdom, but without calling it such, so as not to pose a direct challenge to the King. Chercbez la femme, says the old French adage. Behind Fernan's political wisdom, we find his mother, Muniadona, nicknamed the Condesisima or High Countess. In fact, women played a very important role in the following period, that of greatest historical relevance of Covarrubias.

Castile's independence was consolidated. The war receded towards the South and agriculture prospered. The counts enjoyed hunting, war and intrigue, but they preferred to leave the unpleasant administrative tasks in the hands of the clergymen. Of course, every family turned over one of its members to the Church, even if it was only as the "President of the Board of Directors". For example, and with this purpose in mind, Garci Fernandez, Fernan Gonzalez's son, created the Infantado or Appanage of Covarrubias (978) for his eight-year-old daughter, Dofia Urraca. The girl took vows of chastity and became an abbess, although she was, in fact, a laywoman, of the Monastery of San Cosme and San Damidn. The Infantado administered an important cultural, agricultural and stock breeding wealth, for it covered an enormous extension of properties, towns (more than seventy), monasteries, mills, etc. it also bolstered the repopulation of the land based on granting privileges and tax exemptions. Three tombs at the main altar of the Collegiate Church contain the remains of three princesses, three single, virgin women who ruled all this wealth. However, at the end of the 12th century, everything changed. Alfonso VIII dismantled the Infantado or Appanage, partitioning its possessions and tax collection rights. For forty-two years, abandonment and desolation ruled. Fortunately, Fernando III, his grandson, restored the lost hegemony of the Appanage which was as of then ruled by abbots, instead of abbesses, and which remained under the direct protection of the Vatican. The first abbot would be Don Gonzalo and Prince Felipe, a young man with a brilliant career who had studied in the Sorbonne, and had St. Albert Magnus as his teacher and St. Thomas Aquinas as his companion, succeeded him. At twenty years of age, he was named Abbot, even though he had not received his sacred orders, but he soon renounced his ecclesiastic benefits in order to marry ... Christine of Norway. After him, however, the successive abbots would all be true clergymen. Prosperity returned to Covarrubias: the privileges were recovered and so, the profits of their productive cereal and wool industries no longer left the region. The 15th and 16th centuries were those of maximum splendor and those to which the town owes its current appearance. A well to do class of clergymen and nobles was born, which promoted urban development. In 1590, Covarrubias was hit by a mortal plague and it requested help from Francisco Valles, a native son and royal doctor of Felipe II, who was nicknamed "the Divine". The bad crop harvest only made the situation worse. Valles ordered the ramparts to be demolished, in order to ventilate the city. It was a useless effort, and from two thousand inhabitants, only one hundred and seventy survived. The calamities continued: a fire in the 18th century and the repeated sacking of the town during the different wars. The Church was losing its power: in 1759, the closing of the Abbey was decreed and, in 1851, the Collegiate Church was eliminated and converted into a parish church. The last misfortune -a new fire- occurred in 1942. From then on, Covarrubias has only seen its peaceful existence "upset" by visitors who come to admire its beautiful landmarks.

Recommendations 
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Gastronomy: Two specialties must be singled out the roast baby lamb, which is exquisite throughout the region. My advice is that on the way to Covarrubias, you stop at "Casa Anton", in Lerma, in order to try it. It is really the only dish, which is served in its typical, family style dining room and is certainly the best lamb I have ever tasted. The olla podrida (rotten stew): the name of this dish is terrible, but it has an excellent flavor. It is a stew of red beans, accompanied by chorizo sausage, black blood (morcilla) sausage, lean me-at and bacon. Order it at the Mes6n Galin, or at its branch, the Galo. They are the best restaurants in Covarrubias; Galin is more popular, and Galo more refined, but the quality of their cuisine is identical.

Accommodation: The Hotel Arianza is a National Tourism Inn or Parador and is set in a restored medieval building. The wood panelling makes it very cozy. The large size of its rooms is appreciated. Anyone who wants more intimacy can request the cute little attic rooms. Located in the Plaza Mayor, the Hotel organizes medieval dinners on Saturdays.

Holidays: The San Cosme and San Damidn festivities, as of September 26th, which celebrate the Grape Harvest. The most unusual event is the "Rueda Chespona", an ancestral dance in which all the local residents join hands forming a circle.

Excursions: The surrounding area of Covarrubias is as interesting or maybe even more so than Covarrubias itself. Everything we are mentioning below is located less than 50 kilometers (32 miles) away.

Art: Santo Domingo de Silos! The monastery which has become world famous for the Gregorian chants of its monks. It has the most beautiful Romanesque cloister I have ever seen. In addition, the beautiful Visigothic sanctuary of the village of Quintanilla de las Vifias, with its delicate bas-reliefs. It is found in an isolated setting, with a marvelous view.

Ruins: Very close to Covarrubias, the remains of what was the grandiose Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza would have surely inspired Lord Byron on a moonlit night. This is a ghostly, nostalgic and moving place.

Nature: La Hoz de la Yecla. Just two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Silos is a narrow canyon carved out of the rock by the Mataviejas River, which can be visited thanks to a walkway. Immense walls of rock rise up above our heads, birds of prey fly about and the water roars at our feet. We find ourselves amidst a splendid forest of savins.

Archaeology: Clunia was an important Roman city of about 70,000 inhabitants. Scarcely ten per cent has been excavated at present, but it already astonishes us: the forum, the thermal baths, the theater, and, above all, some very beautiful mosaics. It is located on a hill close to Pefialba de Castro.

 

Diego Diaz is a freelance journalist and photographer and collaborates with various publications.

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