Thursday, August 21, 2014

What to Do on a Daytrip to Astorga, Spain

With my backpack’s sternum strap fastened snugly across my chest, I sped-walked down León’s main avenue at 6:45 in the morning. Although the city still slept, darkness had given way to dawn—albeit a gray dawn, as rain was forecast for the region. I hopped on a glossy-white Regional Express train and had only biking enthusiasts for seatmates, and their bikes. Half an hour passed by and the rain and the train picked up speed. Soon the ruddy twin towers of Astorga’s cathedral came into view as we went through a curve: decorated blocks topped with pointy, slate pyramids.

Astorga, Spain
Astorga Cathedral
I left the train station at the bottom of the hill and set off to find breakfast on this drizzly, quiet Saturday morning. Almost no one was out and about, not even party-till-the-sun-comes-up types; however, this was a town whose population barely reached 11,000. Rain pitter-pattered on my polyester backpack cover, my meager umbrella, and my canvas shoes. I arrived at Astorga’s grand religious square only to find it deserted at eight in the morning. Avoiding puddles with little success, I leaned back, umbrella still open, and sighed at the cathedral’s locked, wooden doors.

In an empty bar nearby, I woke up over a warm café con leche and toasted bread served with olive oil and half a whole tomato, an awkward departure from the traditional grated pulp. A gregarious coterie of nurses came in and gave the café some atmospheric caffeine to accompany our coffees. They left for work after scarfing down a pastry here, a short shot of espresso there, but the rain continued to fall.

It was almost nine, so I scooped up the change from paying for breakfast, suited up my backpack, and decided to check out the cathedral.

Cathedral

Astorga, Spain
The Baroque west façade
It seemed a bit overkill for a small pueblo like Astorga to have a cathedral, but that hasn’t stopped church authorities in Spain before (see: Albarracin, Baeza, etc.). The town’s bishopric, though, dates back to the 300s, so with age comes prestige. The current cathedral’s westwork shows off those bell towers so very typical of Spain’s meseta or central plateau: tall, square towers whose slate-shingled roofs in the form of geometric pyramids are capped with diamond-shaped spears or belfries. The cathedral’s interior, however, is decidedly Late Gothic, styled more with soaring walls and fancy ceiling tracery in mind than with maximizing stained glass, as in the cathedral of León.

After slipping past heavy, ancient doors and making sure the wind didn’t slam them shut, I entered into a sanctuary in the true meaning of the word: a peaceful place that truly felt holy. As the cathedral had just opened, there were no other tourists shuffling their feet from side-chapel to side-chapel or grannies whispering prayers in the pews; I was alone with these towering Gothic arches and the soft basso continuo of the endless rain.

Astorga, Spain
Central nave
It wasn’t long before the church’s caretaker struck up a conversation with me, asking if I was a pilgrim and gesturing at my backpack’s rain cover. Other weary, soaked pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago had begun to trickle in and take refuge here, but I was not among them, I replied. We got to talking about how Astorga’s cathedral, along with those in Segovia and Salamanca, are some of the youngest Gothic cathedrals anywhere in Europe; apparently Spain just couldn’t let go of the Gothic when the Renaissance came into vogue.

Walking past the mammoth columns illuminated in magenta, mint, and goldenrod hues, the caretaker took me to the front of the church and pointed out the ornate, realistic wooden altarpiece, designed by Gaspar de Becerra—who happened to be a student of Michelangelo. The caretaker eventually had to leave to continue preparing churchy things for Mass, but I was glad to humor him on this boring Saturday morning (and learn a thing or two about this interesting building).

Cathedral museum

Astorga, Spain
Choir book
The Museo Catedralicio would finally open an hour after the cathedral did, so after twiddling my thumbs, wandering around the aisles, and probably ticking off some grandmas with my camera noises, I was first in line to buy tickets, perhaps over-eagerly following the cashier in as she unlocked the door. Compared to other “sacred art” museums I’ve been to in Spain, this one took the cake with its variety of pieces that range from Romanesque sculptures of the Madonna and child to 1800s-era bishop robes and even a painting that depicts the conversion of the pagan Queen Lupa (see my post on Pico Sacro for more details).

Episcopal Palace

Astorga, Spain
South entrance
Back outdoors, I meandered across the stone-laid plaza to the next-door Palacio Episcopal, built by Antoni Gaudí at the request of his friend Joan Baptista Grau i Vallespinós. Although Grau was at the time the bishop of Astorga, both were both born in the Catalan city of Reus, which explains why Gaudí, who almost exclusively worked within his native Catalunya, would come out west to lonely León. The previous episcopal palace had burned down, so Gaudí accepted the commission to rebuild it—and rebuild it he did in his unmistakable style. Like his Casa de los Botines in León capital, Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace is also a granite-and-slate, Neo-Gothic structure with round turrets, swooping buttresses, and triplets of narrow windows.

Astorga, Spain
Refectory
Never used for its intended purpose as the bishop’s residence, today this extravagant building houses the Museo de los Caminos, a museum dedicated to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. While two similarly-dedicated museums in Santiago de Compostela give a better look into the actual pilgrimage, Astorga’s showed off Roman artifacts, religious statues of St. James, and some surprisingly-compelling paintings by local artists.

Astorga, Spain
Column capitals and bricked arches
I really enjoyed getting to stroll through the dining room, which sits on top of the swooping owl-eye entrance. The sets of three oddly-humanoid windows seem to say “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and let in a muted, tender light to the bishop’s refectory. The private chapel contrasts with this room on the opposite side of the palace: great pointed arches raise up embellished walls to even higher stained glass—a very sparkly combination.

Astorga’s episcopal palace is one of three works by Gaudí done outside of Catalunya—which makes this unique building even more special.

Roman Museum

Astorga, Spain
The ergástula
Although I had trouble getting around the corner from the main plaza to find this museum, Astorga’s Museo Romano was a nice little presentation of the town’s Roman heritage.

Founded as Asturica Augusta, this legion camp-turned-city was even the capital of the Conventus Asturicensis, a judicial subdivision of the northwestern Roman province of Gallaecia. Half of the modern museum took me underground to the ergástula: a barrel-vaulted foundation used to reinforce the heavy main temple in ancient Astorga’s forum. That Roman arch sure found itself into everything, didn’t it?

Astorga, Spain
Amazingly-vibrant frescoes
A few gravestones here, some coins there, and a really bright bit of frescoed wall were the only highlights in this rather humble collection. Still, I thought it was great that Astorga’s Roman heritage has been preserved and put on display.

Chocolate Museum

Astorga, Spain
The metate—mealing stone
I saved the best for last. The Museo del Chocolate, despite being operated out of a converted house in a narrow alleyway, couldn’t hide from me. Decorated with 19th-century-era artifacts from when Astorga’s main industry was chocolate, the small lobby opened up into a tasting room and and a video room. Included with the price of admission was a showing of a VHS-quality recording of how chocolate was originally produced: slowly roasting chocolate in a continually-rolled barrel, shelling all the beans, extracting the cacao liquor by mashing the beans on a metate, and finally mixing the liquor/paste with a few other ingredients in a great vat to create molten chocolate. The “old-fashioned way” was a LOT of work, and at the end of the video they showed how industrial-era machines made things so much easier.

Astorga, Spain
Really old chocolate
At the end of the visit, I got to taste a variety of local chocolates, including white, milk, dark, and a three-layered version. I’m still kicking myself for only picking up a single bar of dark chocolate because—I’m not kidding—it was the best dark chocolate I’ve ever tasted in my life: not too bitter and just sweet enough to let that rich cacao flavor envelop your mouth.

With a brown cardboard bag from the chocolate museum in tow, I left the museum—and it had finally stopped raining.
Which of these places from my daytrip to Astorga most interests you? Tell me in the comments section below!

For more information on all five of these major sights, check out the town council’s handy PDF with hours and prices. And for more pictures, check out my album on Flickr.
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