We peregrinos didn’t need to go to Barcelona to see the work of famous Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi: only a few short days into our hike, we’ve already seen the remarkable result of his distinctive style here in Astorga, our stopping place for today. And that’s just the beginning of what we saw there!
The walk to Astorga allowed us to find out a bit more about the city’s long and fascinating history. Originally chosen for its strategic location as a military camp, Asturica, or Astorga, eventually developed into an administrative capital for the Romans living on the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the Roman Empire. Because of this, we got to see a number of Roman ruins in the city. Astorga has since expanded, but the original boundaries can be traced by looking along some of the walls that surround the former Roman city in the shape of a trapezoid. The First Walls were constructed during the 4th century as part of an impressive reorganization effort; the Second Walls were a reconstructed Version of the First Walls completed in 1242 by Bishop Nuño. Repairs over the course of centuries have resulted in the current height of the walls as well as the disappearance of the Sun, King, Bishop, and Iron Gates.
Other Roman sites of interest in this lovely city include the Roman forum, which is today the smaller of Astorga’s Plaza Mayores. At one end of Plaza Mayor is the Ergastula, a large, vaulted gallery constructed with Roman concrete around 30 CE that now houses the Roman Museum. The baths near the forum were an important social and hygenic space during Roman times, and this is indicated by their location at the crossroads of the two major streets in Astorga and at the intersection of two main sewers (which are still in use today). These major baths cannot be visited, but there are some lesser baths that are open to the public (even though our schedule was too packed to fit in a visit to this site as well.) Astorga is also home to the Domus, the luxurious residence of an apparently wealthy family. One feature to note is the beautiful limestone Mosaic of the Bear and the Birds, which depicts the medallions of eight animals that Orpheus would entertain with his lyre. Also note to be missed are the extensive murals of plants in other rooms of the house.
During the later years of the Roman Empire, Christianity began to spread to Astorga as it did into nearly every corner of the Roman world. Astorga is in fact the seat of one of the oldest bishoprics in Spain, dating back to the third century A.D. (during the time of the Roman occupation). As is the case with parts of Spain that would later remain under Muslim control for many years, the religious history of Astorga is a highly complex story, one that has been shaped by the presence of Arian and other “heretical” Christian sects which gained prominence during the years after the fall of Rome as well as Muslims from the Arab world who continued to try to make inroads into the city even after it was recaptured in A.D. 747 during the rule of Alfonso I. While some city residents were made to convert to Christianity, it seems that the influence of the Jewish population remained quite profound throughout the Middle Ages. As the Camino de Santiago grew in popularity, organizations known as confradias were formed all around the city: each of these groups tended to provide for the specific needs of pilgrims passing through.
The city’s Cathedral (which can be traced back to the medieval period) was definitely one of the highlights of our visit here today. In order for us to fully understand what we were seeing in this sacred space, it was necessary to keep in mind a bit of the historical context surrounding royal and local authority during the Late Middle Ages. Astorga had, for many years, been organized according to a tenencia system which allowed the king to designate certain areas of administration to local lords. By the time of the reign of Fernando III during the 1200s, this system had largely been replaced by one in which the king took on a more active role. What we have in the case of this Cathedral then is an example of the transition from the Late Gothic to the early Renaissance style of art and architecture, a transition which reflects and even foreshadows Spanish royals’ gradual tightening grip on political authority. Construction on this church, which was built over the earlier Romanesque-style church, was begun in 1471. Entering the church, we noticed the stunning relief sculptures depicting not miracles of Christ but arguably more controversial and less frequently discussed moments, including Christ’s rage against the merchants in the temple and His forgiveness of the adulterous woman. The chapels in the cathedral, each built in a different year and dedicated to a different saint, reflect the evolution of Spanish artistic styles: some are Baroque, others Rococo, still other “hispanoflamenco.” The Capilla Mayor, with it’s beautiful images depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, are the work of sixteenth century Andalucían artist Gaspar Becerra. Perhaps the most important chapel for our purposes, the Chapel of Santiago Peregrino, was completed in the 1500s by Pedro and Juan Herrera Moreno Alvarez de Miranda. In this remarkable church, stained glass from the mid-1500s has its place next to stained glass that is less than 20 years old. It was possible also to find certain similarities between this cathedral ahe one we had recently seen in Leon. We peregrinos left feeling a bit more in touch with our spiritual motivations for undertaking this journey.
We were also thrilled during our stay in Astorga to be able to actually go inside the Episcopal Palace of Gaudi, mentioned at the beginning of this post. Gaudí was commissioned to rebuild the Episcopal palace in the late 1800s after it burned down. Gaudí chose white granite as his medium of choice so as not contrast with the reddish hue of the cathedral nearby. He designed the palace in the Neo-gothic style and worked on it remotely, designing the building from photos of the terrain. Above all, Gaudí was a master of light. He constructed the interior Episcopal palace so that it would be naturally illuminated – we can see his further mastering of this technique in la Sagrada Familia, where he used light to create an interior sunrise and sunset amongst the “forest” of columns. To Gaudí, every detail was important, and this was no less the case this this incredible Palace. The internal disposition of the Episcopal Palace is in the form of a cross, and we were able to see characteristic elements of his style such as the presence of arches, geometry, nature, ceramics, and sculpture. Unfortunately, Gaudi abandoned the work after disagreements with the council and soon after burned his plans. The palace was completed by Ricardo Garcia I, which explains some deviations from Gaudí’s vision and style. Visiting El Museo de los Caminos, an exceptional collection of a Roman sculpture housed on the bottom floor of the Palace, concluded our visit to this spot.
After having already walked for two days, we were all beginning to show signs of fatigue in some way or another as we left Hospital de Orbigo to get to Astorga. But there was also so much to lift our spirits! We unexpectedly came upon a donation-based fruit stand about two thirds of the way into our walk, and the fresh fruit and juice that we got there rejuvenated us before completing the final leg of the day’s hike. One of our own, Santiago, met a family member walking in the opposite direction just as the city came into view. And we enjoyed a nourishing lunch in a square near our hostel just as the rain began to pour and umbrellas had to be brought to our tables. After an afternoon of siesta and presentations, many of us stocked up on chocolate, a treat that Astorga has specialized in for several hundred years. Some also enjoyed watching the futbol game between Real Madrid and Liverpool before coming back to the hostel in order to pack and get ready to do it all again the next day.
Every day brings something new; every day brings more laughter; and every day we discover more about what this Camino journey means to us. Next stop: Rabanal! Only 13 miles away…
-Savanna and Katie
Gonzalez, Joaquín M. Alonso. Astorga: Ciudad Bimilenaria. 2000.
Gitlitz, David M., and Linda Kay Davidson. The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago, The Complete Cultural Handbook. 2000.
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An extensive history of the city, entitled Historia de la muy noble, leal y benemerita ciudad de Astorga, was written by Matias Rodriguez Diez and was originally published in 1908.