At its most basic, a bridge connects one side to the other and allows people to more easily make their way to and fro. A bridge can be an expression of beauty and design that identifies a thing with a place. When you see the Brooklyn Bridge you think of New York City, the Golden Gate and you know it’s San Francisco; Venice’s iconic Rialto Bridge, London’s Tower Bridge, the Chain Bridge in Budapest, and so many bridges around the world identify the cities they serve. Modern bridges are marvels of design that boggle the mind. In Mostar, what is now Bosnia y Herzegovina, the Stari Most bridge spans a spot along the Neretva River, and though a relatively small stone structure designed more than 600 years ago, it is an iconic symbol that identifies the city.
Author: Michael Kardos
Hungary is a place of beauty and complication. Magyars, from west of the Ural Mountains in Russia, ultimately settled into the middle basin of the Danube River Valley. They came to rule the fertile lands of the Carpathian Basin and 895 is generally agreed as the date when Magyars took control of Hungary.
Elements that make Hungary complicated are location, language, and politics. The rich soils of the Carpathian Basin enable Hungary to be a food exporter. But the lay of the land also allows invading armies to traverse the terrain easily and facilitates a pathway for invasion, conquest, and war. Hungarian is a language foreign to nearly every other European country. It is understood in Hungary, Estonia, perhaps Finland and some areas of Siberia. (The largest diaspora of Hungarian speakers is in the United States and Romania, though the latter is a result of the Treaty of Trianon.) Politics also has played a significant role in Hungary’s history; political choices in the past century or so have not always been in the best interests of average Hungarians.
The Holocaust of World War II is atrocity permeated by the worst things imaginable. Six million Jews were slaughtered. Nearly twice that number – Poles, Russians, homosexuals, intellectuals, Communists, Romani, the disabled, and others – were also corralled, herded off, and murdered. German Nazis were the ring leaders, but they had help. Some in Hungary are among those who actively participated.
An understated monument within sight of the Hungarian Parliament building testifies to the depravity of that time. It is known as the “Shoes on the Danube.”
Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer is not a choice. People are who they are. Hungary, like every nation on Earth, has citizens who are LGBTQ. But Hungary’s current heavy-handed rulers, the Fidesz party, make life difficult for many, including those in the LGBTQ community. But make no mistake, pride runs deep in Budapest.
On a balmy day in June 2017 thousands of people assembled at the square in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Cisgender and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and intersex all mingled and accepted each other as they listened to music, speeches, and efforts to better understand what it is to be gay in Hungary. In addition to individuals, and activist groups, the march was attended and supported by a number of multinational corporations, and also personnel from a number of foreign embassies in Budapest.
Hungary has a long – and sometimes fraught – relationship with Jews. Living in the Carpathian Valley centuries before Magyars formed a nation, Jews have been an important part of Hungarian culture, arts, science, business, and politics. The Dohańy Street Synagogue in Budapest is the largest synagogue in Europe (second-largest in the world) and the temple and museum tell the story of Judaism in Hungary.
Budapest was originally two cities, Buda and Pest, split by the Danube River and further divided into districts (there are currently 23). A core part of District VII on the Pest side is where the city’s Jewish population congregated. Residential property on Dohańy Street, owned by the Herzl family, became the site of the synagogue. A son, Theodor Herzl, would go on to be mentioned in the Israeli Constitution as the father of modern political Zionism.
Flashpoints of animosity between Christians and Muslims is a heartbreaking saga that has sullied the human spirit for well over a thousand years. The misguided notion that only one religion represents a divine faith has sparked wars across nations and continents, spilling oceans of blood. But occasionally, from the rubble of destruction people might find common ground – and accept that differences are something we share and should be celebrated.
One place where this occurred was the southern region of what is now Spain in the city of Granada. For centuries it was a major center of influence for Muslims, often referred to as Moors. Over the centuries they built a castle, home, and gardens known at La Alhambra, “The Red One”. (The color is described in Arabic as “al-qal’a al-hamra.”) The remarkable beauty and technical excellence of its buildings and architecture were key reasons it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Gibraltar, a tiny, wind-swept crag may rank as the third-smallest territory on Earth, but it enjoys an outsized role in history and world affairs. It was a home for Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens, was featured prominently in Greek mythology, was a battleground for a host of civilizations and religions, is the only European home for Barbary macaques, and served as inspiration for an iconic American advertisement that was in reality fiction ginned up as fact.
Located in the southern region of the Iberian Peninsula the area was a desirable spot for hominids, owing to a large number of limestone caves, proximity to the sea, and a generally warmer locale. The species known as Neanderthal was named after the hominid remains discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. But the first of that species was discovered a full eight years earlier in 1848 at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a sea-level cave at its southern end. The Neanderthal known as Gibraltar I was an adult female estimated to be between 60,000 to 120,000 years old. Gibraltar II was the second Neanderthal skull found in the early 1900s and was a child estimated to be between 30,000 to 50,000 years old. Gibraltar was one of the last locations where Neanderthals lived in Europe. Archeological evidence exists that early Homo Sapiens also resided in the area, suggesting the species overlapped.
Faith and love are essential cornerstones of any religion. But all too often there is a clash between church and state as churches seek to thrive and minister to their flock. For more than 250 years St. George the Martyr Church, on the Pest side of the Danube River in Budapest, a modest Serbian Orthodox parish works to carry out its mission and attract new members. But changing political climates and pressures from a heavy-handed government in Hungary can make that a challenge.
Throughout history, Hungary’s relationship with religion has been complicated. Her location in Eastern Europe places her in a spiritual vortex of Western and Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But in 1000 A.D. Western Christianity gained primacy when Hungary became a nation and Stephen was crowned king and recognized as the sovereign by Pope Sylvester II. (In 1083 Pope Gregory VII canonized Stephen and he was elevated to a saint.)
The founding of Rome is a story steeped in myth, made bigger by hyperbole, and became a place that has literally been cemented into history as one of the greatest cities of Western Civilization. And if legend is to be taken as fact, Rome is named after a murderer.
Rome is generally accepted to have been established in 753 BC. However, archeological evidence exists of people living in the area as far back as 14,000 years. The land, climate, access to water from the Tiber River, and natural defenses of the area’s hills made it a strategic choice. A pair of brothers, Romulus and Remus, are a well-known and they are critical element of the city’s founding. Depending on who tells the tale, variations abound, and different versions were created to satisfy one narrative or another. (One telling suggested the brothers were of Greek origin, something that would not sit well with Greek-jealous Romans.) Or perhaps Romulus and Remus were sons of a Trojan War hero, early ancestors of Julius Caesar, the spawn of the god Mars, or the sons of the demi-god Hercules? But all those stories circle back to a key point – Romulus and Remus were raised and suckled by a she-wolf. A bit preposterous, certainly, but that’s the sort of grist that produces a good legend.
Architecture is a discipline that sorts order out of complication. It distills design, a disparate collection of elements, a slew of math and engineering, and competing components of volume and space to create an eye-pleasing blend of beauty and function. At its most sublime, architecture can sum up what a culture holds dear and aspires to be. The Colosseum, one of the most iconic architectural wonders of Western civilization, proclaims the greatness of the Roman Empire.
A great deal is known about the Colosseum – or Flavian Amphitheater – but one mystery is the name of the architect who designed it. That person has vanished from the pages of history. Like many accomplishments achieved during the Roman Empire, the Colosseum is an idea whose location, and very existence, is a story steeped in intrigue, ambition, and political expediency. Today, the Colosseum is a beloved site, but its beginning arose from a bad ending.
Western Civilization owes a debt of gratitude to the many innovations that sprang from the islands in the Venetian Lagoon; art, architecture, sculpture, commerce, and banking are just a few. Another example is glass making, prominent there since craftsmen began turning out products as early as 450 A.D. The small islands that comprise Murano became the center for some of the world’s finest glass products – a reputation that continues to this day.
The early inhabitants of the lagoon’s 118 small islands were a far cry from the heyday that would become the Venetian Republic. But by 1000 A.D. Venice was on her way, and for glass makers, November 8, 1291 marked a significant date. The Venice governing council, headed by the Doge, dictated that the enormous furnaces required for glass making were a fire danger to a city built (at the time) mostly of wood, resting on timbers driven deep into a muddy lagoon. The order was given – relocate all the glassmaking studios to Murano.
Sure, the City of Venice gets all the glowing attention, fawning press, crush of tourists, and irksome cruise ship traffic. It’s understandable – who wouldn’t want a romantic ride in a gondola, or a selfie that includes a background of the Rialto Bridge, or St. Mark’s Square? But if you leave Venice and take a short water bus ride you’ll arrive at the tiny island of Burano. There you will find brightly colored buildings, narrow canals, and a rich history of lace-making.
It’s a delightful day trip option. Burano is a very small place, just over eight-tenths of a square mile, and has a population of less than 2,800 residents. While the true reason for Burano’s renown for lacemaking has been lost to history, there may be a common thread between the fishermen of Burano and the island’s lace making.
The very idea of Venice is an improbable notion: a collection of 118 small islands sloshed by a brackish lagoon, transected by 150 canals, connected by 400 bridges, and with massive stone and brick buildings perched atop hulking wood pilings driven deep into mud. What began as a refuge from marauders became one of the wealthiest cities in the world and is today among the most popular tourist destinations on Earth. This marvel of resolve and ingenuity has thrived since the days of the Roman Empire.
Glass is as old as Earth, back when the planet was no more than a fury of thermo-electro-chemical clashes as the solar system took form and Mother Nature’s elements grabbed their chairs and tucked into their seats at the periodic table.
The world’s first glass was untouched by the hand of man, naturally produced, either from the tectonic maelstrom of volcanic activity that resulted in obsidian, or from the heavens when a billion volts of lightning exploded and flash-melted silica-rich sand to leave bizarre multifurcated sculptures.
With so many enticing places tucked into the nooks and crannies of the world the average tourist would be forgiven for scratching their head if Montenegro was suggested as a travel destination. But the smallest of the six nations of the former Yugoslavia offers beauty and hospitality, including a vibrant beach party scene and the serenity of religious piety. For these last two items Budva and Cetinje are excellent examples.
Budva (bood-vah) is sometimes called the “Miami of Montenegro,” and tourism is the engine that drives the local economy. The Budva Riviera is a 22-mile long stretch situated in the middle portion of the Montenegrin coast and the city is reputed to have the best beaches and climate in the South Adriatic Sea. Average (Fahrenheit) temperatures in the summer (June through September) are in the 70s and 80s, with lows in the 60s. Water temperatures during that time range from the high 60s to mid 70s.
Istria is a locale that casts Croatia in a most favorable light. The small peninsula that juts into the Adriatic Sea is shared by Croatia, with small parts in Slovenia and Italy, where the coastal city of Trieste is situated. As a consequence, the peninsula has one foot in Italy, one in Croatia and is an excellent example of how the blurry lines of history can make regions of the world special places unto themselves. Two Croatian cities, Rovinj and Pula, both on the western edge of the peninsula, are excellent examples how the differences and distinctions of two countries can blend together.
Tucked tightly into the far end of a “bay within a bay” is Kotor, a town so old – and important – it is one of the few to be included on ancient and historic maps that detail the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. And though Montenegro is a new country, Kotor and the surrounding region is one of the oldest settled areas in what is now Eastern Europe.
Kotor’s name is thought to derive from a combining of the words “ten gates,” the number of ways in and out of the Old City fortress. Kotor’s historic significance is evidenced by more than 26 centuries of habitation, and more recently as being among the earliest World Heritage Sites named by UNESCO (1979), and the first of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Montenegro. Stari Grad (Old City) is a beautiful setting, yet such a confusing maze of streets that even life-long residents of Kotor can get lost.
It would be fair to characterize Trogir, Croatia as a “hop, skip, and a jump” sort of town. The biggest part is located on the mainland, there’s a smidgen that sits on a small islet, and the rest of the town is on a larger, but still small island named Čiovo. And while all of Trogir is charming, the islet – designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – gets most of the attention and has been attracting people for more than 2,300 years.
Located in Dalmatia about 17 miles due west of Split, the islet that is part of Trogir (troh-gear) is tucked between the mainland of Croatia and protected by the island of Čiovo (chee-oh-voh). By way of size comparison, Čiovo is just over 11 square miles, while the islet of Trogir is a mere 27.6 acres. But make no mistake, there’s a world of history and charm to be found on that small parcel of land.
Once Mother Nature set her hand to task she took special care when she arrived at a spot along the Adriatic Sea. She graced it with a secure foothold at the water’s edge, erected rugged mountains for protection from land invaders, blessed the region with a warm and sunny climate to grow crops, provided crystal blue waters, and stocked it with an abundance of sea life to feed people. These are just a few reasons Dubrovnik, Croatia is called the “Pearl of the Adriatic.”
As a place, Macedonia is a land of rugged beauty with sharp, vertical mountain peaks, agricultural areas that are mostly pasture, a mild summer climate, and a place of meager rainfall. Within this region of the Balkans, Macedonia has been a crossroads for several thousand years; it has been settled, resettled, and fought over long before history was being written down. Even the name Macedonia has been a source of contention because Greece, behaving like a pettifogger, has blocked Macedonia from being formally called Macedonia. The word “Macedonia” is thought to mean either “the tall ones” or “highlanders.”
This is a small nation, both in physical size and population, but in the northern end of the country, about 10 miles west of the capital, Skopje runs the Treska River. There you will find Matka Canyon. From the air, the canyon looks as though a giant red-hot knife sliced a jagged gash through the steep mountains. The river is narrow enough that in a few places you could hurl a stone from one bank to the other. Several things make Matka Canyon special, and it is well worth a visit for anyone who loves nature, history, and is lucky enough to be visiting Macedonia.
The river was enlarged when the Matka Dam was constructed in 1937, making it both the oldest artificial lake and first hydroelectric dam in Macedonia. The canyon is 12,300-plus acres of steep hillsides covered with trees. It is one of the most popular spots in Macedonia for rock climbing and trail hiking. And to add to the sense of antiquity there are several chapels and monasteries dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The canyon also is home to several caves. The most famous is Vrelo Cavern and underwater cave (the only cavern in Macedonia that is a tourist attraction). It is relatively small compared with other caverns around the world, and its underwater cave is thought to be one of the deepest, extending down nearly 1,100 feet. It is the deepest underwater cave in the Balkans and the second-deepest in Europe. But for the less adventurous (underwater cave diving is a high-risk endeavor that should be done only by highly skilled divers), a visit to the cavern offers a cool respite and interesting sights.
The cavern has some impressive formations. One of the prime elements is located near the center and it is called the Pine Cone, thanks to the erosive effect of water and limestone. And tour guides are sure to point out one of the small pools of water is named “Russian Beach” because a Russian ambassador to Macedonia insisted on swimming in the pool during a visit there.
However, it is only possible to visit Vrelo Cave by way of a river boat. The cavern is about 1.5 miles from Matka Dam and tour boats that hold about a dozen or so passengers gather near the restaurant and bar not far from the Matka Dam. The boat ride is peaceful, and in the summer months you often see kayakers idling along, soaking in the tranquility of a languid day.
Apart from the cavern you can visit the chapels and monasteries, and access prime rock-climbing areas on foot. One chapel, St. Andrew’s, was founded because of tragedy, an event that also illustrates the complex relationships that occurred in this region of the Balkans.
In 1389 King Marko and Prince Andreash (Andrew) were returning from a battle and stopped at a tavern at the end of the day (very near where the present-day chapel now sits). The king tended the horses while the prince went to get food and refreshments. Inside the tavern were some Ottoman Turks. They argued with the prince. A fight broke out and they killed Prince Andrew. Enraged, the king killed the Ottomans and vowed to build a chapel to commemorate the bravery and loyalty of his friend and liege.
Given Macedonia’s location (landlocked between the Adriatic and Aegean seas), overall size (slightly larger than the state of Vermont), relatively small population (approximately 1.2 million people), and the location of Matka Canyon, it’s no surprise this natural beauty is not better known to those other than Macedonians. But since fewer than 900,000 tourists visited the entire country in 2016, Matka Canyon is a beautiful, unspoiled place to visit.
For more information about Macedonia, Matka Lake and Vrelo Cavern, click over to these websites:
Before history can be recorded, you need at least three things; people, stories and a system to write things down. As time marches on, clans become tribes that spawn languages that evolve into city-states, and then came the nations of the world. Macedonia may be a country with recently defined borders, but it is a region that has been inhabited as far back as Greek antiquity, and is its own fascinating story.
In the southwest corner of Macedonia – one of the six countries carved out of the former Yugoslavia – is Lake Ohrid, a glistening body of water that has been home and haven for people for thousands of years. The freshwater lake is more than three million years old, with a surface area of approximately 150 square miles, and a depth of more than 980 feet, making it one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And like they have for thousands of years, fisherman still ply the lake for food and the lake’s clear waters are a popular tourist draw.
During its history Ohrid would, like many ancient towns in a prime location, see various civilizations come and go. After the ancient Greeks, came Romans. Subsequent occupiers and claimants would include Bulgarians, Byzantines, Ottomans, Moldavians, Serbians, Albanians, Venetians, and even Dalmatians from what is now Croatia.
The climate and abundance of life of Lake Ohrid makes it a reliable source of food for the people who have lived there since 359 BC. Researchers estimate more than 1,200 endemic species – both flora and fauna – live in and around the lake, making it one of the most biodiverse lakes in the world. Another important indicator of the region’s importance is it is one of only 28 places on earth where UNESCO World Heritage has recognized as both Cultural (the historical center of the city in 1979) and Natural (the lake in 1980). Part of Albanian border runs through the southwest portion of the lake.
The lake offers a number of water-related activities for visitors. There are beaches for relaxing in the sun, boating and sailing activities, and swimming in the clear waters. In the latter part of July each year, elite marathon swimmers from around the world gather for the Lake Ohrid Swimming Marathon, where they swim more than 18.5 miles from the monastery of St. Naum, along the shoreline to the town harbor. Due to its location and elevation the area has a Mediterranean climate; average monthly temperatures range from the mid-30s Fahrenheit in the winter months, and the low 80s Fahrenheit in the hottest part of the year, August. Average annual rainfall does not usually exceed 30 inches, with fall, winter, and spring being the rainy months.
The city of Ohrid is situated on the northeast corner of the lake and today has approximately 42,000 residents. The original town was constructed on a hill that overlooks the lake. Ohrid also has a distinction of once having 365 churches of various faiths, giving the faithful a plethora of choices of where to worship.
In fact, when settlers first gathered in the area, the town was referred to as Lychnis, which roughly translates from ancient Greek as “a precious stone that emits light” or “city of light” (the Latin name used by the Romans was Lychnidus and essentially means the same thing). It was not until around 879 AD when the settled area become known as Ohrid, likely a mashup of Slavic words “vo hrid” which means “on the hill,” a strategic rise next to the lake where the town had settled.
With so many churches having been built in Ohrid, at one time or another, there are many beautiful ones to appreciate during a visit to the city. Some of the major churches include St. Sophia church built in 1035 AD, St. Bogorodica Perivlepta which was built in 1295, St. John the Theologian – Kaneo was constructed in the 13th Century (and is popular because of its location on the crest of the hill above the lake), and St. Pantelemjon – Plaoshnik which was erected in the 10th Century. Additionally, there are many other old and well-preserved churches for visitors to enjoy. Ohrid also has an Old Bazaar, fortress walls, an icon gallery, and traditional architecture to showcase the city’s long and storied history.
And the city has a number of other popular attractions to entice visitors. Ohrid trout is a popular dish at many of the restaurants in the city. For five weeks, from July stretching into August the Ohrid Summer Festival has earned a reputation as one of the leading music festivals in Europe, where marquee-name musicians entertain the crowds. And also, during the summer the Balkan Folkfest shows off the best of traditional folk life, music, and culture of the regions.
The story of Ohrid is one of an ancient place and proud culture. The region around Lake Ohrid is a place of beauty for a country that is coming into its own.
For more information about Ohrid and Lake Ohrid, click over to these websites:
The northwest corner of Macedonia, about three miles from the Albanian border, is remote, rugged, wild, and mountainous, filled with lush forests, and dotted with small villages. It is also the home of an enclave of dedicated Macedonian Orthodox monks who have been nurturing their faith for nearly 1,000 years while they struggle for identity and recognition.
On the slopes of Mt. Bistra, near the small town of Debar, Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was established in 1021, according to historical records. Debar’s proximity to Albania means that even today Albanians outnumber the Macedonians in a town of less than 15,000 people.
The establishment of Saint Jovan Bigorski (John the Baptist) Monastery came during a crucial period in the western religious world, as lines of disagreement were drawn between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church. To a nonbeliever, the disputes might appear trivial, but the two factions took it all very seriously. Those who practiced the Orthodox faith disagreed with Catholics who believe the pope was both infallible and supreme, that the Holy Spirit derived from both God and Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary was a key element of Catholic faith, how one blesses themselves in the sign of the cross, and even the language to be spoken at church services – Latin for Catholics or Greek for the Orthodox. These and other seemingly esoteric notions of what constitutes the canons of a legitimate church comprised much of the schism between the two religions.
Arguing about who was right festered to the point that an official schism between Catholics and members of the Greek Orthodox faith occurred in 1054. Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery continued its effort to preach the Orthodox faith, and the monastery was placed under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox bishopric.
From a different quarter, the Ottoman Empire pursued expansion of its realm and the spread of the Muslim faith; in the 16th Century Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery would be destroyed by Ottoman Turks. But the monks and faithful members of the church were determined to carry on, and the church and buildings were restored by 1743. The restoration no doubt re-energized the monks and the parishioners because Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was further expanded in the early 1800s. But regional and world events would continue to cast a pall over the pursuit of peace and faith.
To put this in a broader perspective, Macedonia is an ancient land that has struggled to rule itself. It has been conquered and liberated for more than two thousand years. Romans, Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and other Slavic peoples have laid claim to the area and called it their own. As far back as the 6th Century B.C. Persians ruled Macedonia. In the 14th Century A.D. Macedonia was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and by the early 1900s Macedonia fell under Serbian rule. At the end of World War I, Macedonia was subsumed into Greater Yugoslavia, until Macedonia peacefully became independent in 1991. Even the name Macedonia has been a 30-year dispute, because Greece protested calling the nation by the same name as a northern region of Greece, also called Macedonia. But as recently as June 2018, the two nations signed an agreement to change the name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Despite all the turmoil during these many centuries, the monastery has continued to operate. Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery managed to go along without incident until 2009 when much of the complex was ravaged by fire. A rebuilding effort began the following year and today the facility retains the beauty and charm of its original design but with updated structures.
The monastery is notable for several significant religious relics, including some of John the Baptist, a number of other saints, and other important people of the Orthodox faith. Also, the monastery has an icon dating back to 1020 that is reputed to have the power of miraculous healing. And Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery also has one of the most impressive examples of iconostasis – a wall of religious paintings that separates the church nave from the sanctuary – in the Orthodox faith.
The complex houses some 60 people, about half of whom are monks. Visitors are welcome and there are facilities for overnight guests who might wish to experience the monastery’s serenity and calm.
Despite the appearance of peace and quiet, turmoil still persists at Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery. The issue is one that dates as far back as the schism between Catholic and Orthodox. When the two faiths went their separate ways in 1054, Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was placed under the authority of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In more recent times the monastery has stated a clear desire to be classified as a Macedonian Orthodox church under the Ohrid Archbishopric, a move Serbian church masters have yet to agree to.
While Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery deals with an undercurrent of turmoil, it continues to chart its course as a place with a strong faith in God, relics revered by Orthodox faithful, and at a place nestled on a steep hillside in the rugged mountains of western Macedonia.
For more information about Saint Jovan Bigorski, click over to these websites:
Human beings have long had a keen eye when it comes to a nice place to live and a spot in north-central Spain that is now the city of Burgos has been such an attractive locale that humans have been gathering there as far back as 800,000 years.
In addition to its ideal location, Burgos has been an important contributor to the character and history of Spain. By the time Romans arrived during the era of Pax Romana, this part of what is now Castile and León had been settled by Celts. The ensuing centuries saw wars waged by Visigoths, Suebi (Germanic tribes), and even Berbers. The Moors would control much of, then progressively smaller amounts of what is now modern Spain, for 300 years. Around 884 AD Burgos was founded as part of an expanding Christendom, and by the 11th Century it was part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burgos. In later times French ambitions included control of parts of Spain, and during the regime of General Francisco Franco (1939 – 1975), Burgos was the capital of his rebel Nationalist government.
Aside from wars and land grabs, Burgos was the site of other significant political events, and the home to important Spanish figures. For example, a misguided effort to provide human rights protections to indigenous peoples of the conquered lands in the New World, the Laws of Burgos were promulgated in 1512. The brilliant military tactician and warrior, El Cid was born near Burgos and is buried in the Cathedral.
Burgos is also home to many highly-regarded churches and an important cathedral, Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María de Burgos, or more commonly known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary. During the summer wedding season, the churches, and particularly the cathedral, are in-demand venues where couples affirm their marriage vows. Saturdays are an hourly procession of one wedding after another, giving attendees and tourists plenty to ogle.
Burgos lies along part of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago, which ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Both the Cathedral of Saint Mary and the Camino de Santiago are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
An important reason Burgos feels different from other popular tourist locales is because of El Camino de Santiago. In 2017, upwards of 300,000 pilgrims trekked along the Camino which snakes through the center of the city; more than 90 percent travel on foot and many pass through the city. Travelers are guided by distinctive yellow arrows and scallop shells that mark the way. Thus, Burgos is an important way station for pilgrims to gather, rest, and resupply for the final 287 miles of their journey. Pilgrims are a mélange – people of all ages, and varying degrees of fitness, but all can be identified by their hiking boots and the bulky backpacks that weigh them down. In 2010 the pilgrimage was popularized in a movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, and directed by Estevez.
Today, Burgos, and the surrounding area has a population of approximately 200,000 and the city is popular with visitors, Spaniards and international travelers alike. But because Burgos has a diversified economy, the city and surrounding area do not feel like a tourist mecca. Beyond tourism, economic sectors include agriculture (primarily wheat and also wine), industry (including assembly of automotive parts), and other goods and services. There are two universities in Burgos.
From a tourism perspective, the cathedral and churches are certainly anchor attractions, but Burgos is also replete with architecture dating back to the Middle Ages. There are museums devoted to the history of Burgos, a museum devoted to books, and a recently-opened museum focusing on human evolution that is one of the few museums of its type in the world. Just outside the old city of Burgos is Paseo del Espolón which runs along the crystal-clear waters of the Arlanzón River, and it is a popular spot to stroll and relax.
Most visitors to Spain usually seek out the best-known locations – major cities and popular coastal resorts, for example. But a visit to Burgos is sure to engage and fascinate both first-time and repeat visitors because it is a place to soak in some of the Old World culture of Spain.
For more information about Burgos, click over to these websites:
As ancient peoples struggled to thrive in an uncertain world, they often relied on two things for protection – churches to profess their faith in God and a sturdy fortress to keep enemies out. For thousands of years Ávila’s ideal location has been favored by a succession of cultures and today is renowned for the number of churches and the best-preserved fortress wall in Spain.
Since the dawn of civilization location remains one of the driving factors for where a city should be. This holds true for Ávila. Sited on a rocky outcrop 3,700 feet above sea level, near a spot along the Adaja River in the midst of Spain’s central plain, the city is about 72 miles west of Madrid. Ávila has been characterized as perhaps Spain’s “most 16th Century town.”
Human occupation of the region goes back as far as 700 B.C., first by a group of peoples known as Vettones. And like most every part of southern Europe, the Romans conquered and settled the area, in this case around the 3rd Century B.C. The Romans were supplanted by the Moors, who were later driven out by people who would piece together Spain. Ávila was strengthened as a fortress to protect an emerging Spain from the Moors.
The fortress walls are brown granite. Construction began in 1090 A.D. and was completed in the 12th Century. The wall is well preserved and impressive by many measures. At more than 8,250 feet in length, the wall encircles approximately 76 acres of the old city. The wall is nearly 40 feet in height and almost 10 feet thick. Nine gates regulate traffic in and out of the old city and 88 semicircular towers provided a location to muster soldiers, arms, and supplies. In 1985 the wall and old city inside were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A combination of circumstances account for the large number of churches and a cathedral – today there are more than a dozen – in Ávila. As Spain came into its own as a nation, the people drove out the Moors. The population increasingly turned to Catholicism – and the Vatican in Rome – for spiritual guidance. And though Spain had had a relatively large and prosperous Jewish population, the pope increasingly pressured Catholic monarchs to either convert the Jews to Catholicism to force them out. Many Jews converted, but even then, their motives were questioned by suspicious popes. Further complicating the domestic situation, the ascension of Ferdinand and Isabella to the throne set the stage for a harsher examination of both converted Jews, and anyone suspected of not being a true Catholic.
Ferdinand and Isabella were cousins and devout Catholics. Their desire to secure Spain’s borders and demonstrate the fervor of their faith resulted in acquiescence to the pope. Paranoid popes, suspicious of Jews who had converted, urged monarchs to conduct inquiries as to a person’s fidelity to the Catholic faith. The result over time was the infamous Inquisition.
One of the clearest examples of the horrors of the Inquisition was carried out by Tomás de Torquemada, also known as the Grand Inquisitor. He possessed the dangerous combination of piety and paranoia and was thus the perfect vessel to carry out a reign of terror. For 15 years Torquemada oversaw the torture and persecution of converted Jews and Spanish Catholics whose faith was suspect. In September of 1498, he died and was interred in Ávila at the monastery of St. Thomas the Aquinas.
But Ávila has a positive counterbalance to its religious fervor, thanks to the life and works of Teresa of Ávila.
It could be argued that forming and consolidating Spain, along with the trauma of the Inquisition, left many of the country’s Catholics weary, and therefore relaxed, as to their religious passion. Teresa, a Carmelite nun born in Ávila, was sickly as a child. But in her adult years she demonstrated piety and showed no interest in earthly possessions. Her mission, as she believed God commanded her, was to demonstrate faith and restore the Catholic Church to a place of importance. She was tireless and produced a significant body of writings. On her death bed in October 1582, she is reported to have said, “My Lord, it is time to move on. Well then, may Your will be done. O my Lord and my Spouse, the hour that I have longed for has come. It is time to meet one another.” She is buried in Salamanca and was canonized a saint 40 years after her death.
Ávila is an excellent visitor destination and offers a relaxed experience. A stroll along the top of the fortress wall provides a deep appreciation of the effort to secure the city and the comfort residents must have felt when troubles came along. Wandering through the old city makes it easy to soak in the history and to walk along streets that have been used for well over 2,000 years. And while Ávila was once a city of harsh piety, it is today a welcoming spot for visitors from around the world.
Fortunately, as time moves on, one can forget the harsh judgements of a Torquemada, or the restrictive piety of St. Teresa, and see firsthand the special charms offered by the treasures found in Ávila.
For more information about Ávila and some of her famous inhabitants, click over to these websites:
Call it what you like – a thirst for knowledge, insatiable curiosity, or simply a keen desire to learn and know more, education is an aspirational element of the human spirit. For more than 900 years students from Spain and around the world have been attending classes at what is now Universidad de Salamanca, Spain, one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world.
But a considerable amount of time – and history – would pass before a university at Salamanca could be firmly established under Spanish rule. The area of western Spain was long considered a desirable place since its founding in ancient pre-Roman times. In 220 BC Hannibal conquered the area. The Romans then captured it from the Carthaginians. (A bridge still in use in the city was built by Romans in the 1st Century AD.) Other conquerors included Alans (thought to be of Iranian origin), Visigoths, Moors, and finally Christians would settle what is now Spain. (As late as 1492, Spain was still in the process of consolidating her borders.)
For many people, 1492 is a well-known date; in October of that year Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, claiming it for Spain, and setting off centuries of conquest, murder, and the pillaging of lands and riches from indigenous people. The gold that flowed from South America fueled Spanish wealth and ambitions, and the reverberations in the Americas are still being felt today. Prior to setting sail Columbus spent years traipsing across Europe trying to convince a wealthy patron he could get to the East by sailing west. His ideas were occasionally heard and his proposals were dismissed more often than not.
In late 1486 or early 1487 Columbus pleaded his case at the University of Salamanca before a body of scholars who had been asked by the king and queen to evaluate his proposal. Ultimately the assembled body rejected his ideas, based in large part on Columbus’ assertion that an Atlantic crossing would be a relatively short and easy task. Surprisingly, Columbus’ ideas never considered the existence of the Americas, only that an ocean lay between Spain and the Far East.
By the time Columbus left Salamanca empty handed, the university had already become a highly respected institute of learning. In 1218 Alfonso IX of León (king of León and Galicia), granted the university a royal charter, even though students had been attending classes there as far back as the early 1100’s AD. By the 16th Century AD there were approximately 6,500 students attending the university in the city that had a then-population of about 24,000 people. The university is considered the third-oldest continually operating institute of higher learning in the world.
Over the centuries Salamanca University has contributed to a number of important academic milestones. For example, it was here that Medieval notions of law were replaced by concepts that people had a right to life, the right to own property, and there was an acceptance of freedom of thought and basic human dignity. Today the university is home to colleges of medicine and science, law, humanities, and liberal arts, and it offers more than 250 academic programs. There are now almost 32,000 students in attendance and the city of Salamanca has a population of approximately 170,000 people. The university and tourism account for major sources of revenue in the city.
Visitors – as well as students – find much to enjoy in the city. It goes without saying that Salamanca, approximately 120 miles west of Madrid, has the feel and vibrancy of a university town. Its popularity as a first-rate venue to learn Spanish results in a large international student population. And the centuries of successive peoples who have called the place home blends in a rich tapestry of cultures. Fans of architecture can find throughout the city excellent examples of Roman, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. In 1988 UNESCO designated the city as a World Heritage Site.
Salamanca may be an old city, but one with a young heart. Visitors will leave with a lasting appreciation of the history and importance this city along the Tormes River has had on Spain, the world, and the ideal of advanced education.
For more information about the history of Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, click over to these websites: