In our search of the real Spain, not the Costas, we have visited many Plaza Mayors – in Madrid, Almagro, Salamanca, the tiled Plaza de España in Seville. So continuing our journey after leaving Avila we hit the main highway and were soon heading to Guadalupe, one of Spain’s most holy sites, in the heart of the beautiful Extremadura countryside.
The Parador, San Juan Bautista Hospital is a historical 15th century building. The guest rooms are comfortable and have views of the mountains, the public rooms have ancient maps, engravings, and copper braziers once used to warm the pilgrims who came to worship at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The garden is beautiful, full of native plants and the courtyard with its lemon and orange trees surrounds a fountain. To make your visit an idyllic experience there is a nod to modern times with a secluded swimming pool, and the hotel enjoys an incredible location on the site of the Royal Monastery of Guadalupe, which is a World Heritage Site.
It was here that Christopher Columbus stopped to collect money from Queen Isabella for his voyage to the ‘New World’. Following his return, many adventurous Spaniards from the region followed to convert the Americas. This is also, the place where Columbus baptised two of his Indian ‘servants’. The monastery’s book of baptisms records the event in 1496 and there is a painting depicting the baptism, clearly an important occasion that the church wishes to honour.
Real Monasterio de Santa Maria de Guadalupe is the most impressive attraction of the town, founded by King Alfonso XI after the Battle of Salado. My Spanish might not be great but it is good enough to know that ‘real’ means ‘royal’ and not the opposite ‘fake’. We approached the gates and found a sign telling us the monastery would open at 3.30. There was nothing to do but take a few photos of the exterior and have lunch. Simple but delicious local cooking is served in many of the tiny restaurants and cafes scattered around the main square. As we lingered over our meal, other tourists began to trickle into the plaza waiting for the monastery doors to open.
The monastery is in four parts: church, auditorium, Mudejar and Gothic cloisters. One of the museum areas houses a collection of embroidered altar cloths and vestments created in the convents during the 14th to 18th centuries. The other two have many illuminated manuscripts and paintings including a Goya, an El Greco, and an ivory crucifix attributed to Michelangelo. All are spectacularly beautiful. As we left the museum we had the chance to see the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the faithful may kiss her mantle if they wish, I refrained as I’m a non-believer, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying visiting religious sites.
The Virgin is why Guadalupe is an important pilgrimage site. A shepherd had seen an apparition and she ordered him to dig where she stood. He unearthed a statue of the Virgin, which had been hidden centuries earlier by Christians fleeing the Muslim conquest. Another peasant, in Mexico, had a similar visitation in 1531 and as a result, the people there revere the Black Madonna. Moreover, in Tenerife, she is our patron saint.
Very few Brits go to Guadalupe, which is a shame. Since our previous visit, the town has grown from a few houses surrounding the main square to a destination coping with hundreds of mainly Spanish pilgrims. It is a delightful place where you can wander through the cobbled streets and narrow twisting alleyways where the buildings are so close they almost touch. The old Jewish quarter is well worth exploring for its fascinating architecture found in every street and square.
As we walked passed the small fountain in the middle of the plaza, we let our imagination soar, carrying us back to distant times and immersing us in a medieval village before we headed on the next stage of our journey.