“Lucy?” I asked. “Is that you?”
As you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s never easy to tell one 3-million-year-old protohuman from another. Was this really the famous Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis discovered in 1974 and named for a song by the Beatles? (For younger readers: that was Paul McCartney’s old band.) The skull itself wasn’t labeled, but the text next to it gave Lucy’s history, and I had the distinct impression I was intended to assume I was looking at her cranium. If I didn’t know her head and skeleton were in Ethiopia, I’d have been fooled.
I managed to sidestep that error, but most days I find being fooled, perplexed, hornswoggled, and baffled is my default state on this Nutters Tour, and never more so than in Burgos. It began the moment Rich and I stepped off the train to discover the station was over four miles from town. (Why is it so inconveniently placed? Nobody could say.) The one taxi was seized by a spry fellow passenger who’d sprinted ahead. Luckily a kind passerby helped us catch the bus, and then it was just a matter of hiking up a hill so steep that long stretches of it had steps instead of sidewalk.
“One more staircase,” Rich muttered toward the end, “and we’re going to abandon the bags.”
Arriving at our building (with our bags), we then had to decipher elaborate high-tech entry instructions. These involved a computer link and a 300-word run-on sentence that — much as in Jaén last week — included everything except the actual apartment number.
“Is it us?” I asked. “How does this keep happening?”
I’ll spare you the details of the ensuing muddle, involving the wrong contact number, a disgruntled owner, and the harassed manager who provided detailed yet erroneous instructions. Suffice to say that in the fullness of time, we figured out how to disobey his directions and unlock the apartment door.
I stepped inside, and my first glimpse of the view from our window left me breathless in a whole different way.
I’d seen this cathedral once before, during a brief visit to Burgos many years ago. The city's landscape hadn't changed much except for the gigantic new Human Evolution Museum built to house astonishing fossils discovered in a nearby mountain. Archaeologists were particularly thrilled by a jawbone fragment dating back between 400,000 and 600,000 or possibly 850,000 years. For some reason, this was considered proof that humans had been in Europe for a million years. Now, math isn’t my strong suit, but doesn't that mean even the most optimistic estimate leaves us with a 150,000-year shortfall? Is it OK to simply round up like that? In science?
Maddeningly, the museum didn’t explain any of this. There was an abundance of superfluous detail about the process of discovery but scant information about the actual finds. It was like being let loose in the laboratory of a mad scientist who expected you to piece together the ghoulish implications for yourself.
After collecting the remains of saints, rulers, and warriors for more than a thousand years, Spain loves to put human body parts on display. It’s like living in a permanent state of Halloween. En route to Burgos, Rich and I made a brief stopover in Madrid, and when I discovered I was too late to get tickets to the exhibition featuring my favorite Spanish artist, Sorolla, I swallowed my disappointment and went to the next item on my must-see list: the bones of St. Valentine.
I’d heard they were housed in a rather quirky inner city church. Quirky? The place was totally bonkers in such a wonderful way it made me wonder if the Universe really knew what it was doing that day. I wanted Sorolla tickets, but instead I got what I needed: a place where I could clearly see love made manifest in the world. That doesn't happen nearly often enough these days.
Built in the 18th century as a leper hospital’s church, San Antón is now in the middle of Chueca, Madrid’s LGBTQ and hipster neighborhood. In 2015, after being closed for decades, San Antón was entrusted to Padre Ángel, the Catholic priest who co-founded the philanthropic Messengers of Peace in 1962. The priest (now 86) and his volunteers have transformed the Baroque church into a funky, free-wheeling community center that keeps its doors open 24/7. Hot meals are provided daily, pets are welcome, there’s a place to change your baby’s nappies, and pews are available for anyone who needs a warm, safe place to sleep. Mass is celebrated daily, and the confessionals have been replaced with counsellors providing advice and support.
And on the wall, presiding over it all, are the bones of St. Valentine. His story begins in third-century Rome, when Emperor Claudius II decided his soldiers were neglecting their duties because they were too attached to their wives and families, so he banned marriage. The priest Valentine snuck around performing illegal weddings until he was caught and killed on February 14. He left a farewell note signed “Your Valentine,” little knowing his words would continue to be replicated on countless greeting cards nearly 2000 years later.
Naysayers dispute many of the story’s details (OK, just about all of them) and point out the bones themselves are questionable. Remains of other St. Valentines are exhibited in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in Dublin’s Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, and elsewhere. But I like to believe he found his final resting place here, among the poor and marginalized who need a little extra love in their lives.
San Antón is a hard act to follow, but I have to say that the Cathedral of St. Mary of Burgos was pretty stunning in its own way. This vast gothic structure, built to receive pilgrims hiking the Camino de Santiago, took centuries to build and embellish; each section has its own personality and in some cases, images that appear more pagan than Christian.
I was particularly interested in the cathedral’s chapel of St. Tecla, a woman revered as an ancient feminist. Her story, which began circulating in a second-century text, reads like something from the National Enquirer. She ran away from home to follow St. Paul the Apostle, for which she was condemned to be burned at the stake, but a storm doused the flames. She reunited with Paul, cut off her hair, and began dressing as a man. Some nobleman tried to rape her, so she fought back — and was convicted of assaulting him. Officials threw her into an arena to be eaten by wild beasts, but the lionesses defended her from the other animals. She then leapt into a lake filled with aggressive seals that attempted to devour her but lightning killed the beasts, leaving her unscathed. And those are just the highlights.
Today she’s honored around the world as the unofficial patron saint of women’s empowerment. In Spain, where her name happens to be the same as the word for “key” on a keyboard, she’s half-jokingly referred to as the patron saint of computers, too. Fascinated by her colorful history, I intended to learn more about her by visiting her shrine in the Burgos cathedral.
Alas! St. Tecla's chapel was closed. (No explanation why.)
I realized that travel is a lot like the Internet. It's colorful and exciting but filled with dubious facts, outdated information, outright fabrications, and stuff you just can't get to, like the Bar Paraiso, the Sorolla exhibit, and El Cid's left radial bone.
I may still be able to catch up with St. Tecla, however. She's the patron saint of Tarragona, another town on our itinerary; their human towers are part of the celebrations of her feast day, which start with parading her arm through the streets. I can only hope it's the one with which she slugged the nobleman mentioned above. You can look forward to learning more about her adventures, and ours, as the Nutters Tour continues.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
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