Following the Ink: Prosa y Poesia en Castilla y Leon

by Andrea Calabretta

Each region of Spain boasts some literary significance, but Castilla y Leon–home to El Cid, Miguel Cervantes, Teresa of Avila, and birthplace of the Castilian language–is perhaps the most compelling province for a lover of prosa y poesia. I spent a week there, seeking out the magic between pages of old manuscripts and among streets lined with cobblestones.

The best place to begin a tour of literary Spain–and the most convenient arrival point–is the capital city of Madrid, whose imposing Biblioteca Nacional, the National Library, looms over Paseo Recoletos. Its collection contains the 14th century codex of the Cantar de Mio Cid, the oldest existing version of the 11th century epic poem detailing the exploits of war hero El Cid. Composed in the verse form of the minstrels, this poem represents the first extended work of literature written in Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula.

Throughout Castilla y Leon, resonance of Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid) remains. The name Castilladerives from the many Christian-built castles of the region that stood as defensive structures against the Moorish invasions of the eighth and ninth centuries, and El Cid (“my Lord” in Arabic) was the most famous campeador of the Christian reconquest. He was born in the Villentro neighborhood of Vivar, near the city of Burgos in the northeastern corner of Castilla y Leon. A monument to El Cid stands at the Solar del Cid in this village of 140 inhabitants, and his coffin rests in the Cathedral of San Miguel. Another statue of El Cid stands in Burgos; a striking figure, he charges into battle on horseback, his sword brandished and his cape billowing behind him.

From Vivar, now called Vivar del Cid, travel an hour southwest to the city of Valladolid to meet the next most famous figure of Spanish literature: Miguel Cervantes, and his well known protagonist, Don Quijote. Valladolid is the center of the Spanish Golden Age, when literary arts reached a height never before attained on the Iberian Peninsula. The Siglo de Oro, as it was called, began in 1543 with the publication of a book of poetry by Juan Boscan and Garcilaso de la Vega and ended some 120 years later with the death of playwright Calderon de la Barca. In the meantime, Miguel Cervantes was leading the nomadic life that inspired him to write Don Quijote.

Cervantes occupied a house on Calle Rastro in Valladolid from 1604 to 1606, during the period in which the first edition of the Quijote was published. Though his birthplace is situated in Alcala de Henares, near Madrid, Cervantes’ red-brick house in Valladolid is the only one in which historians are certain he actually lived. Francisco de Robles–a bookseller from Cervantes’ hometown who had established a printing shop on the Calle de Libreria–helped Cervantes initiate the publishing process for Quijote. Information about this and other Cervantes landmarks throughout the city is available from the Casa de Cervantes museum.

Incidentally, UNESCO has established April 23 as the International Day of the Book in honor of Miguel Cervantes, who died that day, and William Shakespeare, who also did (though because Spain and England were using different calendars at that time, their deaths did not actually occur on the same day). The city of Valladolid also happens to be the birthplace of many other Spanish writers, including Jose Zorrilla, Jorge Guillen, Rosa Chacel, Miguel Delibes and Francisco Umbral.

An excursion to nearby Penafiel will bring you back three centuries to the impressive Castilla de Penafiel, a medieval castle that has been restored and transformed into a wine museum for the Ribera del Duero region. It was once, however, the property of Alfonso X, the thirteenth-century King of Castilla y Leon known as el Sabio (“the wise one”). Alfonso X devoted himself to the literary arts and to cultural improvements during his reign. He was also a poet in his own right–his Cantigas de Santa Mariaconsists of 420 poems devoted to the Virgin Mary–and was the first king to initiate the extensive use of Castilian language instead of Latin. Alfonso opened his Penafiel fortress to his nephew, writer Don Juan Manuel, as a refuge in which he could devote himself to writing. Like his uncle, Juan Manuel wrote in Castilian, and eventually became one of the most important and prolific writers of his time, known for his works on the education of princes.

Due south of Valladolid lies the city of Avila, the birthplace of Santa Teresa de Jesus (1515-1582), author of some of the most important mystical writings of the Roman Catholic Church. A Carmelite reformer who experienced visions and was said to levitate, she wrote several works of didactic prose, including the Autobiography, the Way of Perfection, the Interior Castle, and others. A Cathedral and Convent stand at the location of the house in Avila where Teresa was born, and a Baroque chapel marks the exact spot of her birth. Several relics of the saint remain, and the medieval walled city is a popular destination for Roman Catholic pilgrims.

Continue northwest to the city of Salamanca, home of one of the oldest universities in Europe (the others being Oxford, Bologna and the Sorbonne in Paris). It was founded in 1218 and counts among its professors and students some of the best writers in Spanish history: Fray Bartolome de las Casas, San Juan de la Cruz, Lope de Vega, Luis de Gongora, et al. The poet, novelist and playwright Miguel Unamuno was rector of the University for many years in the early 20th century.

But one of the best literary anecdotes associated with the University is that of Fray Luis de Leon, imprisoned in 1572 for translating the Biblical Song of Songs into the Spanish vernacular. When he was freed four years later and returned to class, he took the podium and began his lecture with, “As I was saying.” De Leon’s classroom at the university is open to visitors. Nearby, the Casa de las Conchas is another landmark worth visiting. Built in 1493, its facade is covered in stone shells, and since 1993 this beautiful building has housed a public library.

But perhaps Salamanca’s most fundamental contribution to Spanish literary history is the first Latin to Castilian grammar (Gramatica de la Lengua Castellana), written by Elio Antonio de Nebrija in 1492. When he presented his book to Queen Isabel, the famous Catholic monarch who funded Columbus’ voyage, he is purported to have declared that “language is the instrument of Empire.” You can visit the Gramatica back at the National Library in Madrid, as I did, at the conclusion of your tour of literary Castilla y Leon.

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