Cities Museums Spain

UNESCO Wonders of Castilla y Leon

Burgos Cathedral
Written by Stuart Wickes

Castilla y Leon – UNESCO World of Wonders

Stuart Profile SmallCastilla y Leon in Northern Spain is something of a king of the castle when it comes to history and heritage, boasting eight UNESCO World Heritage listings including three provincial cities (Avila, Segovia and Salamanca) and the pilgrim trail of the Camino de Santiago. In this, the second of our posts brought to you in conjunction with Turismo Castilla y Leon, we pick out three popular UNESCO sites that help make this area so unique, and that will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in pilgrimage, gothic architecture or the history and evolution of humankind.  

A slice of historic heaven in Castilla y Leon

In a recent post we introduced Castilla y Leon and the university city of Valladolid, with its illuminated monuments and wine studded flatlands. This time we’re venturing further afield to highlight some of the incredible range of heritage sites that make Castilla y Leon a place with more UNESCO World Heritage listings than any other comparable region.

While other countries and cities count skyscrapers, Castilla y Leon counts spires, cathedrals, castles, towers, turrets, medieval walls and Roman aqueducts. There is no escaping history and heritage here, and its scope and diversity is impressive, inviting you on a journey back through the Spanish Golden Age to Roman times and even further back as far as the earliest European settlers.

Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago

Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago
A walk like this across Castilla y Leon is a journey back through time.

Walking back in time: the Pilgrim’s route to Santiago

The countryside here is not just populated with wineries and vineyards but with long lines of slowly moving pilgrims, making their way along the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. There are routes to Santiago from right across Europe and most of those that originate in the east converge onto the Camino Frances, a trail which runs for 400km across central Castilla y Leon, and has done since medieval times.

It is still unusual to find a “route” on the World Heritage List and the Camino de Santiago was one of the first cultural itineraries to gain listing status. And an incredible journey it is too, full of present day opportunities to experience the medieval infrastructure of a major pilgrim trail; with 1800 buildings along the route deemed to be of religious, secular, historic, architectural or artistic interest.

The Scallop Shell Sign of the Camino de Santiago

The scallop shell, sign of the Camino de Santiago, and waymarker for pilgrims.

To this day the settlements, churches, pilgrim hostels, cathedrals and hospitals serve passing pilgrims, providing support for their physical and spiritual well-being as they make their way toward the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela to see the remains of St James, the pinnacle of the pilgrim’s journey. Whether you are spiritually inclined or not, time spent walking, cycling or even driving the route of the Camino is a history tour like no other and a great way to get a measure of this part of Spain.

Given the traditions of pilgrimage in the area it should come as no surprise to find religion still plays a key role its cultural life; Castilla y Leon has the highest number of Holy Week Festivals attracting international tourist interest. If you’re a festival lover of a religious bent, the Easter season is a great time to visit to experience some of these unique cultural traditions.

Burgos and the evolution of gothic architecture

Burgos Cathedral is one of the iconic cathedral moments on any Camino journey, so iconic that it has a UNESCO World Heritage listing all of its own, a reflection of its gothic importance. There are 11 cathedrals in Castilla y Leon, and Our Lady of Burgos is undoubtedly one of the best and the only cathedral in Spain to be UNESCO listed. It is said to sum up the entire history of gothic art in both its construction and the artefacts inside. It’s also the city’s main attraction and quite frankly everything else pales into insignificance next to its gothic spires and stonework.

It became a UNESCO site in 1984 but its foundations go much further back, to the 13th century, where a raft of European artists and architects began contributing to its ornate facade, which was finally finished off in the golden age of the 16th century. Wander in, wander around and you will be taken back in time. It is possibly one of the most ornate churches from the outside you will ever see and packed with treasures inside too.

Leon Cathedral

Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral, Leon.
One of the many Gothic Cathedral treasures of Castilla y Leon.

Burgos park life

The city of Burgos has much to offer beyond the cathedral though. It is situated at the meeting point of the Arlanzón River tributaries and has nearly three miles of park, and one tree for every inhabitant. It can be incredibly hot and dry in the summer and the shade of the trees can be a welcome escape. The park Paseo del Espolón is a great spot to find shade with its tree-lined promenade near the banks of the river and a landscaped walk that takes you past shops and cafes to the famous gateway to the city, the Arc de Santa Maria. It’s a fourteenth century decorated, castellated medieval wonderwall. Not to be missed.

The more energetic amongst you might enjoy exploring the Parque del Castillo (Castle Park) that surrounds and leads up to the ruins of Burgos castle. The park has a play area for kids, fountains, terraced gardens and steps that take you up to the castle where you will find a magnificent viewpoint across the city and surrounding landscape. If you haven’t got the energy, you don’t have to miss out on the views though, the little red tourist train will take you there and back and show you some of the city on your way.

Gates to city of Burgos Arc de Santa Maria

The Arc de Santa Maria, gates to the city of Burgos.

Burgos and the evolution of mankind

Castle and cathedral may be at the heart of Burgos but its heritage isn’t all about buildings. This city has another interesting story to tell, one that stretches back far into human history, before Cathedrals, before Christ, before calendars even. The Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos pieces together the story of human evolution, the history of the first Europeans and the evolution of mankind as a whole.  If you’ve ever wondered what your ancient ancestors looked like, then here’s one place you can find out. If you or your children like to dig around in the past you’ll definitely want to visit as it contains some of the most important human fossil finds in the world. It also has holograms and other interactive devices to help tell the whole story of human existence, and all in English as well as Spanish.

You can also visit the nearby active archaeological site at Atapuerca, another of Castilla y Leon’s World Heritage sites. It’s easily accessible by a 10km bus ride from the museum and allows you to see the site where the fossilised remains of the earliest human beings in Europe were found, some dating back from nearly a million years ago.  There’s a lot to see and learn here so you might want to allow a couple of days if you want to take in both of these highly educational attractions.

Sierra de Atapuerca. Image courtesy Turismo Castilla y Leon

Sierra de Atapuerca. Image courtesy Turismo Castilla y Leon

A thirst for culture at Penafiel

Of course all that heat and sightseeing will make you hungry and thirsty. When we visited, our kids rechristened the city Beef Burgos, but you won’t find many burger joints here. You’re more likely to stumble across lively bars and restaurants serving tapas, local dishes and the red wines the region is famous for. Of course no visit to Castilla y Leon is complete without an insight into the vino. And we know just the place for it, Penafiel Castle.

A little over an hour south from Burgos, Penafiel Castle may be a perfectly formed tenth century medieval fortress, but here it’s not just the magnificent castle people come for; it’s the magnificent wine and the Provincial Wine Museum. There are many wine museums and cellars that open their doors to visitors across Castilla y Leon but this is one of the most visited, and Castillo de Penafiel has become known in some circles as a place of pilgrimage for those in search of spirit of the alcoholic kind. The museum attracts up to 100,000 lovers of wine culture a year, and visitors get to learn about the history and culture of the region’s wines, the techniques used for production and can experience guided tastings of local wines.

While Castilla y Leon may not have a UNESCO listing for its wines, it does have a great and varied wine list. So even if you can’t get to Penafiel, be assured you will find plenty of opportunity to taste test some of the area’s many different vinos at the hundreds of vineyards, wine cellars and restaurants around the region. And perhaps you can take some of the Spain’s living history and culture home with you. In a bottle of the region’s finest.

Castillo de penafiel. Image courtesy Turismo Castilla y Leon

Castillo de Penafiel. Image courtesy Turismo Castilla y Leon

Disclosure Note: This post was brought to you thanks to support from Turismo Castilla y Leon. For more information on tourism in Castilla y Leon check out the Castilla y Leon Tourism Site, or find out more on Twitter, YouTube or Facebook

About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!


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