Gaudí’s Palacio Episcopal

Astorga presented with us an unexpected delight: Gaudí‘s Palacio Episcopal. as I mentioned in my previous Gaudí-related post, I only realized we’d seen his work in León after I saw pictures of the building while researching. in Astorga, however, there was no missing it — even if we hadn’t gotten a map from the front desk of the hotel with all the sights highlighted. we came up a side street, past the Museo del Chocolate and into the plaza — with Astorga’s cathedral at the other end with the Palacio Episcopal beside it.

along with the Casa de los Botines, the Palacio is one of three buildings Gaudí designed that stand outside of Catalonia (his works in and around Barcelona make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and was constructed between 1899 and 1913. after a fire destroyed the previous building, the bishop of the time (name Grau) and a friend of Gaudí asked the renowned architect to take on the project of designing a new structure. Gaudí agreed though his work on the Palau Güell prevented him from leaving Barcelona to visit Astorga to get a sense of the city and terrain; instead he relied on photos and other pertinent information sent by Grau to complete his building design.

the supervisory council approved Gaudí’s design in February 1889 and work began in June (on the feast day of St. John) of the same year. following Grau’s death in 1893, however, Gaudí and the council began to disagree — perhaps over Gaudí’s decision to use Catalan workers with whom he’d contracted previously and upon whom he could rely to follow his vision during his absences or perhaps because the modernist building didn’t fit the council’s vision of appropriate religious architecture or perhaps because the project was getting expensive  — and Gaudí ultimately resigned. he took his workers with him when he left construction halted for several years. several of the architects subsequently hired to direct the project came and left without making much of an impact on progress; the last one resigned before the completion of the fourth (and final) floor. the project finally wrapped up between 1913 and 1915. during the Spanish Civil War it served as headquarters for the Falange but in 1956 restoration work (really aimed at finishing up the planned final details) began, aimed at converting it (back) to its intended use as a bishop’s residence. today it serves as a religious museum dedicated to the Camino — the Museo de los Caminos.

Maragatos & the Astorga clock tower

as I mentioned in my previous post, a clock tower tops the ayutameiento (or city hall, basically) in Plaza Mayor in Astorga and features two traditionally-dressed Maragatos. their likeness can be seen all over town — from the clock tower to a mosaic below the display window of jewelry store to boxes of the local pastry known as Mantecadas. while they the pastry, similar to pound cake, can be found throughout Spain the Mantecadas de Astorga are unique in the type of ingredients, which consist of eggs, flour, sugar, and cow fat. that last item is what sets them apart — so much so that they’ve received official designation and protection for their geographic uniqueness from the European Union.

I’ve conflated Mantecadas and Maragatos in my head but the are, in fact, remarkably different — one is a tasty pastry that uses cow fat and enjoys governmental protection, the other is a group of people that have long populated the region around Astorga. the origins of the Maragatos are hazy because they come from the mountains to the west of the city their ancestry is disputed. in the mid-19th century a British observer speculated they might be descended from Goths who sided with Muslims during the period of Moorish control of the region. other theories contend that: they descended from a king with the name of Maragato;  the name stems from a Roman word meaning “merchant” because they relied on trading rather than farming to survive in the rocky mountains; they’re an isolated group of Mozarabs who managed to preserve their customs in the face of Christian dominance; the consist of the last remnant of Astures, Berbers, Visigoths or Carthaginians.

whatever their origins, their dress set them apart whenever they travel throughout Spain, though its become less common to see the distinct outfits in recent decades. men wore wide breeches, white shirts, red garters, and slouch hats. women wore crescent hats, lacy mantles, black skirts and intricate filigree earrings. as with much of traditional Spain, the modern era has withered away both cultural traditions and dress and sightings now remain consigned primarily to museums or tourist sites.

soaking up Astorga

after cleaning off the day’s Camio, we headed out to the Plaza Mayor for something to eat, finding a place that served pizza and offered a view of the ayuntamiento and its clock tower with typically-dressed figures of Maragatos (about which more later) that have emerged to strike the hour since 1748. not as elaborate as the astronomical clocks in Prague or Olomouc but significantly less touristy.

waiting for our meal gave us an opportunity to watch the locals out and about in the plaza. a group of people with various physical disabilities came by, presumably from an institution for which I saw a sign off to the south. bikers in Very Serious gear but who seemed to simply be biking rather than completing the Camino on bike. and by far the best: three little kids in various stages of learning to ride a bike. older sister was already a pro on two wheels; as we sat down the middle brother was in his first, tentative laps without training wheels and dad holding the back of his seat; the youngest brother was racing around, supremely confident if tipsy on his training wheels, dodging all manner of close calls at top speed. when we came back later, the youngest had just had his training wheels removed and wasn’t moving quite so quickly as before.

pizza consumed, clock strike witnessed, and training-wheel-free biking observed, we headed out to see what the rest of the city held. in the next plaza over we came across a statue of a lion pinning an eagle — homage to Spanish forces that campaigned against Napoleons invading forces in the 19th century. José María Santocildes led the (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of Astorga in the Guerra de la Independencia. the city was the farthest west that Napoleons troops occupied and following their expulsion, Astorga again prospered with a plethora of bakers, chocolatiers, tanners, and craftspeople. now its primarily a destination for tourists though it remains crucial as a trading hub.

Astorga — convergence of roads

at the outset of the Camino, our stay in Astorga was one of the things to which I was most excited: I’d found a five-star spa/hotel to help soothe what I anticipated might prove dastardly aches and pains. unfortunately, shifting our itinerary to take a day of rest in León meant arriving in Astorga on a Monday — the only day the spa didn’t operate. could have been a tragedy if the bed hadn’t proven so fantastically, magically comfortable. and they gave us bathrobes and slippers to use, as one might expect a spa/hotel might do. it makes me smile just thinking about it.

not only did the day of rest in León give us a boost of energy kicking off the day to Astorga, the fabulous breakfast and knowledge we had a comfortable room booked for the night made the hike that much more tolerable. we arrived with time and energy to spare and got a good look around town before burrowing into the bed for a(nother) good night’s sleep.

foremost, Astorga is a crossroads; two major Camino routes converge here — the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata from the south — as well as the Calzada Romana from Rome and other major trade routes. it’s strategic importance dates from the Asturians (a Celtic people) that pre-dated settlement by the Romans. preserved Roman baths and a museum explaining the city’s heritage stood between the first albergue and our hotel — one of the first things you see as you enter the city on top of the hill. the city walls are (in part) of Roman construction. during Roman times, the city functioned largely to protect the roads, especially the one that headed to precious metal mines in the surrounding mountains. (our map noted several mine ruins — all of which seemed way too far off the Camino on day 22 to even consider venturing towards for investigation.)

because of the converging roads, nearby mines, and proximity to Santiago, Astorga became important for early Christianity in the Iberian peninsula; one of the first three bishoprics of Spain was established here before the 3rd century and the title of the officeholder is one of the oldest religious titles in Europe. rumor contends that both St. Paul and Santiago preached in Astorga at some point.

after the re-conquest, Ordoño I fortified the city and emphasized it as a Christian stronghold; it remained un-raided during the 10th century wars to the east consequently became the de facto capital of León. the following centuries saw Camino-driven prosperity and trade. the city declined somewhat with the tapering off of peregrinos but continued prosper because of its location; in addition to all manner of other goods and treasures it acted as the royal drove road for livestock going virtually anywhere in the Iberian peninsula. no wonder it’s thrived so long — it had way more than the presence and demands of peregrinos to keep it humming.