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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Valladolid: Castilla y León's Capital & Historical Treasure Trove

* * * * *

 (Parts of this chronicle first appeared in the Penguin Guide to Spain & in the Berlitz Travellers Guide to Spain.)

In early May, 2007, I stayed in Valladolid while attending the Premios Zarcillo, an annual judging of wines ostensibly drawn from around the world by an international panel of wine experts, but primarily from the host region of Castilla y León. I had not really had a chance to explore the city since more than fifteen years ago, when I was working on guide books to the region for Penguin and Berlitz.

Valladolid (from the Arabic Belad-Walid, meaning land of the governor), located 193 km (120 miles) northwest of Madrid and 90 km (55 miles) east of Zamora, an eponymous provincial capital with a population of about 330,000, is also the seat of the government of the Comunidad de Castilla y León. The city of Valladolid sits at the confluence of the Pisuegra and Esgueva rivers on a high plain (more than 2,100 feet above sea level) and is surrounded by wheat fields and vineyards. 
 Valladolid is smack in the middle of four Castilla y León wine regions–Rueda (to the south, white wines), Ribera del Duero (to the east, famous for reds, including Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Mauro, Dominio de Pingus and others, all in Valladolid province), Cigales (to the north, long famous for rosado, now making a name for red wines) and Toro (to the west, shared with Zamora and famous for powerful red wines). The area is in the middle of the famous Castilian plateau, the Meseta Central, which also means that the climate of Valladolid is subject to the same extremes–bitterly cold in winter, blazing hot in summer - - as the rest of Castile.

In addition to being the center of Castile's vital agricultural region - - the breadbasket and wine pitcher of this part of Spain - - and a major university town, in the post-Franco years, Valladolid became industrialized. As new factories such as a giant Renault factory were built, the population of the city expanded rapidly and, for a while, it less than visionary traffic patterns and city planning made it a difficult place to get around and it. But, during the past decade, a new prosperity and a new civic outlook has fostered the creation of a number of zona peatonales, pedestrian-only streets that have become prime shopping, dining and tapas hopping areas, so Valladolid has taken on a fresh new look, which belies its colorful and checkered past.

Compared to many other Spanish, and even old Castilian cities, Valladolid– which was founded by Count Pedro de Ansurez in 1084, one year before Toledo was captured from the Moors–was a latecomer. For centuries this area, including the valley of the Duero, was a no man's land, a buffer between the warring Moorish and Christian forces. But this former capital of Old Castile made up for lost time during the 15th and 16th centuries, Valladolid’s greatest period, during which it proved fertile ground for a number of Spain's most important artists and architects and was the site of a number of significant events in Spanish history, including the wedding of Isabel and Ferdinand; the death of Christopher Columbus; the births of Philip II, Philip IV, and Anne of Austria (mother of Louis XIV of France); and a three-year sojourn by Cervantes, during which Don Quixote was published (1605). Later, in the 19th Century, Valladolid had the unfortunate distinction of having served as Napoleon's headquarters during the Peninsular War.

Historically, Valladolid has suffered from a somewhat unsavory reputation. William Byron, author of a splendid biography, Cervantes, tells of a 16th-century Dutchman, who claimed that the city was full of "picaros, putas, pleytos, polvos, piedras, puercos, perros, piojos, pulgas - - rogues, whores, lawsuits, dust, stones, swine, dogs, lice, and fleas." And 20th-century wayfarers have not upgraded the city's reputation much. Nikos Kanzantzakis wrote that the city, the correct pronunciation of which is a test of proper Castilian (Vye - yah - doh - leeth), "is like a fallen princess whose lovers all have died, and so she has had to take to industry and commerce in order to survive."

Alastair Boyd, who wrote a book detailing the artistic and cultural treasures of Castile, confessed to being "prejudiced against Valladolid for years," but pointed out that there are few places in Spain without some redeeming qualities, Valladolid included. Still, he said, "it is difficult to give a coherent account of a no longer coherent city." In many Spanish cities, the great tourist treasures are set like jewels in a necklace of old and restored buildings that accentuate an overall atmosphere of antiquity. In Valladolid the necklace was broken by modern highrises; incongruity and incoherence reign and the jewels - - many of them less than crown jewels at that - - are scattered about. (This has changed a lot in the past twenty years.  Pedestrian walking areas now link most the major monuments and Valladolid has become a delightful walking city.  The new AVE high-speed train from Madrid now takes only about 50 minutes to reach Valladolid.)

Be aware, too, that the majority of the the sights here are architectural, since Napoleon's troops, headquartered here during the Peninsular War, either stole, burned, or wantonly hacked up a great number of artworks in the interiors of churches and other buildings. But, if you are seriously interested in Spanish history, architecture, art, and culture, many of Valladolid's remaining treasures are well worth searching out.

The old quarter, the core of Valladolid where most of the city's attractions are located, is a warren of narrow streets that twist and turn, and change names every couple of blocks. Consequently, it is best to walk to the many historical and architectural monuments in this town - - the Museo Nacional de Escultura in the remarkable pre-Plateresque Colegio de San Gregorio, the Isabeline Gothic facade of the church of San Pablo, the Romanesque-and-Gothic church of Santa Maria la Antigua, the unfinished Herreran Cathedral, Columbus' house, Cervantes' house, and the multitude of low priority sights considered important enough to be listed by the Valladolid tourist office.

Leave your car at your hotel, or, if you are staying outside the city and driving in for the day, put your car in one of the carparks on the west side (one in the plaza Mayor, and two more north of plaza del Poniente near rio Pisuegra. River). Explore the old quarter on foot, and use taxis, if you are not up for the trek, to get to the Oriental Museum in the southern part of town. Valladolid is well-served by bus service and by train from Madrid, which, by 2008, will be only an hour away by high-speed AVE train (the route via Segovia is currently under construction). Both the stations are located south of the Campo Grande park, which is not to be missed because of its scores of semi-wild peacocks, geese, ducks, other birds and semi-tame red squirrels, who like to perch on the "Please don’t feed the animals signs" and munch on the contraband offerings of both locals and tourists alike, while mugging for cell phone photos. )

To find your way around this city, it is important to choose a proper map. At one point, the tourist office brochure map had the Pisuerga river on the top of the page; a popular commercial Spanish guidebook series put it on the bottom of the page; and the Michelin Guide had it on the left, or western, side of town, where it should be. Beginning in the morning and using the 16th-century arcaded Plaza Mayor with a statue of the Count de Ansurez in the middle and the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall, as a reference point on your map, you can then decide which of the monuments you want to visit, perhaps starting with the Cathedral to the east; then detouring past a number of buildings of primarily architectural interest near the Cathedral; going on to visit the Museo Nacional de Escultura in the Colégio de San Grégorio and nearby San Pablo; and finishing at the church of San Bénito before returning to the Plaza Mayor and the many tapas bars in the area.

From the south side of the Plaza Mayor, walk east for a few blocks until you come to the Cathedral, which was originally intended to be one of the largest churches in the world. Construction started on this still unfinished edifice in the early 16th century, but over fifty years passed before Juan de Herrera, the famous architect of the Escorial and many other outstanding buildings in Spain, got the project going in earnest and put the Herreran stamp on it. However, Herrera's design was only partially completed - - the west front and the tower - - then construction languished again, this time until the 18th century when Alberto de Churriguera, with his unique vision of Baroque, added that portion of the facade above the main portal, a touch that, strangely enough, meshed very well with Herrera's austere style. This church sorely needs at least one more tower (among the four originally planned) for symmetry, and the interior was never finished; for instance, the Latin Cross floor plan never even reached the crossing. The high altar, by Juan de Juni, who is well represented in the Museo Nacional de Ecultura, was originally carved in 1572 for the church of Santa Maria la Antigua.

Because work on the Cathedral was stopped, several sections of the existing collegiate church from early periods still exist. The fine Museo Diocesiano is installed in these remaining sections of the old church; you can see Mudejar designs, Romanesque tombs, and Gothic doors in the Chapel of San Llorente. The sacristy contains one of the Toledan silversmith Juan de Arfe's major pieces, a huge four-tiered silver monstrance from the late 16th century. Southeast from the Cathedral is the Universidad, whose Baroque facade surrounding the main portal was done by Narciso Tomé in 1715. As Alastair Boyd points out, during this period Spanish architects such as Tome, who did the Transparente in Toldeo, and the Churrigueras, with their wildly extravagant altarpieces, were still relatively sober in their decoration of exteriors.

Artists such as Tomé were in transition, still restrained by the power, weight, and conservatism of Herrera's influence, but in the end, just as florid Gothic gave way in Spain to Plateresque, and what was once confined to altarpieces, as Boyd puts it, "moved cheerfully outwards from the retablos to the facades." Spanish decoration would eventually degenerate into Rococo, but not yet.  The facade of the Universidad de Valladolid would like to take off, but it is anchored firmly, by four unadorned columns set on square pedestals, to the no-nonsense conservative building it decorates.

Around the corner to the southeast of the University, the Colegio de Santa Cruz represents the late 15th-century Renaissance style of Enrique de Egas, and just northeast, along calle del Cardenal Mendoza, which becomes calle Colon, is Christopher Columbus's house. In 1506 Columbus died in Valladolid a broken man, "If I had stolen the Indies and given them to the Moors, Spain could not have shown me greater enmity." The house where he died was demolished in the 1960s, then completely rebuilt to house the Casa de Colón, whose most interesting displays are the maps of the great Admiral's three voyages, and some artifacts from his new world discoveries.

Just behind the Cathedral to the north is the early 14th-century Gothic Church of Santa María la Antigua with a Romanesque portico and an exceptional 11th-century Romanesque tower. This conjunto works beautifully; Santa María la Antigua is one of the finest buildings in the city. A block northwest is the early 17th-century Church of Las Angustias (Anguish), which contains Juan de Juni's celebrated Virgen de los Cuchillos (Virgen of the Knives), a polychrome statue of the Virgin Mary clutching her breast, into which enough silver daggers have been plunged to cause anguish indeed.

The Colegio de San Gregorio

Located northeast of the Plaza Mayor are two of Valladolid's main attractions: The Colegio de San Gregorio, the remarkable, incredibly ornate (Jan Morris called it "almost edible"), late 15th-century Isabeline-Gothic building in which the Museo Naciónal de Escultura is housed and, next to it, the equally ornate, Isabeline Iglesia de San Pablo. Both these pre-Renaissance buildings are often called Plateresque, but they are not. 

They preceded Plateresque and obviously contributed to its development, but they were executed by foreign architects and stonemasons inspired–according to Professor Denning of Trinity College in Dublin– by the kind of decoration commonly used in the title-pages of books and by the wood carvings done for the altarpieces of the period. It is to this, not to the silversmiths who inspired Plateresque decoration, that we owe the remarkable style of these two structures. The 15th-century Iglesia de San Pablo, which preceded San Gregorio and is even more detailed (if that is possible), was added to in the early 17th century by the ever-present duke of Lerma, whose coat-of-arms can be seen on the facade. The French looted and destroyed the original interior during the Peninsular War, but a striking pair of Isabeline doorways remains in the since-restored church. 

San Gregorio, commissioned by the prelate of Palencia, Bishop Alonso de Burgos, confessor to Queen Isabella, was built between 1488 and 1496. The facade, like that of San Pablo, looks like a giant florid Gothic altarpiece, except that the figures, including the huge heraldic emblem of Castile and León, are largely secular. The delicacy and intricacy of much of the stonework, obviously an exceptionally laborious accomplishment, is amazing. San Gregorio's architect was Juan Guas, but the decoration of the facade has been attributed variously to Enrique de Egas; Simón de Colonia, who planned the splendid La Cartuja de Miraflores and Capilla de los Condestables in Burgos, and executed the facade on the church of San Pablo; and to the great Gil de Silöe, believed to have been a native of Antwerp, who worked on both Miraflores and the Cathedral of Burgos with Simón, and is believed to have worked on the church at Aranda de Duero with him as well. Opt for a collaboration between these foreign artists, for whom, as Sacheverell Sitwell describes, "It is the 'Espagnolade' of a foreigner, as much so as the drawings of Gustave Doré or the music of Carmen."

The great patio of San Gregorio is exceptionally rich. Beautifully turned barley-sugar columns support a second-floor gallery of archways filled with profusely-decorated, intricately-carved stone balconies, each with three short columns supporting a double-arched, heavily-decorated panel. Running below the gargoyle-studded roofline is a frieze decorated with a repetitive yoke-and-arrows (the symbol of Isabel and Ferdinand) motif that is broken at each corner by the coat-of-arms of the unified kingdoms of Castilla, León, and Aragón. 

Museo Nacional de Escultura

The Museo Nacional de Escultura in San Gregorio is filled with polychrome wood statues (many with meticulously detailed bleeding wounds); complete tableaux representing Biblical scenes; Holy Week processional pasos (floats): entire altarpieces; paintings; and even an entire set of carved wooden choir stalls, done by Gil de Silöe, Alonso Berruguete, Juan de Juni, Gregorio Fernández, Pedro de Mena, and others, is to Valladolid, as one book put it, "what the Prado is to Madrid." 

One of the masterpieces in the Museo Nacional de Escultura 's collection is the early 16th-century altarpiece by Alonso Berruguete, who Alastair Boyd claims, was "the only inspired artist of the Spanish Renaissance." Berruguete spent five years working in Florence and was greatly influenced by Michaelangelo (he was mentioned in the master's letters), Leonardo da Vinci (he was in Florence when Leonardo was painting the Mona Lisa), and Raphael; he returned to Spain to become the greatest Spanish sculptor of the 16th century. Originally built for Valladolid's Iglesio de San Benito, Berruguete's retablo, now dismantled and displayed in three rooms on the ground floor of the museum, measured over 50 feet high. 

The museum also displays another exceptional altarpiece taken from the Convent of La Mejorada in Olmedo, several first-rate pieces including the superb statues of San Sebastián and the Sacrifice of Isaac, and a fine Nativity painting, all by Berruguete, whose talents did not stop here: He also did part of the woodcarving on the upper parts of the magnificent choirstalls in Toledo Cathedral. The Frenchman from Champagne, Juan de Juni, whose work can also be seen in the Cathedral and in Las Angustias church here, is represented in this museum by one of his most highly-regarded works, the Entombment of Christ, and a good John the Baptist. 

Gregorio Fernández, who in the early 17th-century carried Juni's Illusionism even further by using human teeth, glass eyes, and graphically depicted bleeding wounds to get his point across, is very well represented here, but a little bit of Fernández goes a long way. His Cristo Yacente (Christ reclining) here is just one of a number of profusely bleeding Cristos - - shown reclining, in Pieta tableaux, and hanging from the Cross - - done by this prolific artist, and scattered throughout Valladolid.

Other notable works in this museum, where the pieces are beautifully displayed and well lighted, are Pedro de Mena's fine 17th-century statue of Mary Magdalene; the bronce statues of the duke and duchess of Lerma kneeling, whose models were done by Pompeo Leoni and cast by Juan de Arfe; and the richly-detailed, carved wooden choirstalls by Diego de Silöe, son of Gil de Silöe, and creator of the great golden staircase in the Burgos cathedral. 

There are also two fine Hispano-Flemish paintings from the 15th century: one of San Jerónimo, which was in the Convento de La Mejorada in Olmedo, and the other of Santiago, dressed as a pilgrim with his staff and a scallop shell on his hat, and San Andrés, with an X-shaped St. Andrew's cross.

Also facing the plaza de San Pablo, besides the San Pablo church and San Gregorio, is the Palacio de Pimentel, where Phillip II was born. Around the corner, northeast of San Gregorio, is the Casa del Sol, with a 16th-century minor Plateresque facade. Also in this area, but not worth detours unless you are a very serious student, are the Vivero Palace (rebuilt in the 16th century), where Isabel and Ferdinand were married in 1469; the home of the 19th-century poet and playwright Jose Zorilla, author of Don Juan Tenorio; and further west, past the plaza de San Miguel, the massive facade of the 15th-century church of San Bénito. This church is only a couple of blocks from the plaza de Poniente to the west, and the Plaza Mayor to the south.

South of the Plaza Mayor is calle de Santiago, the major shopping street of Valladolid with its own special twist, a place called Las Francesas, which has a number of good shops surrounding the cloister of an old former nunnery. The Iglesia de Santiago on this street contains a fine retable by Alonso Berruguete. At the southern end of Santiago street is the plaza de Zorilla, which forms the northern tip of the triangular-shaped Campo Grande park, an oasis of trees, fountains, flower gardens, and pleasant walks. Located at the southern end of the park, the convent of the Order of the Phillipines houses the interesting Museo Oriental, which has a fine collection of Oreintal art put together by Augustinian missionaries stationed in the Far East. 

Casa de Cervantes

Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years (1601-1606) under Phillip III after the city bribed the Duke of Lerma, the royal favorite, 400,000 ducats to move the court from Madrid. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, spent three years in Valladolid during this period in a house on the calle del Rastro. William Byron, author of the definitive biography of Cervantes, describes what the building was like in those days, "one of five new houses jerry built by a small-bore speculator hoping to cash in on an influx of riffraff into the city. It was an instant slum." Cervantes, along with more than 20 of his relatives, friends, and perhaps a down-at-heel servant or two, crowded into 13 rooms above an old tavern that was the hangout for butchers from the nearby slaughterhouse. 

The Casa de Cervantes is located two and a half blocks southeast of Plaza de Zorilla at calle del Rastro 7. Don't expect to moved by the spirit of the great writer in today's contrived surroundings, however; the house is more interesting as a refurbished 17th-century dwelling, certainly in better shape now than it was in those days, than as a Cervantes museum. Besides, by the time Cervantes moved here, Don Quixote was already finished and in the hands of his publisher, Francisco de Robles, who had moved to Valladolid from Madrid to be close to the real money - - in this epoch certainly - - around the supremely corrupt duke of Lerma and the court of Phillip III. 

Cervantes was arrested in this house, though, after the mysterious death from sword wounds of a nobleman killed in the dangerous streets of this quarter. Cervantes and his family helped the man into their apartments, where he died two days later, and when no one could put a finger on the man's assailant, Cervantes and several members of his family were arrested, albeit briefly, thus adding Valladolid to list of jails - - Algiers, Castro del Rio, and Sevilla - - that the great writer had graced with his presence - - most unjustly. 


About Gerry Dawes

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009.

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television

series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

Experience Spain With Gerry Dawes: Culinary Trips to Spain & Travel Consulting on Spain

Gerry Dawes can be reached at; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected):

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