An inspiration to writers such as Ken Follett or Paulo Coelho, the Cathedral of Santa María has been the stone witness to the history of Vitoria-Gasteiz. "Open for Construction", an innovative restoration project, revealed its secrets to visitors. Today, open for worship, they remain on display.
Surrounded by Medieval buildings, the Cathedral of Santa María in Vitoria stands on the top of the hill on which the capital of Alava was founded in 1181, on the remains of the ancient village of Gasteiz. As you approach it, the elegance of its lines captivates you. Construction of the temple started in the 13th century, on top of a defensive city wall. The region was on the frontier and it was thought important to have a fortified area. So in the beginning it seemed destined to become a church-fortress. However, over the years, Santa María turned into the beautiful Gothic cathedral we see today. At present, this fearless witness to the history of Vitoria-Gasteiz has been restored. However, unlike other projects in which the site is closed during renovation, Santa María Cathedral is 'OPEN FOR CONSTRUCTION'. When I discovered that the inner depths were open to visitors, one quiet morning, among scaffolding and walkways, and equipped with a helmet, I set off to visit the cathedral. Important: Advance booking is necessary. The guide welcomed us and the tour began. We followed the guide into the cathedral, and our jaws dropped. The entrance to Santa María de Vitoria is impressive for its lines, light and of course, its open core. The interior reminds you of Gothic French cathedrals such as the Notre Dame, although, it is, in fact, a unique church with a strong personality. Visiting a cathedral in the throes of restoration is quite an adventure. High-up scaffolding and open floors reveal how the work is progressing.
The tour is like an architect's visit to a project site. In fact, on the last Tuesday of every month at 16.30, visits are conducted by the Managing Director of the Cathedral Foundation, the architect Juan Ignacio Lasagabaster. After two hours discovering the details of the restoration project, the visit ends with a surprising sound and light show, "El Pórtico de la Luz" (The Portico of Light), which reveals, using digital technology, how the portico walls were originally painted. It is well worth watching.
Once inside the temple, we can see the painstaking work of archaeologists, stonemasons and other workers who slave away on the lower levels and scaffolding, with monastic concentration. It almost feels like you’re a child again. I watched a couple take a photo of themselves, smiling from under their helmets, while parents tied to explain to their children where the floor of the cathedral used to be. In fact, so much has been excavated, that the Roman remains discovered may throw some light on the distant past of Gasteiz.
Lights and shadows accompanied us on our tour around the inside of the church. The climb up to the walkways allows you to contemplate it in all its splendour, in a setting that would be unthinkable in any other religious building, and which forms part of the unique charm of this visit. From the tower, we saw all Vitoria-Gasteiz beneath us, the red rooftops contrast with the sky and the numerous green zones. At these heights, infatuation with this unique Gothic project is now complete. But I am not alone in this. Even such popular writers as Ken Follett and Paulo Coelho felt the same passion, and were among the first to be fascinated by this building and the city. The well-known writer Víctor Hugo was attracted by the Gothic appearance and the almond-shape of the city, which was maintained until the 19th century. In the 21st century, Coelho used it for the key setting in his novel 'The Zahir', while Follett went one step further and, after his first visit declared that he felt "so dazzled by the cathedral" that he would convert it into the muse for the long-awaited second part of 'The Pillars of the Earth'. As a result, the best-seller 'World without End' revolves around a fictitious cathedral that takes its inspiration from the Cathedral of Santa María. The city returned the Welsh writer's gesture of affection by erecting a life-size hyperrealist statue next to the cathedral in Plaza de las Burullerías, made by the well-known artist, Casto Solano. In this way, the romance between the church and the writer became public and everlasting.
To finish the tour, we walk around the outer ring of the wall and triforium. At the end, the completed restoration of the Cathedral portico can be appreciated together with the spectacular carvings of the tympanums of one of the best 14th century façades in all the Peninsula. Thanks to the study jointly funded by the City Council of Vitoria-Gasteiz and the Department of Culture of the Basque Government, the ancient walled canvas has been found to be even older than was originally thought. Its recovery is a gift, not only to the inhabitants of Vitoria-Gasteiz, but also its visitors.
On leaving the cathedral, I decide to take a bike ride around Vitoria-Gasteiz, “European Green Capital 2012” for being the most environmental-friendly city and for providing a vital environment for the inhabitants while contributing at local level to the fight against global climate change. An impressive effort that results in extraordinarily clean air in the city, several areas of parks and gardens and firm commitment to a sustainable future. Visitors to the city will notice the effect in the joy transmitted by this green city. Travelling around the city on two wheels along the many bike lanes and the 47 streets where traffic has been slowed to a maximum of 30 km per hour makes the trip highly recommendable. I set off for the Salburua Wetlands, the largest of the parks in the Vitoria-Gasteiz “Green Belt”. I learn all about this environmental treasure at the Ataria Information Centre. It is a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and a Site of Community Importance (SCI) in the European Natura 2000 Network. I travel around the 206 hectares of the park, enjoying the spectacular flora and fauna. There are two bird observatories and one of the most beautiful and threatened species of mammal in Europe, the European Bison, (Mustela lutreola) live here. Conservation is a priority goal of the park. I park the bike to take a stroll along the walkways across the water, just enjoying the place and appreciating its huge importance for environmental protection.
Another tip? Have a picnic in one of the parks in the Green Belt, my favourite without a doubt is Salburua, at mid-day if the sun is shining. And I end the night with pintxos in the old town, the Medieval Vitoria. Alternatively if I have worked up a good appetite after the exercise, I will sit down and enjoy an unforgettable supper at one of the city's renowned restaurants.
I head off on my bike to the "Route of the Pintxos". I love this typically Basque way of eating, small culinary creations, each one of which condenses the flavour of the rich local cuisine. After lunch, it's an enjoyable bike ride to ARTIUM, the Basque Contemporary Art Museum, not-to-be missed by visitors to the city. The spacious area in front of the building is the setting for top level art with the works of three great artists from the 20th century: Richard Serra (Finkl Octagon, 1991), Jorge Oteiza (Mirador Mirando, 1958) and Eduardo Chillida (Elogio de la Arquitectura XIV, 1994). The square also contains a great work of art by Vicente Larrea (Broca kenkenes, 1976) and a monumental sculpture by Miquel Navarro (La mirada, 2001). They make for a spectacular welcome.
Once inside, in the lobby, I uploaded all my day's photos to the social networks using the free wifi. Then I visited the exhibition rooms, stopping to watch a documentary and admire a sculpture or a painting. Any type of artistic expression will find a space here in this modern museum. The wide range of famous names includes Picasso, Dalí, Oteiza, Chillida, Miquel Barceló, Cristina Iglesias and Bill Viola. The afternoon passed quickly, but I had to leave. The sunset reminded me that I had to get back to Santa María Cathedral to listen to one of the many concerts performed there (see the web page for further information: www.catedralvitoria.com). Twilight filtered through the stained glass giving an air of reverie and warmth to the temple. I contemplated the walls and pillars that have not only inspired great writers, but have also become, in their own right and for their own beauty, an inspiration to the whole city: Vitoria-Gasteiz. A city deeply rooted in a great history, but which looks towards a promising green future without melancholy. May its strength be with us always.