Set in the spectacular landscape of Extremadura, Guadalupe is a place where legends and myths intertwine
Travelling through Spain under the scorching sun in the middle of August is not the wisest nor the most comfortable thing. But I did it. Just because it was hot, and it was very hot, I could not just stay without doing some travelling. No way. Besides dry heat is not as bad as moist heat, I can cope with it, probably some of my ancestors were travelling through the desert that`s why I am not very affected by the dry heat. Who knows?
Guadalupe`s name came up as a possible destination but it drew my attention only when I found out that is in Extremadura. I had to go there. There was no doubt about it. When I visited Trujillo and Caceres last year I was amazed by this region and while driving through I told myself that one day I am going to do return to explore it properly. This trip though showed me that Extremadura has lots of hidden cards in its sleeves. Some are known but some are yet to be discovered. It looked to me that Extremadura is still holding its secrets under layers and layers of dirt and rocks and sands of time.
I took the highway from Madrid, heading West to Portugal under the melting sun. Everything was brownish faded and dull in that bright light, but, when I arrived at Valdecanass Dam, the landscape started to change. The ruins of an old Roman temple was guarding the road like it was some kind of gate to a magical world. These parts were inhabited since Neolithic, so it is possible for the Romans to build the temple on the sacred ground of their predecessors.
In a way, the temple marks the entrance to Villuercas-Ibores-Jara Geopark a UNESCO site and Guadalupe is one of its jewels. Sadly I have visited only Guadalupe but I intend to return and visit thoroughly the entire park. To see the impressive geomorphological features, with gorges and faults ravines, mines and natural pools, the fortress and the moors castle but also the mine and old shelter with prehistoric art rock. The road to Guadalupe that goes through the geopark has some scenic views and I was fascinated by the contrast between the red soil and the green vegetation. If it weren’t that hot and when I say hot I say 42 degrees, I would have forgotten about going to Guadalupe and hike around the park and maybe take a dip in the natural pools made by the Ibor river, similar to those I found in Israel in Wadi Arugot.
The village of Guadalupe owes its existence to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery. Although people were living in the region since Neolithic this village came to life in the 13th century. According to the legend, Virgin Mary appeared to one of the shepherds indicating a place where her statue was hidden. A real saga was woven around the long journey the Virgin Mary`s statue took from the land of Israel to this valley in the Iberian Peninsula. Apparently, same as the statue of Black Madonna from Nazare the statue of Black Madonna of Guadalupe was carved by Saint Luke in Israel. When he died, the statue accompanied him to the grave. His body was moved to Constantinople in the 4th century and the statue came with him. In the 6th century, the statue landed in Rome with the new pope and seems that protected the city from the back death. The statue did not stay in Rome for too long because the pope sent the statue to the Archbishop of Seville.
The voyage itself wasn`t without perils. After facing a strong storm the statue was taken safely to Seville and it was put in the main Cathedral. Seville thou was not its home for too long either. The Muslim were conquering the peninsula and while fleeing, the monks took the statue with them to find a safe place to hide it. For several centuries the statue stayed buried, but, in the 13th centuries, it was discovered after a Virgin Mary apparition told to one of the local shepherds where to dig for it. A chapel was built to honour its discovery and people were coming to pray. It gains notoriety in 1340 when King Alfonso won the battle from Rio Saldo after passing through the region and asked the protection of the Virgin before the battle. From that moment on, the king declared the chapel where the statute was a royal sanctuary and ordered a monastery to be built. This event is marking the moment when the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe became the patron of all the Spanish-speaking lands, being the second most important site after Santiago de Compostela.
When seeing for the first time the monastery is strikingly beautiful. Although designed like a fortress with strong walls to protect the statue inside it has nothing of the heaviness of a fortress. It has Mudejar, Gothic and Romanesque influences beautiful combined together. I admired the cloister and its Mudejar touch in all the architectural details which are more evident while walking around it. The Mudejar cloister and a few other rooms are open to the public also the room where the richly costumed statue is kept. It is a dark coloured cedar statue, this kind of statues are called Black Madonna, of Virgin Mary. Being covered by clothes only her face, the right hand and the face of baby Jesus can be seen.
Some will argue that the cult of Black Madonna was spread mostly around Mediterranean sea shores and it is usually associated with miracles. Also, the cult of Madonna is a predecessor of the cult of Isis spread also around Mediterranean shores, based on similarities between statues of Isis seating keeping Horus on her lap and the statues of Virgin Mary keeping baby Jesus on her lap, and not only. There is a lot to talk about on this matter and it was a hot subject for many scholars and probably it will still be for many years to come.
The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe became one of the most important monasteries and nowadays it is a UNESCO– World Heritage Site. Here is one of the rooms, where Columbus met the queen of Castille to ask for ships for his trip across the ocean that leads to the discovery of America. When he returned successfully he came back here to thank the Virgin for answering to his prayers.
The presence of the monastery was a catalyst for the arriving of many scholars which were establishing a famous school of medicine which became later Hospital of San Juan Bautista. Having a special pardon from the Holly See the monks studying medicine were able to do experiments and do autopsies, this way they were able to do many innovations in the field of medicine.
The buildings of the old hospital are now a very luxurious state-run hotel, Parador National de Turismo. Usually, this chain of hotels has the most beautiful historical location. I haven’t spent the night in these hotels because it is a bit over my budget but I always enjoyed to visit their location and take pictures because their locations always are worth to spend some time and have a coffee enjoying their medieval atmosphere.
The monastery is dominating the village and it being there you can’t ignore it. Also, the Parador which is in the vicinity, but if you are there, allow yourself to get to know the village as well. I walked on the streets despite the heat being at its peak. In a way, the heat helped me because I was the only crazy person wandering around. Otherwise, I would not have been able to take decent pictures of these streets This is how I discovered the Jewish neighbourhood with its porticoes and two stores houses. The pilgrimage to the monastery leads to the development of commercial activities and these streets are a direct result of this.
It is a quiet charming village at the foot-hill of the mountain and it still keeps its touch of originality. The effects of tourism can be seen but not as bad as in other places. I could still breath history in that Guadalupe, and I am imagining how must have been for those looking for a religious experience.
Because of its position away from Madrid, Extremadura is still a place where one can feel like an explorer on a distant land. It is not yet overcrowded by tourists, although I do not know for how long.
As a piece of advice, if you visit Spain, forget about the well known big cities. Go and explore Extremadura, go and see Guadalupe…