Part 2 of the 2017 Youth Pilgrimage report, including experiences from Salamanca, Ávila, Alba de Tormes, and Burgos.
Onwards to Salamanca - After an early morning Mass and a bountiful breakfast, the pilgrims boarded the bus for a three-hour journey from Fatima across the Spanish border to Salamanca.
Salamanca is a university town, but not of the sort that is familiar to the American pilgrims. It was the fifth university founded in Europe in 1134, attracting such notable students as St. John of the Cross, Hernan Cortes, and many others. This medieval town was the birthplace of some of the most important Catholic minds and culture in Europe, with its buildings almost in pristine, original condition.
Beyond the university, the town houses one of the more unique cathedrals in Spain, known as the “Old and New Cathedral.” With the growing university town, the Romanesque original cathedral quickly outgrew the demand, and efforts were made to destroy the old cathedral, replacing it with a new one during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the early 1500s.
The townspeople were less than enthused about their beloved cathedral’s demise, since churches at that time sometimes took centuries to complete. The architects developed an ingenious plan to surround the old cathedral with the new—creating one façade—with the Gothic cathedral adjoining. The cathedral, as many of the buildings in Salamanca, is built in the Spanish high Gothic style, which is greatly influenced by centuries of Muslim occupation.
The pilgrims were not there to simply admire the architecture: the new cathedral houses the remains of the great Spanish saints John of Sahagun and Thomas of Villanueva, and the old cathedral displays the miraculous statue of Our Lady of La Vega (Virgin of the Valley), which was instrumental in Our Lady’s intercession during the Spanish War of Succession in 1706.
Visiting St. Theresa
From Salamanca, the group took a short drive to Alba de Tormes, a small town famous for housing the mortal remains of St. Teresa of Ávila. The logical assumption for most is that St. Teresa is buried in Ávila; however, during her life, she had requested quite strongly that upon her death, she not be moved. It was during a visit to the Carmelite convent in Alba de Tormes, one of the 17 convents she had founded in her lifetime, that she contracted pneumonia and died. True to her wishes, she remains there to this day.
Upon her exhumation after her death, her heart was found to be incorrupt, with a laceration, reflecting the spear of God’s love with which an angel had pierced her heart. Beautifully placed above the high altar, the pilgrims were able to venerate her heart and right arm, both in stunning glass reliquaries, as well as her body preserved in a silver casket. Additionally, several of her writings, the room she died in, and some of her belongings were preserved in the convent, parts of which have been converted to a museum for the benefit of pilgrims.
The pilgrims stayed the evening in Salamanca, enjoying the architecture and ambience of this unique city, and its unique golden bricks, breathtakingly illuminated against the sky.
Arriving in Ávila
The following morning, the pilgrims journeyed to Ávila, the most well-preserved walled city in Spain, and possibly in all of Europe. The inside of its 11th-century walls, measuring an impressive 2,500 meters in length, today houses 5,000 people. The town has of course grown throughout the years, but has retained its small-town character, with less than 50,000 inhabitants in total.
The first stop was an overlook of the city, providing the group with spectacular views of Avila, at the same spot where St. Teresa had been caught by her uncle escaping from home, following an ardent desire to become martyred by the Muslims. Then, a stop at the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation just outside the walls of the ancient town, where St. Teresa joined the order at the age of 19.
Scandalized and saddened by the laxity and corruption in the convent, she nevertheless persisted in her vocation for the next 28 years, praying, sacrificing, and considering her place in the Divine plan before undertaking the great task of reforming the Carmelite order and founding her first convent of Discalced Carmelites under St. Joseph’s patronage. The pilgrims could see examples of beautifully-apportioned rooms inhabited by nuns from wealthy families, who even brought their own servants along, and often mistreated the sisters from poorer families. This and relics of St. Teresa left a great impression on the travelers, as well as an opportunity to support the sisters still at the convent by purchasing handmade scapulars, rosaries, and other items.
Inside the city walls, the family home where St. Teresa was born has been transformed into a Carmelite church, also housing some of her relics. After lunch and an opportunity to climb Avila’s medieval walls, the group continued further north to Burgos.
Burgos is a breathtaking medieval town at 3,500 feet above sea level, along the route to Santiago de Compostela. A magnificent Gothic cathedral to house the many pilgrims and inhabitants of this growing town was constructed, with its process lasting over 500 years. The Cathedral of Santa Maria de Burgos is famous for its immense size and astoundingly intricate construction.
The interior has been recently cleaned, showing gleaming white limestone construction reaching towards 600-year-old stained glass rose windows and astoundingly intricate Mudejar (Moorish-influenced) ceiling carvings.
The pilgrims were given a private tour of the richly-carved sacristy with its Renaissance cabinetry, before touring the perimeter of the interior. In front of the main altar the pilgrims’ choir sang Sicut Cervus, their voices echoing throughout the massive cathedral. The rest of the group joined in singing with the Salve Regina, honoring the Blessed Virgin in one of her oldest and most important churches.
Dinner at the hotel followed by more time to explore this beautiful city and enjoy the magnificence of this cathedral lit by brilliant spotlights in its main plaza rounded out the evening, with the pilgrims preparing to head to Basque country in the morning.