Heritage & Culture


A New Linguistic Odyssey through Spain

Until a few years ago, the earliest known writings in Castilian dated back to the late 11th century Glosas Emilianenses, a series of marginal notes in a Latin Bible written in the renowned monasteries of Yuso and Suso in San Millan de la Cogolla.  Shortly afterwards came the finely wrought poetry of Gonzalo de Berceo, and the Cantar del Mio Cid, the monumental epic about Castile's most famous medieval hero.  It almost seemed as if literary Spanish had sprung into being fully fledged, without going through the usual extended period of development.  Linguists knew that this was highly unlikely, but for centuries they had searched in vain for earlier examples.

Then in 1997, while rummaging through the musty archives of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid, a lucky scholar discovered a manuscript annotated in Romance, as Castilian was called in the Middle Ages, dating from 964.  The manuscript, Codex 46 - a Latin dictionary of 20,000 entries from A to Z with translations into Romance written in the margins - was penned by the monks of the Monasterio de Yuso in San Millan de la Cogolla, a spectacular medieval village in the wine-growing region of La Rioja, not far from El Cid's native Burgos and about 150 miles northeast of Madrid.  Now, the monasteries of Yuso and Suso in San Millan, the "cradle of Castilian," have been designated World Heritage Sites by Unesco and become the focal point of  "El Camino de la Lengua," a fascinating new pilgrimage route for philologist and globetrotters alike.

Designed to highlight the six most important linguistic centers in the evolution of Castilian, the 500-mile route starts in San Millan and zigzags southward through Santo Domingo, Valladolid, Salamanca and Avila, ending near Madrid in Alcala de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes.

Each of the route's principal stops offers enchanting displays and special events for bibliophiles and history buffs.  The vast collections of illuminated manuscripts in the monastery libraries of San Milland and Santo Domingo are a marvel to look at, containing some of the most dazzling feats of calligraphy and coloration achieved in the Middle Ages.  (Alas, the precious Codex 46 remains at the Academy of History in Madrid, accessible only to professional researchers.)  In Santo Domingo, don't miss the sessions of Gregorian chant, clear as a bell, which the monks still sing seven times a day as they did a millennium ago.

In Valladolid, Salamanca and Avila, you begin to sense the full power of mature Spanish.  Their universities have been competitors for close to a thousand years, each world-famous for its scholarship and special collections.  In Salamanca, just as Columbus was setting out on his first voyage in 1492, Antonio de Nebrija published the first proper Spanish grammar, now on display in the university's magnificent rib-vaulted library.  In Avila, many of Saint Theresa's manuscript letters have been preserved in mint condition.  Her clear, elegant prose - "I write as I speak," she once said - still stands as a model for Spanish stylists.

For lovers of Cervantes, the route's pinnacle is Alcala de Henares.  The pristine 16th century house where he was born, now a museum, contains a priceless collection of illustrated editions of Don Quixote - "the Bible of Castilian" - as well as rare editions of his other titles.  No less fascinating is the 15th century Polyglot Bible on display at City Hall, a prime example of the cultural pluralism that thrived in Spain before the onset of the Inquisition.

Besides offering their literary displays year-round, the towns on the route are also well known for their traditional seasonal fiestas (such as the festivales de Najera near San Millan in July, and the antique books fair held in Alcala to celebrate Cervantes' baptism day on October 9th).  For information on other local festivals and special events along "La Ruta de la Lengua", contact the local tourist offices along the way.

Reprinted with the permission of the Tourism Office of Spain