Perhaps it is in Valladolid that Spain's essential character lies. A two-hour drive north of Madrid, the city was twice the capital of Spain - in the 16th and 17th centuries. A sombre and serious place with a history of religious extremism and persecution, it is the perfect setting for the little-visited Museo Nacional de Escultura - Spain's extraordinary national museum for religious polychrome sculpture.
Housed in the late 15th-century Colegio de San Gregorio, the collection is the finest in the world of this singular art. Thirty rooms are lined with statues, busts and altarpieces that date from the 13th to the 18th century.
With their glass eyes, matted hair, suppurating sores, gaudy clothes, leather nails, congealed blood and open wounds, these religious images are an acquired taste, standing well outside the classic canons of beauty. Row upon row of saints swoon and suffer as their eyeballs turn back into their heads in religious ecstasy.
Some of the sculptures are by Alonso Berruguete (1489-1561), who made it into the pages of Vasari's Lives. His Sacrifice of Abraham is nervous, pain-ful and mannered, angst-ridden before the concept was invented. Other sculptures are by Pedro de Mena, Martinez Montanes, Juan de Juni and Gregorio Fernandez. Hardly household names, it's true. But they were, in their time, the Donatellos and Michelangelos of Spanish polychrome art.
One of the most accessible works is Juan de Juni's reliquary bust of St Anne from the 1540s. This is no ideal-ised portrayal of a saint. She is late middle-aged, haggard and worn down by her beliefs. Her expression twists and contorts into crevices reminiscent of Da Vinci's grotesque caricatures. The carved and painted wood is as malleable as play dough, the skin tones a sickly death-white.
Sculptures such as Juni's St Anne were often small parts of a larger ensemble - a retablo, a large-scale altar- piece. These sculptural groups were constructed by as many as nine types of specialist: an architectural draughtsman, a carpenter, sculptor, framer, two types of plasterer (who covered the wooden statues in thin layers of gesso), the gilders, and the painters of flesh tones and wounds in both matt and gloss. These were the medieval equivalent of Busby Berkeley spectaculars, a form of popular art and street theatre central to the public's everyday lives.
It's a refreshing thought. So much of north European art has been frozen by the institution of the museum into a sterile and mute cultural relic; imagine the priceless masterpieces of the National Gallery taken on walkabout at a Soho street party. The key pieces in Valladolid, by comparison, were made to move - literally, through the crow-ded streets of the Easter processions, but also to move the spirit.
The kitsch vulgarity of these works calls directly to the soul. When Martin-ez Montanes saw his own creation out on its Easter float, he couldn't believe that he himself had made it. To see Gregorio Fernandez's masterpiece The Recumbent Christ in the Museo, or over the heads of thousands as it leaves the cathedral door, is to get as close as possible to the mysteries of Spanish Catho-licism, a world of incense and pain where the artist reigned as shaman.
So much for the museum, but what of Valladolid itself? Were it not for this unique collection, would it be worth a visit? It is not a pretty city, certainly, its industrial suburbs sprawling out to meet you across the arid meseta. Nor is it a frivolous place. But it has a remarkable pedigree - and in Castile pedigree is all-important.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were married in Valladolid; Phillip II, the long-suffering Habsburg monarch, was born there. Christopher Columbus retired and died in the city, and Tomas de Torquemada - later to become the First Inquisitor-General of Castile - took holy orders there.
But in the background are dark associations. Torquemada made Valladolid the setting for many of the autos-da-fe, where religious dissenters were burnt at the stake; Phillip II collected Hierony-mous Bosch; Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews and Moors from Spain.
This is all part of Valladolid's appeal; it lies at the heart of the legendary Black Spain, both morbid and terrible, and to understand its character is to understand the Castilian soul.
GETTING TO MADRID: VE Tours (071-439 7861) offers flights for £126 plus £5 tax. ITC (071-631 0841) provides return flights to Madrid from £119. The Magic of Spain (081-748 7575) offers two nights in a three-star hotel, b&b, for £215 per person, Gatwick-Madrid. There is a supplement if departing from Manchester or Heathrow. Thomas Cook (0733 335-530) offers two nights at a three-star hotel from £219, until 31 March.
GETTING TO THE MUSEUM: The Museo Nacional de Escultura is at San Gregorio 1, Valladolid 47011. Tel: (83) 25 03 75 or (83) 25 09 16. RENFE trains run every hour from Madrid's Char-martin station. Journey time 2-3 hours. From the station at Valladolid, catch a taxi to the museum. Opening hours: 10am-2pm and 4pm-7pm. Closed Sat and Sun afternoons, Mondays and public holidays. Entrance fee 200 pesetas. Valladolid Oficina de Turismo, Plaza de Zorrilla, 3. Tel: (83) 351 801. !Reuse content