Travel Europe: Dark lord of the Spanish plains

Canonised by Hollywood - and also by Franco - El Cid was born in a rural backwater of Castilla. Peter Griffiths explores the area
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As the car rolled gently into Vivar, I didn't know what to expect from the birthplace of Spain's most stirring national hero. Every street bearing the name of El Cid? Guided tours? We found ourselves in one of Castilla's scrappier villages, an odd mixture of old stone buildings and new houses, dilapidated barns, rusting farm machinery, cockerels crowing and flies buzzing. And loud rock music. Very loud.

It was a fiesta Saturday. It was midday. The bass beat beckoned those from the night before to restart the party, at the same time as a peal of bells competed for their souls, a summons to mass at the church of San Miguel Arcangel. But, as villagers strolled towards church to the rhythms of Elvis with hens, where were the signs of El Cid, the legendary champion of 11th-century Spanish Christendom? Could this tiny rustic hamlet really be the home of the hero canonised by Hollywood in the 1961 epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren?

The roadside nameplate (Vivar del Cid) declared that it was. This would have been hard to believe were it not for the lone statue of him in the centre of the village. The lifesize stone effigy of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, aka El Cid, is in poor shape despite being erected as recently as 1963. The whitewash which once made the armed figure gleam in the sun is now peeling. Worst of all, the sword-hand which held a drawn blade is missing.

No building in the village dates from the Cid's lifetime, but a sign points to "Meson Molina del Cid". This 18th-century mill house, now a bar, lurks at the edge of the village beside a stream. Since Rodrigo's family owned a mill, and rumour claims the hero as the offspring of his father's fancy for a local mill girl, the connection looked promising.

Inside, all was deserted. Coffee was eventually served by a grumpy host. Two swords hung on the wall behind him. On a shelf stood a bust of the Cid. The place was clearly struggling to provide an atmosphere, though defeat seemed in-built.

Out in the sun, we gazed at the only building that looked in keeping with the world of the Cid, the convent of Santa Clara. Here, the nuns preserved the unique manuscript of the 13th-century Poema do Mio Cid, the best-known account of the Cid's life and exploits. So, with paperback in hand, we set off for Burgos - Cid City, if the hype was to be believed.

The six-kilometre drive from Vivar to Burgos offers powerful glimpses of the parched rolling plains where the young Rodrigo grew up. Born in 1043, he rose to become a royal favourite, until his king banished him - twice. At a time when resistance to the Moorish presence in Spain was in need of a hero, the exiled Rodrigo went freelance. Legend speaks of an all-conquering Christian saviour. History confirms Rodrigo's astonishing military success, but also reveals a mercenary who fought in the pay of a Moorish king and then, in the name of his own God, plundered great wealth for himself. It was a Moor who first dubbed him "al Sayyidi", Arabic for "the Lord". In 1094, the Cid sensationally took Valencia from the Moors, staying there until his death in 1099.

No wonder the Cid became a talisman for Franco's nationalist revival of the Thirties. It is no coincidence that Franco chose Burgos, city of the Cid, as his first headquarters. The vain General spoke of himself as a modern El Cid.

Entering the city by the bridge of San Pablo, you pass eight Fifties stone statues of characters from the Poema (good job I had it with me). Then you are confronted by the Cid himself: a stunning bronze equestrian statue that Franco unveiled in 1955.

Picking your way around the tightly-packed medieval quarter of Burgos, you'll notice that the gift shops are full of replicas of the Cid's broadsword La Tizona (the real thing is in a glass case in Madrid's military museum). There are big ones (up to 4,000 pesetas) to hang on the wall and frighten the neighbours, or little ones (from 300 pesetas) just useful enough to rip into those bills that worm through your letter box.

Somehow, staying at the Hotel Meson del Cid seemed the only thing to do. It is elegant, comfortable, and stands next to the massive Gothic cathedral where the Cid and his wife Jimena lie buried. Near the hotel, a plaque on the 15th-century church of Santa Agueda marks the site where the Cid forced his king to swear a public oath. Across the cathedral square is the hugely carved arch of Santa Maria through which the Cid rode to exile. Inside the gatehouse, a glass case contains an inscribed bone with a hand-written "guarantee" of its authenticity as a relic of the Cid himself.

Seeing old Burgos on foot gives you time to take in the cobbled squares, the palacios and the churches. The banks of the river Arlanzon (where the Cid camped as he began his exile) are still surprisingly green, fringed with bull-rushes. But to get the best feeling for the city, take the tourist train tour. On board, you feel like a very conspicuous visitor but this will take you around a monastery, past the site of the Cid's house and to the top of the castle mount where the views are spectacular.

If you were really keen, you'd then follow the Cid's trail all the way to Valencia. But there's no need to go the 517 kilometres to track him from birth to death. In 1102, Jimena brought Rodrigo's body back to Castilla, to a monastery at Cardena just outside Burgos. One account, which local guides ignore, says the monks there displayed the Cid's embalmed body to pilgrims for 10 years, until the nose fell off.

The drive from Burgos to Cardena takes you through wooded vales to the monastery of San Pedro. Once inside, we were guided by a cream-robed monk. Did Dona Jimena stroll in the ancient cloister while her husband was battling in exile? Was this where she and the Cids were reunited? Tradition says so. So does the movie.

The original tombs of the Cid and Jimena, though empty since 1921 when the remains were moved to Burgos, can be seen in a side chapel. The recumbent effigies are worn, but at least the Cid's nose is intact. Looking closely at the stone figure of the bearded hero settled one thing. If the statue bears even a passing resemblance to the man, he looked more like Charlton Heston than dumpy old General Franco.

Fact File

TO TRACK down El Cid, the fastest approach is on Iberia (0171- 830 0011) from Heathrow to Bilbao. The airline offers a fare of pounds 207. P&O Ferries (0990 980980) sails twice a week from Portsmouth to Bilbao. From there, you can take the motorway direct to Burgos or connect by train.

Alternatively, find a discount flight on, for example, easyJet (0870 6 000 000) or Debonair (0541 500 300) from Luton to Madrid, and travel by rail from there.

Ronda is easy to reach by public transport from Malaga or Gibraltar, both of which have frequent flights from Britain. You could also fly into Jerez on GB Airways (through British Airways, 0345 222111), but note that this route is to be abandoned in November.

Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171- 486 8077; brochure-line 0891 669920). Open 9.15am-4.15pm, Monday-Friday. Nearest tube: Bond Street.