In a sleepy village, tucked away in the rolling hills of eastern Extremadura, inside an enormous building, lies an extraordinary object with profound meaning across the Spanish-speaking world. Leaving the flat plains of Trujillo behind, we wound our way up into the hills on narrow roads. Turning one final sharp corner, ahead of us, towering over the red-tiled roofs of the village of Guadalupe, was the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. Dating from the early 14th Century, the size and grandeur of the building, even in a country where you get used to seeing over-sized churches in tiny villages, is astounding.
The reason for its existence is equally astounding: this building was constructed to house a wooden effigy of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a tiny cedar wood statue that stands little more than 60 cm in height. That may not mean much to non-Catholics, but this is one of the most revered Virgins in the Catholic world. So much so, that the Virgen de Guadalupe was made the patron saint of the Spanish-speaking world. Inside the main church the effigy takes centre stage in the magnificent altarpiece – illuminated by spotlights for added effect.
In the late 13th century a local shepherd claimed he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a field. He dug down at the very same spot only to discover the statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe, assumed to have been buried by Christians fleeing the Moorish invasion of Sevilla in 714. A chapel was built to house the statue, which became a church, before being enlarged in 1337 by Alfonso XI. Alfonso called upon the Virgen de Guadalupe for protection before the Battle of Salado in 1340, a battle in which he won a crushing victory over the Moors. Believing the Virgin responsible for inspiring the victory, he declared the church a royal sanctuary.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Black Madonna, of which there are many around the world. Unsurprisingly, knowledge of the Virgin was carried to the Americas by the Conquistadors who came from Extremadura. Today the Black Madonna is wildly popular in Latin America, particularly in Mexico where she is alleged to have appeared to a native Mexican in 1531. I suspect that, if your country has just been ransacked by a mob of marauding Spanish Conquistadors, and your entire culture destroyed, you might start seeing things as well.
The Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe has witnessed many momentous historical events. It was here, in 1492, that Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella met with Columbus and gave him their blessing to set sail for the New World. The beginning of the end for the many civilisations that covered the continent, the tiny village of Guadalupe is ground zero for the conquest of the Americas. Returning home, Columbus brought with him two Native Americans as a gift for the King and Queen.
Presumably confused, these unfortunate individuals were baptised in Guadalupe using the stone font that, today, forms part of a fountain standing in the middle of the road in front of the monastery. There is a large painting depicting the scene on the back wall of the church.
We mistimed our arrival, the monastery had just closed for lunch. This being Spain, lunch is a good couple of hours. The church remains open so you can simultaneously see the Virgin and take advantage of the cool interior. We had a walk around the town and waited for the monastery to reopen. If you find yourself with time to spare in Guadalupe, beware the extremely aggressive waiters who lurk outside the restaurants across the square – behaviour like this is rare in Spain, physically grabbing us and following us down the road. They didn’t get our trade.
Finally reopened, we discovered you can only visit the monastery with a group of ten or more people. We were told the tour would take two hours, and that we’d have to join a party of 30 ‘older’ Spanish pilgrims who had recently disgorged from a tour bus. After hanging around for so long another two hours were out of the question. We had to be in Madrid so, curses flying, we skipped the tour and headed north again.