Sometimes, traveling to a new place is exactly what you expected. My uncle came back from a trip to San Francisco grinning that it was “exactly like it is on the telly.” Sometimes they’re extremely disappointing (am I the only one who didn’t really like Paris?) But the best kind of travel is when it surprises you, and a little town called Borja, Spain is definitely the most surprising place I’ve traveled to so far.
Borja – does the name sound familiar? Well, think back about a year ago. Do you remember any odd news coming out of Spain? Anything involving art at all? And Jesus? Yep, this week it’s time to celebrate my favorite piece of art’s birthday:
This painting swept all over Spain about a year ago. If you don’t know the back story, it’s an old fresco called “Ecce Homo” – Behold the Man – painted on a small church in Borja, a little town near Zaragoza. As the years went by, the fresco started not to look so great, so a little old lady named Cecilia Gimenez offered to restore it.
Well, let’s just say it didn’t go exactly according to plan (to say the least). Initial reactions were that a vandal had destroyed it.
Cecilia protested that it had just gotten “out of hand” and, my personal favorite, that “they didn’t let me finish”. In between bursts of laughter, I did feel bad for her. She was obviously quite upset about the notoriety her artwork was getting, and felt bad about ruining the painting.
That still didn’t stop me from nearly falling out of my chair every time I got a new glimpse at the restoration. And again when I found out it had been nicknamed “Ecce Mono” – Behold the Monkey.
Fast-forward eight months. When my parents said they were coming to visit this June, we decided we were going to take a road trip from Barcelona to the Basque Country. We toyed with the idea of stopping off in Zaragoza, and then I suddenly connected the dots – the Ecce Mono was in Zaragoza, so we skipped the main city and decided a little visit to Borja’s Beast Jesus would be a much more satisfying road stop.
Basically, we planned on seeing the beastly wonder for ourselves in person, laughing ourselves silly, and having a little something before finishing up back in Barcelona. We definitely weren’t expecting what was coming next.
We drove up the windy, deserted hills to the Santuario de Misericordia, parked, and marched in to the church. “Where are you from?” asked the woman at the entrance offering us the guest book. “California – it’s a little far away!”, I told her.
She smiled, raised an eyebrow and said “You’re not the first,” pointing to a world map with pins from all the visitors from around the world. “Not the first” was an understatement (over 70,000 people have gone to see him in the past year):
I gleefully raced around the corner to finally see Beast Jesus in person, and was surprised again. The painting is hilarious, of course, and a truly wonderful thing to see in person, but what really got me was how gorgeous the sanctuary’s church is. The high, white ceilings were topped off with a pale blue dome, and there were lots of pretty pieces of glittering artwork. It felt airy, light, and nothing like the often grim Spanish churches filled with dark wood and gruesome depictions of Jesus (just brilliant ones these days).
On our way out, we asked the same woman a bunch of questions about the sanctuary. Thrilled by our interest, she took us around the old kitchen, showing us all kinds of old-fashioned stoves and cooking devices, traditional local ceramics, and even the chickens. She also explained a bit of the history – it had been a place where people with lung illnesses came to stay, because the dry air at higher altitudes was easier for them to breathe.
Afterwards, she gave us free run of the sanctuary to go upstairs and see the rest of it. You can actually rent out the rooms and stay there for a summer. They’re quite lovely and have incredible views of the sweeping countryside, only occasionally interrupted by a handful of houses or a church tower.
To finish our visit, we made our way outside to a bar terrace to admire the views and enjoy the warm June breeze. It was the perfect stop on a road trip – a little weird and wacky, and also surprisingly beautiful. As we were leaving, my dad said, “Actually, I think that was my favorite place we’ve been on this trip, weirdly enough.” Yep, he liked tiny Borja over glamorous San Sebastián, Bilbao, and Barcelona.
Cecilia’s story has a happy ending too. She got her own art show in the village, and an international art competition in her name dedicated to original interpretations of the Ecce Homo. She’s also setting up a merchandise deal where she’ll get 49% of the profits (the rest will go to the city council).
And for the record, I was definitely not above indulging in the real reason we stopped in Borja in the first place:
(By the way it got approximately a million more “likes” on Facebook than any profile pictures I thought were flattering and/or charming).
What’s the most surprising place you’ve ever traveled? Would you go on a “pilgrimage” to see Beast Jesus in person?
Haha, well done! As far as most surprising, I have to go with the “ostrich theme park” I visited in China. It was made complete with a robotic dinosaur exhibit, ostrich joyrides, ostrich snacks, decrepit military-like obstacle courses and curious characters. It definitely fulfilled the surprise element that makes travel legendary!
As I always tell Spaniards, when they ask me about New York City, that they should know they’ll be visiting the most documented place on earth. You know what you’re getting when you go there. Sure, there are surprises, but it’s NYC. Borja, on the other hand, is an oddity that has only recently been scripted.
Whoa, an ostrich theme park! That sounds totally bizarre. Do you have a post or article about it somewhere online?
I guess with cities like New York, you do know what you’re getting into, though I think they can still be surprising. Also, I was surprised that with so much buzz about Borja, I hadn’t heard anything at all about how pretty the sanctuary is.
I really didn´t know about this story!!! I actually found it hillarious!!! and next time I´m in Spain, I will definetely go to see it 🙂 I´ve just wanted to let you know that I had the same impression with Paris, maybe it was because my expectations were so high, and I´ve already been to so many beautiful cities (Brussels, Bruges, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague,London…) by the time I got to Paris, I actually didn´t like many things and was a little dissapointed… it´s a nice city, but I wouldn´t live there, and it´s overstimated…
Oh my gosh, it is probably my favorite news story of all time! You should definitely stop by the Ecce Mono if you’re in Spain. 🙂
I was so let down by Paris too! I think my expectations were probably too high, but people go seriously crazy about it so I was hoping for something spectacular. It’s pretty, but maybe it could never live up to those high expectations.
Hahahaha so cool!!! I’d also love to see Cecilia’s Ecce Homo… and I also didn’t like Paris that much (but I promised that I’d give it a second chance because it was a freezing that time and was traveling with my mother in law, not the best conditions).
Btw… cool profile pic!
Haha I suppose Paris isn’t the best under those conditions! I also promised to give it a second chance, so let’s see how it measures up again.
Literally just finished reading a write-up about the painting on CNN’s website: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/16/travel/botched-fresco-surprise-hit/index.html
Looks like over 70,000 tourists have visited to date–that’s insane!
That’s crazy! It’s such a tiny little place I can’t imagine that many people visiting it in a year.
I love that you went here, it’s also a pilgrimage I would like to make!
I honestly had no ideas of what the surrounding church would look like, but this color scheme was not something I had envisioned at all. Looks gorgeous!
How easy is it to visit the church….i.e. would it be possible to arrive via public transportation, or do you need a car?
It was such a surprise! I was so glad we went up there to see it.
I think you would probably need a car, because I didn’t see any signs of a bus while I was there. But you might be able to get a bus to the little town and walk up to the sanctuary. I’m really not sure on this one though!
Hahaha, I love this post and can totally see how your Ecce Mono photo was a popular one 🙂
Sometimes it’s the quaint little places that make travel memorable. Thinking back on all the places I’ve been, my favorites have always been the little villages and towns discovered along the way. Riding my bike through little villages in Tuscany takes the cake over Venice any day! (I didn’t like Paris either).
Thanks for this great tidbit on Borja. I’ll definitely have to go and check the painting out for myself. I’m also glad the artist has had a happy ending 🙂 I remember laughing when the news first came out, and feeling so badly for her at the same time! All’s well that ends well 🙂
I agree, I’m a city girl but the places that are most memorable on my trips are little villages. Sometimes it’s easier to get a feel for them than large places. Plus, the people are often much more excited to have visitors so they’re nice (the woman who took us around the sanctuary was so nice to us!).
The Beast of Borja… I love it!!!
Me too! 😀 I’m a big fan.
hahaha I remember reading about this earlier this year. I was surprised Spain was so lackadaisical about the fresco’s restoration. In the US, there would be a lot of bureaucracy and any church would be very careful in restoring a valuable piece of artwork like that. But then I really shouldn’t be surprised I guess, it is Spain we are talking about after all!
Though she ruined the artwork, Claudia single handedly put Borja on the map and now the town gets to benefit from lots of tourism! Also that picture of you next to the “restored” fresco is hilarious!
Most surprising place I’ve ever been: Death Valley in your home state of California!
Haha you know, it’s funny you say that because it seems that they’re being awfully careful with it now! It’s behind glass and surrounded by ropes, so you can’t actually go up to it properly. Weird, eh?
Death Valley, eh? What was so surprising about it?
So funny that something so ugly can become such a tourist sight! Visited Borja and surroundings lots of times before it became ´famous´! Nice to see the church and guess the city of Borja is now very happy with all the tourists coming in 😉
Yes, it is pretty funny! I was glad the town seemed to be enjoying its newfound fame (or perhaps infamy), as it’s such a lovely little place. It must’ve been really quiet before all the ‘Ecce Mono’ hype.
I always look forward to reading your posts, Jess, and this was a great one. The poor woman has (inadvertantly) certainly done a lot for her town. I spend a bit of time in Spain and it’s often the little villages that are the most surprising, as you say. It’s good to just get in the car and head off the beaten track to see what you can find. Have also found some really good, traditional, local restaurants this way.
I’ve been to Paris five times now and while I like it well enough, as you say, it doesn’t wow me. London, where I live, is much more exciting! I did love the Montmarte area on my last visit, so maybe I should stay around there and then I’ll fall in love with Paris?
Thanks very much, Sandy! Getting off the beaten path is my favorite way to travel (and eat!).
I agree with you completely on the Paris vs. London thing. I loved the special London vibe and atmosphere, whereas in Paris I never felt that. Maybe I’ll give it another chance like you did. 🙂
Great article. In agreement over Paris and I know I am going to offend millions but would also throw Venice into the same pot. At the other end of the scale I would feature Chinchon to the south of Madrid, Monsaraz in Portugal and Cuenca in Ecuador. MM
Thanks! I’ve heard quite a mixed bag of reviews about Venice, so you’re not alone in that one. I’ve never heard of Chinchon, so I’ll have to check it out next time I’m near Madrid. Thanks!
Oh, not sure if it fits as it is a capital, but am a big Lisboa fan. MM
I think Lisbon counts – it’s not quite as touristy as larger capital cities. Either way, I’ve heard it’s amazing.
How wonderful that you took the time to visit – you could so easily have missed it, Jess 🙂
I know, but it was too good of a chance to pass up! 😀
I swear to this day every time I see the painting I can’t stop myself from hunching over in laughter but I’m so glad to know that there is a beautiful pueblo and church behind it all. Don’t you just love when you find a place and fall in love by accident.
I know, I have exactly the same reaction to the painting! It was such a nice surprise to find the beautiful town associated with it.
Bahahahaha this post is the best! I love that you included Spanish-language memes & comics, and that you showed us a little bit about the pueblo and the area. I didn’t know it was near Zaragoza, nor that the church was so stunningly pretty.
Haha thanks! 🙂 It’s actually very close to Zaragoza, so it’s an easy trip from the city. I was shocked at how pretty it was.
Oh, the Ecce Homo! Last year’s top summer story in Spain! Amazing that 70,000 people have visited this year and so great to see beyond the painting and into the town!
I know, and I’m surprised with that many people going I heard so little about the town! The painting is great, but the town is much prettier than I was expecting.
Ghent, Belgium was a big surprise–beautiful, vital, with a grand history, and yet not packed with thousands upon thousands of tourists like Brugge or, by the same means, the terribly crowded and rather dirty Paris.
I haven’t been to Ghent, but you’re right that Brugge was packed with tourists (though I thought it was stunning). And I’m glad somebody else agrees about Paris. Way overrated!
Thanks for posting your photos of this church in Spain. It brings back many pleasant memories of my travels through Spain this summer.
My most surprising place in Spain was the Toledo Cathedral. I had just toured St. Ildonphonsus church in Toledo and thought that was beautiful. My host family kept telling me that was nothing compared to the Cathedral. I didn’t believe them until I stepped inside though. It was so huge and over the top with gold, statues, chapels, etc.
I saw many churches and cathedrals after that all with similar grandeur. I will always remember the surprise of walking into the one in Toledo though. Absolutely amazing.
Wow, your comment really makes me want to go to Toledo now! I’ve never been but it sounds incredible.
Toledo was wonderful. Just make sure to keep track of where you park your car and take good walking shoes. I never walked as much in my life as I did in Spain. Toledo was probably the worst day for walking, plus one of my first days on my feet. Loved it.
I remember seeing photos of this and the story but I didn’t realize it was near Zaragoza. Had I known, I would have tried to tempt my travel buddies to make a trip to see it while in Zaragoza.
Yes great photo. That’s something I’d do!
Haha it’s totally worth it for a little day trip! 🙂