Madrid is a perfect place for day trips and now that the spring weather is in full swing, we’ve been spending our Fridays hopping on buses and trains to explore. The capital’s extensive public transportation system consists of commuter rails, long distance rails, and buses that will take you anywhere you want to go in all directions. You can even visit another province for a day, as we did when we spent a magical day in Segovia. Some of the main day trips from Madrid include Segovia, Toledo, El Escorial, Aranjuez and Alcala de Henares as they are all incredibly well preserved UNESCO World Heritage sites. But as part of our slow travel philosophy, sometimes we like to do things a little more low-key and off the radar. Visiting Mejorada del Campo was exactly that and in some ways even more special than following the typical Madrid tourist trail.
Mejorada del Campo first came on my radar when I lived in Madrid in 2013-2014 as a friend of mine worked in the small town as an English language conversation assistant. She mentioned a cathedral there that a former monk had spent 40+ years constructing by himself with recycled materials – and that he was still building it! It sounded interesting but in my first year living abroad, there was always a new region in Spain or on longer breaks a new country to explore. I never explored the lesser-known parts of Madrid.
This year, my second year living in Madrid, I’ve learned to appreciate exploring every corner of this stunning city and region. Just last week I went for a countryside stroll with a friend and ended up witnessing an ancient, small town ritual – but that’s a story for another day. Point being, traveling slowly and searching out those lesser known places is what travel is all about for Veren and me.
Don Justo’s Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo
From the moment that we stepped off the bus in front of the cathedral we were in awe, not only of the sheer size but the knowledge that the building was made mostly by one man over the course of 55+ years. And with mostly found and recycled materials to boot!
Justo Gallego Martínez, now over 90 years old, is a former monk who was kicked out of the monastery at an early age due to his contraction of tuberculosis. Fearing contamination, the monastery sent him away, but he never lost his desire to devote his life to his faith. He returned to Mejorada del Campo, where he was born, and began construction on his cathedral in 1961, despite having never studied construction or architecture. He’s a true example of the phrase, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”
As we walked around to the side entrance, we saw the man himself standing with a couple of other people, talking in low tones. He was dressed in a blue jumpsuit and as we meandered through the cathedral, we continuously got fleeting glimpses of him going about his daily work. His very presence was awe-inspiring and calming. In some ways, he reminded me of my grandfather, who would rake leaves, tinker with projects, and make things almost until the day he died. The sheer strength of will and stubbornness of completing a project that in retrospect I recognize my grandfather embodied, is present in Justo Gallego. The familiarity warmed my heart.
San Justo’s cathedral reminded me a lot of Gaudí’s style – whimsical, tile work, metal – which so many people flock to Barcelona to see. His masterpiece, the Sagrada Familía, is the most visited building in Spain. Yet while Gaudí’s buildings are stunning – of course – there is something much more personal, visceral, and inspiring in San Justo’s work. Gaudí was a trained architect. No doubt he had a brilliant mind. But San Justo shows what anyone can do no matter what their background.
I truly believe that everyone has incredible creative talent inside of them, it’s just that so few people allow that creative spirit to manifest. Creating is a process that takes time and when we’re all too caught up in the busy trap, it’s hard to allocate to follow our creative impulses and whims. But again, that’s a reflective post for another time.
I actually would wager a guess that San Justo probably doesn’t even think of his work as particularly creative and that he simply sees it as a physical manifestation of his faith. The cathedral is an amazing work of art – but it’s also firmly a symbol of his devotion, with altars, statues, murals depicting biblical scenes, and rooms for gathering and other church functions.
The cathedral is very much a work-in-progress and sparked a discussion between Veren and me on process-oriented art. Experiencing the cathedral is just as much about what has already been completed as it is about what is yet to come. In every corner, there are reminders of the continuous process, whether it’s a wheelbarrow, raw materials, or even just some dirty rags.
The cathedral’s character is enhanced by its connection with nature and the world outside. As we walked around, birds flew through the open windows and doors, singing their songs and settling wherever they pleased to enjoy the space as well. The contrast of concrete, metal, and ongoing construction with a soundtrack of the frolicking birds provided a full sensory experience. They’re clearly well taken care of as well, as we noted a massive box filled with stale bread for them to nibble at their leisure.
I personally was very inspired and challenged creatively as a photographer by the cathedral. Sure, it’s easy to take beautiful and aesthetically pleasing photos of picturesque Spanish towns. It’s another to work within a nontraditional space and try to depict its unique character.
The Cathedral of Don Justo in Mejorada del Campo is a very special place – and the best part is that visiting from Madrid is incredibly simple!
How to get to Mejorada del Campo
Getting to Mejorada del Campo is super easy and more affordable than other day trips from Madrid where you may need to take a train. There are two city buses that go to the town, line 341 from Conde de Casal (metro line 6) and line 282 from Avenida de América (metro lines 4, 6, 7, 9). If you take the bus from Conde de Casal, you can start or round off your day at Cookaluzka, a vegetarian and mostly vegan restaurant nearby. Everything is vegan except a couple of their breakfast pastries. For more vegan Madrid recommendations, head to our Madrid vegan tapas guide or our guide to the best lunch “menú del días” in Madrid.
Visiting Mejorada del Campo is really more of a half-day affair than a full day as there is not much else of interest in the town, so it’s a perfect chill yet amazing trip. The cathedral is open from 9 am – 6:30 pm daily. Entrance is free but there is a donation box where you can show your appreciation for Don Justo’s incredible life’s work.
What unknown yet interesting places have you found where you live or while traveling?