In a simple stone altar, two candles illuminate the gloomy room. The walls are also made of stone: thick walls with few light inputs. A painter on a long ladder works hard. It is the 12th century, specifically 1150, and it is inside the first temple of Santa María, a Romanesque-style church on which the current Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria would be built. It is a journey through time and it is one of the three virtual reality experiences that the Fundación Catedral Santa María has incorporated this week. In October last year, the Foundation decided to include this technology in the guided tours of the cathedral and the wall and, since then, visitors have been able to visit the Plaza de Santa María, the canton of Santa María and the bell tower, and enjoy a visual and virtual tour through the history of these three spaces. Now, the 3D experience is completed with three new locations. From the first cabins in the primitive village of Gasteiz from the 9th century before the founding of the city as such in 1181, to the construction of the new Santa María and its vaults in the 14th century. A 500-year journey so that visitors “can understand and experience the sensation of moving to another place”, as explained by Iñaki Koroso, a technician at the Foundation and a member of the virtual reality project, who has acted as the temple guide for this newspaper .
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The Cathedral of Santa María was built on the top of the hill where the village that would give rise to the city of Vitoria was settled. Before the temple was built, a stone wall was erected there with a large moat surrounding it. It was believed that the founding of the town of Nova Victoria (name given by King Sancho el Sabio in 1181) had preceded the construction of the wall, but excavations in the cathedral have shown that the wall predated the villa and that the reasons for its construction, as well as its exact dating, are unknown. This is one of the explanations offered during the visit, which begins with the entrance to the cathedral transept and with the virtual reality glasses, the autonomous devices that will allow those who wear them to position themselves in an immersive 3D environment. Once placed, visitors will see that they are inside the cathedral and that everything is just as they saw it a few minutes ago, but in front of them a map will have been displayed detailing the spaces they are going to see. “The technicians will guide people with a remote through the route. We offer them everything already configured so that they do not have to handle anything,” says Koroso. The only limitation of the experience is that the visit is not allowed for children under 13 years old due to the safety warnings of the virtual reality glasses used.
The journey back in time begins. The ground changes color, is muddy and several huts of simple construction are distributed on it. It is the Plaza de Santa María in the 9th century. Through the glasses, you can see the growth of the town that gave rise to Vitoria: the buildings made of sticks are transformed into stone houses and the wall and the Romanesque church that precursor to the cathedral begin to be erected. Without moving from the transept, the scene changes again and now the visitors are inside that Romanesque church. The wall has been built and the 12th century has already started. The technicians press the button again and the city of Vitoria stretches into the distance. Still wearing glasses, visitors are now at the top of the wall and can appreciate how the construction of the current Santa María has begun. There is still one last scene – “the most spectacular” for Koroso -, the floor plan of the cathedral at the time of construction of the vaults of the transept in the 14th century. On the left, the Vitoria clergy and nobility observe the progress in the cathedral and, along with the men, several women participate in the construction work. Koroso explains that it was common for women to participate in this type of project, although “they charged half as much as men.”
Thus ends the virtual tour of the cathedral that fell in love with Ken Follet. The three new spaces, in which the Fundación Catedral Santa María has been working for a year, are part of the research and dissemination project for the construction of a virtual model of the cathedral and its surroundings in which they have been immersed for three years. “Everything is based on this virtual model. We want it to be done with historical rigor and everything that appears in the virtual tour, the houses, the square or the walls, is based on the geometric data obtained from the excavations of the cathedral”, Koroso details. He also explains that they have worked together with the Research Group on Built Heritage (GPAC) of the University of the Basque Country and with the 3dUBU research group of the University of Burgos, who have been in charge of carrying out the 3D modeling of all the spaces . “We not only want it to be beautiful, but we also want it to respond to the knowledge acquired in the excavations and be transferred to the people of Vitoria. In the end it is their story,” adds Koroso. The only thing that does not belong to the period from the 9th to the 14th century are the actors who appear in the scenes to give them life and realism (some are members of the cathedral’s technical team), although their clothing does.
This new virtual reality experience and the one launched last fall have been developed with funding from the Department for the Promotion of Employment, Commerce and Tourism of the Provincial Council of Álava. That is why, according to Koroso, that the virtual visit can not only be enjoyed with the glasses, but is also available in 360º video format on the cathedral’s YouTube channel. “It is not a theme that applies only to our visits. It is a return to the city. We are interested in sharing knowledge and that is why we open it on YouTube to whoever wants,” says Koroso, for whom the experience with glasses and within the cathedral “is what gives the most.”