A short wait at Sahagún train station…
The towns outer landscape and slower, quieter pace has much to offer. The stirring within the inner landscape is continuing to unfold. My intuition has always been my constant friend and has taken me to many amazing and magical places, both physically and within. As I walked each day, taking in and admiring my new surroundings, ‘something’ inside was calling me to a particular path.
Whilst waiting for the train, a memory presented of myself as a sixteen year old teenager – at the time I was still living with my parents and two sisters on the outskirts of a river-land town in South Australia. I had been in town on my own and decided I would avoid walking home along the busy road and instead, walk along the railway line. When I approached the road crossing a car with three teenage boys stopped. Insisting I get in the car and they would drop me home. No! It was then at that very moment, I had my first epiphany, a sudden and striking realisation when I saw a life in front of me that I didn’t want; and wasn’t mine. A feeling of destiny that didn’t want to go away. Shortly after my seventeen birthday I moved away.
The train arrived, finding my seat I sat and gazed out the window, looking out across the open flat plains of the senda. Recalling a favourite quote by Joseph Campbell
“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us”
Thirty minutes to the capital of the province of León and home to a quarter of the province population. Founded around 29BC the city has also witnessed its share of conflicts and revivals, before becoming the capital of the Kingdom of León in 910, during the Reconquista against the Moors. Becoming one of the fundamental kingdoms of medieval Spain.
The city is also credited with holding the first Parliament in European history – The Decreta or Decrees of León under the reign of Alfonso IX in 1188. A prominent King having founded the University of Salamanca, in 121 and contributing to the work of the Reconquest conquering the area of Extremadura. The city’s historical heritage is also noted as being one of the first cities to hold an uprising in the Spanish War of Independence.
The sounds of city life are everywhere as I walk 20 mins from the train station to pre-booked accommodation at the NH Plaza Major located in the heart of the old city centre for the next two nights. Passing by Plaza de Guszmán El Bueno and the statue of the squares namesake Guszmán El Bueno, a much loved military man and noble historical figure of the 13th century.
There are many people going about their day and as I walk along Calle Ancha, I catch my first glimpse of the magnificent León Cathedral before turning down a lane that opens to the Plaza Major where a local morning market is taking place. A little luxury awaits…I booked the Premium Suite.
The colourful and vibrant local markets provided opportunity to buy some local fresh fruit before finding my way to the Plaza de Santa Maria del Camino, also known as Plaza del Grano, a short walk away in the Barrio Húmedo (Wet District). The historic Jewish quarter of the old walled city and a quieter pace during the afternoon.
The Plaza del Grano, with its cobbled paving and surrounding arcades many built with wooden material takes its name from being the original main market for buying and selling grain and other products.
Finding a quiet café for a tapas lunch, adjacent to the 10th century Nuestra Senora del Mercado – Church of Our Lady of the Market; while being watched over by the cherubs playing in the neo-classical fountain, that symbolises the two rivers that embrace the magical city.
Traces of Roman and medieval wars are still present as seen in the city’s stone walls. With remnants of the oldest stone wall built at the end of the 1st century by Legio VII Gemina.
The city name is derived from the Latin word “Legio”, meaning legion and was once part of the Seventh Legion of Roman soldiers that guarded the city in the 1st century, when the city was a major centre for the gold trade.
During the 5th century another wall made with cobblestone and mortar was erected in a triangular shape; known as muralla de los cubos – cube wall, to strengthen and greatly enlarge the original wall. The eight metre high wall included four gates along each side of the triangular stronghold. Much of this wall was reconstructed in the mid 18th century and is still visible in the old city, from the ponce tower, behind Plaza Major to Puerta Castillo (the last remaining gate) and the Tower of San Isidoro.
Unlike the cerca medieval – medieval fence, a stretch of stone wall constructed during the 14th century built atop a 13th century dirt wall, that surrounds the neighbourhood west of the old city outside the original Roman fortification that forms an irregular arch shape. Stretches of this wall is found along Independencia Avenue and Calle Las Cercus, characterised by the paved corridor between the inner el antemuro – the bulwark lower wall and the second higher and more robust outer wall.
Leaving Plaza de Santa del Camino, approx. 15 mins walk along Calle Ias Fuentes I found myself standing in front of the modern day Plaza de Torros de León – León Arena. Better know by the locals as El Panque – Bullring. The Bullring was inaugurated in June, 1948 following a decision to upgrade the original wooden structure built in 1912 and transform into a place for musical concerts and other events supporting a seating captivity for 10,000.
Modern day León blends into its historic past at Plaza Santo Domingo and the fuente de Santo Domingo – fountain of Santo Domingo, along Calle Ancha.
The day is hot and I’m grateful to find shade as are the pigeons sharing space by the fuente de San Marcelo – fountain de San Marcelo. Opposite stands Antoni Gaudi’s contribution to León cityscape and the beautiful neo-Gothic castle like Casa de los Bontines. Built during the early 1890s, the main entrance is crowned by a stone sculpture of St George. Declared an historical monument in 1969, today the Caja España – Spanish savings bank is the buildings owner. Sitting outside the buildings entrance, a bronze statue of its architect making notes.
Adjacent to Casa de los Bontines, stands the 16th century Palacio de los Guzmanes. Construction of this Renaissance building was commissioned by the aristocratic family, who were one of the city’s powerful and influential families. Today the building houses the León Regional Government and in 1963 was declared a national monument.
Having walked many kilometers since leaving Roncesvalles, passing through Burgos and through the open fields across the Meseta and having seen many amazing and beautiful historic sites; one thing has struct me – León retains true to its cultural origins and its authenticity. From the early Romans that fortified it, to the Moors who inhabited it, to King Ferdinand III of Castile who inherited it – to the many modern day restaurants who serve authentic Leonese cuisine, and much of the city’s architecture. Even the local newspapers are printed in the traditional Leonese language, that was formed as a Romance dialect of Astur-Leonese. León is graciously preserving its rich heritage.
Further along Calle Ancha, the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare that is peppered with beautifully coloured buildings, housing boutiques, restaurants, cafés and curio stores. The cathedral spire can be seen high above the streets buildings while busy with foot traffic occupies the street. There are many choices of cafés… time for lunch before visiting the city’s majestic cathedral.
Having a chat with the waiter, I learn that the English translation for Calle Ancha, is Broad Street. A fitting name for a truly beautiful and busy ‘broad’ street.
The León Cathedral, also known as The House of Lights or the Pulchra Leonina (Latin meaning ‘beautiful lioness’), is located in Plaza Regla. This fine example of a French-style classic architectural Gothic masterpiece, is dedicated to the Santa Maria de la Regla – Our Lady of the Rule, and was declared a cultural interest in 1844. The stunning cathedral was built on the site of former Roam baths. Construction of the current building began in the early 13th century, under the rule of King Ordoño II and was completed in the 16th century. The cathedral underwent many restorations during a period of 400 years as problems with the construction and unstable ground proved too much, and a major restoration was completed in the 19th century. The main façade has two towers, including a southern clock tower.
Step inside and you’ll find a lavish repository of architecture, paintings, sculptures and other arts. There are three portals decorated with sculptures situated in the pointed arches between the two towers. Almost 1,800 square meters of stained glass and the majority being original; a rarity, dating from the 13th – 15th centuries. A beautifully detailed rendition of a large rose and the Virgin Blanca, and some of the worlds finest and most exquisite stained glass. A silver urn houses the remains of San Froilan, León’s patron saint. The cloister in the main chapel contains singular sculpted details in the friezes and ledges. An in-house museum also hosts a collection of scared art with more than 1,500 pieces of religiously inspired artwork. Romanesque styles statues of the Virgin Mary are found along several codices, a Mozarabic bible, and the first manuscript in the Leonese language.
There is so much to see and discover as I walk along the high arched passageways with intrinsic carvings and smaller enclaves with fine detailed stained glass forming this grand and monumental cathedral.
Captivated by the grandeur and magnificence of the Cathedrals interior, I lost time and was surprised when I was approached and advised that it was soon to close.
Stepping outside, I find that the afternoon had turned to early evening. I choose to sit for awhile opposite the Cathedral entrance and admire the external architecture. The Cathedral lights up the night sky and is reminiscent of its name – The House of Light.
Returning to Plaza Major and a quieter atmosphere as the day has turned to night. A light dinner and a glass of sangria at Lapaneria café bar, before calling it a day.
Staying at the NH Plaza Major brings a taste of luxury and a delicious soak in a bath. Hmmm, it’s important to respect your body and spend time alone in quiet reflection.
Another day awaits and brings more wondrous and magical moments, amazing insights, delights and historical sights.
A beautiful restful night’s sleep has rejuvenated my body and soul. Opening the balcony doors, too a glorious clear day. It’s still quite early and little is happening in Plaza Major.
The window up there, just below the steeple provides a wonderful view across Plaza Major. A closer look… I am rested and ready for another day.
I sketched a rough plan for the day, making sure I had time to return to the Cathedral to spend time in the Cathedral museum before closing.
A morning walk along Calle Rue, the waymarked camino pathway that guides pilgrims past the city’s prime sites in the medieval quarter and I find myself at Iglesia de San Marcelo.
The parish church of San Marcelo is believed to be the oldest building in the city. Located in the centre of the historical inner city, the church was founded during the time of Ramiro I, around 850. The church was destroyed by Almanzor and rebuilt for the first time in 1096, coinciding with the construction of the hospital housed within.
From San Marcelo, I make my way down Calle Cid to the Basilica of San Isidoro. The Romanesque and Gothic style chapel was built on the site of an ancient Roman temple and once dedicated to the Roman messenger god – Mercury.
The Basilicas’ medieval Christian roots can be traced back to the early 10th century when a monastery for Saint John the Bapist was erected on the grounds.
Walking through the heavy timber doors, I found myself quietly taking a seat amongst the parishioners whilst a midday service was taking place, and admiring the lead light windows and the Retablos. The Basilica’s thick walls protect the Royal Pantheon of Kings and houses a number of stunning 12th century murals. Forty four royal family members are buried in the Basilica’s Royal Pantheon, including 23 Kings. With many bejeweled religious items, including processional fabrics and a Mozarabic bible from the year 960, housed in its museum.
Leaving the Basilica, I make my way to the Monasterio de San Marcos, but first stopping at the Iglesia Santa Marina La Real and passing through the Arco de la Cárcel – Lion’s Prison Arch and stopping for a bite to eat at the cafeteria Colegiata on Plaza Santo Martino. The Arco de la Cárcel is one of the four cardinal point entrances that gave access to the main roads of the old city.
The magnificent Monasterio de San Marcos, now the Parador de San Marcos Hotel, built during the 16th century to replace another monastery from the 12th century. Ferdinand I of León, who according to tradition was the first to have himself crowned as Emperor of Spain in 1056, donated funds for the buildings restoration, resulting in the current Renaissance style. This outstanding building is anchored in the roots of the camino and was originally a hospital to service the increasing number of pilgrims who passed through León in 1150. During the succeeding years the building underwent many residents, following the removal of its use as a convent in 1836, including a secondary school, house for church missionaries and correction, a veterinary school, a prison hospital, the offices for staff of the Seventh Army Corps, a military prison and a concentration camp for republican prisoners during the Civil War and its aftermath. The building was also one of the most stark and repressive establishments between 1936 and 1940 during Franco’s regime, reaching a prison population of 6,700 men. Today, it has been restored to its former residence, to provide accommodation for the passing pilgrims.
The resting pilgrim statue reminds me that I will soon be re-joining with other fellow pilgrims, however for the moment, sitting beside the statue provides a place to rest a while and admire the detailed façade of the Monasterio de San Marcos.
Taking a look around the Monastery/Hotel interior foyer and the Gothic style church of San Marcos that was built in 1531. The church also houses the Museo de León, created in 1869 with archaeological and ancient art collections, including antiquities from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, Roman and Middle ages.
A leisurely walk through the gardens along Av. Condesa de Sagasta running alongside the Rio Bernesga – Bernesga River, before returning to the Cathedral and passing by the small Romanesque style Capela del Cristo de la Victoria – Chapel of Christ of Victory on Calle Ancha. His legion states that the chapel was built on the site of the house of the saint and martyr of the Roman centurion Legio VII Germina San Marcelo.
The chapel was also originally larger, but with the growth of an urban city during 1885 needing wider streets, the chapel was greatly reduced in size and is now only open for services during special occasions, and provides seating for parishioners on the street outside.
Back inside the Cathedral and the stunning and exquisitely created lead light windows capture the afternoon sun.
A short stroll through the quiet streets back to Plaza Major as day again turns to night. I’m back in the relaxed atmosphere of Lapaneria café bar, enjoying more of the local Spanish jamon and a glass of tinto vino, before it’s time to call it a day. To meet the darkness of night and know that the comfort of resting and rejuvenating my body would prepare me… I’m back on ‘the way’ tomorrow.
My heart is full of gratitude for what has been an insightful, inspirational and a greater opening of intuitive moments. Days have passed and as Joanna Field notes, “So I began to have an idea of my life.. as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose that I had not known”.
The following day marks day 22 of walking the Camino de Santiago.