León is a city that sticks in the memory. In my case, less for its monumental cathedral or glorious Plaza Mayor, than for the traumatic experience of trying to park a car in our hotel’s underground car park. I’ve experienced Spanish garages before. They seem to follow a universal design: small, cramped and intended to separate you from your hire car rental deposit. It’s no way to introduce yourself to a new city, especially a city as fascinating as León.
León was the final stop on our way back to Madrid from Galicia. It wasn’t a particularly convenient stopover, but we’d heard glowing reports and made the detour. I’m glad we did. The long drive from Pontevedra meant we arrived in the late afternoon, just as temperatures were beginning to drop. It was perfect for a stroll through the narrow streets of the old city – the Barrio Húmedo – with stops for a drink and tapas in a couple of lovely plazas.
This is a city of squares. The most splendid is the Plaza Mayor with pleasant cafes and bars. Nearby is the Plaza San Martin, so chock full of tapas bars a substantial bar crawl is possible without ever leaving the tiny square. A short stroll away is the picturesque, Plaza del Grano. An ancient cobbled square, it’s also home to the 12th century Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, the oldest church in Leon named for the market that once took place here.
Today, you’ll find a few tapas places. We sat down and ordered a couple of drinks as we watched the comings and goings in the square. There was a hostal on one side, and periodically ‘pilgrims’ from the hugely popular Camino de Santiago passed through on their way to rest up after an arduous day of hiking in Spain’s fierce August heat. As I sat with a cold beer, I reflected on the madness of hiking at this time of year regardless of your faith.
The sun was starting to set by the time we wandered, a little unsteadily, out of Plaza del Grano. We made for the town’s outstanding sight, the Catedral de León. We planned to visit the following morning when sunlight would do justice to its monumental stained glass windows. There was a vibrant buzz in the square surrounding the cathedral as people headed out for an evening stroll and some tapas – this is a town that prides itself on both its nightlife and food.
We joined the throngs of people meeting, greeting and eating, and ended up in a web of narrow streets surrounding the Plaza Conde Luna. The town was pulsating and the tapas bars were heaving. We squeezed in where we could to try the local specialities, including a morcilla (blood sausage) stew. It looks like something you might cross the street to avoid – you’d definitely avoid stepping in it – but it is absolutely delicious with a glass of Tempranillo.
The carnival atmosphere helped explain one of León’s most famous tales. This relates that, after a night of revelry on 30 March 1929, a very drunk local man named Genaro Blanco was relieving himself against one of the city’s ancient walls when he stumbled in front of León’s first ever garbage truck. He died instantly. The truck was the pride of the town and the incident became famous. So famous, that it’s still celebrated today.
In March, revellers parade the streets carrying a statue of Genaro in vague mockery of Semana Santa. Cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of orujo brandy in his hand, the procession circulates through the city to arrive at the very spot where he died all those years ago. Here the crowds perform the “Burial of Saint Genarín”. It may sound crazy, but 15,000 people show up for this event. I like the idea that an early contender for the Darwin Awards is suitably honoured.