León’s Cathedral is extraordinary. If you saw nothing else of the city, this massive hunk of stone standing in the centre of a huge square would alone be worth making the trip. Impressive from the outside, it’s when you step through the arched doorways that the building reveals its true glory. Nearly 1,800 square metres of stained glass await inside, most of them originals dating back centuries. Illuminated by a powerful sun, the light in the building is spellbinding.
The €6 entry fee was worth every cent, and came with an audioguide. Even before we entered though, the exterior carvings of devils doing terrible-looking things to earthly sinners helped get us in the right mood. The cathedral dates back to the 10th century, although most of what you see today is 14th and 15th century, with some add-ons. It’s remarkable the cathedral has survived, especially when you consider that ill-judged additions in the 16th century almost brought it crashing down.
The cathedral’s history dates much further back than the 10th century though, all the way to 74 AD. In that year, a Roman legion founded León, and on the current site of the cathedral they built baths. Making this a spot that has been used to ‘cleanse’ humanity, one way or another, for close to 2,000 years. Keeping with the religious theme, we set off through the new town to the equally impressive-looking Convento de San Marcos.
Now a luxury hotel, it was undergoing restoration so we admired it from the outside and then took a stroll along the river. It was August and there was hardly any water, but the landscaped river bank was shady and cool. I imagine that’s a relief for all those who traipse through the Plaza de San Marcos en route to Galicia on the French branch of the Camino de Santiago. There is a nice statue in the middle of the square of a pilgrim, shoes off, gazing at the convent.
León is an important staging post on the pilgrim route, and receives thousands of sore-footed travellers every year. A tradition established centuries ago which now seems to appeal as much to outdoor enthusiasts as the devout. We did see a couple of people for whom devotion seems to have slipped into mental illness. Jerusalem syndrome may be alive and well on the Camino. It certainly appeared that people in the town understood the symptoms, helpers were quickly called.
Back in the centre of the Old Town, Barrio Húmedo, we found an outdoor table with views over the 11th century Basílica de San Isidoro for lunch. This former monastery is built on the ruins of a Roman temple and, while the church is still a church, it’s now also an upmarket hotel. Here, in a city where people rest after trekking across Spain as part of their religious devotions, religious institutions are being preserved by converting them into hotels for those same people.
The Basílica is the final resting place to numerous Kings and Queens of León, it’s also where Saint Isidore of Seville’s relics were buried. Much more importantly though, this was the home to the Cortes of León of 1188, believed to be the first example of a parliament in modern European history. All of which has led the local authorities to brand León as the ‘Cradle of Parliamentarism’. After lunch we wandered around the streets until we came to the Casa Botines.
This odd looking building was designed by Antoni Gaudi, whose famed architectural style was really toned down for this project. Despite his relatively short time in León, Gaudi’s fame has warranted a statue outside Casa Botines. He sits sketching, while above him St. George slays a dragon on the facade of the building.