Pilgrims and Roman history in ancient León

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.

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Convento de San Marcos, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Town Hall, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Street art, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Basílica de San Isidoro, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Convento de San Marcos, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Casa Botines, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Gaudí statue, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Street art, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Casa Botines, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

León and the legend of ‘Saint’ Genarín

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.

A Lion in Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.