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Traveling in Spain: León. Part One



Our journey to Spain and France that had been planned a long time ago was finally carried out! On September 4, we landed at Madrid’s airport. Our international team consisted of three people – Andrei Kalashnikov, our guide from Israel Slava Kim, and I. The purpose of our journey was to make a pilgrimage on foot from Lugo to Santiago de Compostela, which is traditionally called El Camino, or the Path of Saint James, and to get acquainted with Spain and neighbouring regions of France along the Mediterranean coast.

We decided to travel by car. As we finished all unsophisticated and utterly simple passport control and customs formalities at the airport, we met with our accompanying guide Slava Kim. Slava had already taken care of the practical arrangements, and in thirty more minutes we were sitting in a rented car, heading for the first stop of our journey in Spain – the city of León. The distance between Madrid and León is a little over 335 kilometers, and the way there will take a little over four hours.

As we moved from Madrid to the north of Spain, heading for León, we observed how the landscape around us changed. The mountains were replaced by plains, and the scenery smothered in the green gradually gave way to a steppe that eventually even looked like a desert of the Middle East. After making a little stop on the way for rest, almost five hours later, we arrived in León.

Siesta in León

Siesta in León

León welcomed us with fair sunny weather and… siesta. The city’s streets were virtually empty and we could walk through the streets of this old town without any haste and people crowding us to take a close look at its attractions. It was hot, but the narrow streets of León safeguarded us from the heat of the day, sheltering us in their shade. The city was friendly and took care of us so that we would feel comfortable. It was really an amazing experience.

Shady Streets of León

Shady Streets of León

In the past, León was a capital of the eponymous kingdom, which played a significant role in the history of Reconquista1. It was in León where the foundation was laid for the unified Spanish state that was originally called the Kingdom of Castile and León.

(1Reconquista - (from Spanish reconquistar — to reconquest) is repossessing by the people of the Iberian peninsula in 8-15th centuries of the territories conquered by Arabs (more accurately, by Arabs and Berbers, who were later generally called the Moors).

Cathedral of León

Cathedral of León

According to historical records, León was founded back in the Roman times, when the Sixth Spanish legion of the Roman army (Legio VI Victrix) was formed here. During the Visigoths2 invasion to the Iberian Peninsula, the city was almost never mentioned in the written sources. In the VIIIth century, León was ruined by an Arab commander Musa, and several years later – by King Alfonso I.

Facade and Main Entrance of León's Cathedral

Facade and Main Entrance of León’s Cathedral

(2Visigoths, or tervingi) — is an old Germanic tribe that constituted the western branch of the Gothic tribal union which fell apart by the middle of the 3rd century to form two branches: Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Starting from 370 A.D., Visigoths participated in the Great Migration. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, they played a key role in the history of Western Europe. Along with the Suebi, the Visigoths are considered to be one of the distant ancestors of the modern Spanish and Portuguese.

Stained Glass Windows of León's Cathedral

Stained Glass Windows of León’s Cathedral

King Ordoño I (850-866) and his successor Alfonso III the Great surrounded the city with mighty walls, and in 914, Ordoño II moved the residence of the kings of Asturia and León here. In the X-XII centuries, it was the main Christian city of the Iberian Peninsula, and only after the formation of the unified Kingdom of Castile and León in the XIII century it lost this status.

Commemorative Medal of Visiting León's Cathedral. From Private Collection

Commemorative Medal of Visiting León’s Cathedral. From Private Collection

The brilliant history of medieval León speaks of itself in the numerous monuments of architecture and historical relics. Of the tumultuous history of Reconquista remind the ancient fortified walls with towers (XII—XIV centuries) that surround the old town. But the heart of León is its Cathedral Santa Maria de León or Santa Maria de la Regla, which is otherwise known as the Royal Cathedral.

The Royal Cathedral was built on the site where in the Roman period thermae, or public baths, were located; and under the first kings of León there was a royal palace there, built by Ordoño II. The cathedral’s construction began circa 1255, and was carried out by masters Enrique (who also built the cathedral in Burgos) and Juan Peres under the oversight of Bishop Manrique Lara. The main works were finished in 1280.

The relatively short period of the cathedral’s construction allowed to keep the integrity of the architectural concept. In its appearance there are clear influences of the Amiens and Reims Cathedrals, but unlike the great temples of the Northern France, the Cathedral in León is somewhat bulky. At the same time the clear lines, the amazing harmony and unity of style make it one of the masterpieces of the Spanish Gothics. The Gothic appearance of the cathedral in the coming centuries was left intact and free of later additions and alterations.

In its layout, the cathedral has the shape of a Latin Cross with very short sleeves of transepts and elongated altar section; on the west side on two ends it is adjoined by the towers – El Reloj (Clock Tower) and Las Campanas (Belfry Tower), and on the east side – five chapels built at different times. The west portal Nuestra Señora la Blanca (1270 – 1280) reproduces the basic plan of the French Gothic portals (some traits are borrowed from the Chartre Cathedral), but the sculpture itself is related primarily to the Cathedral in Burgos, and only after that – to France, and is characterized by the unique scenic interpretation of the figures and Spanish face features. The central sculptural group is devoted to the subject of the Last Judgment.

More than one hundred windows, most of which kept their beautiful stained glasses, illumine the temple’s interior and enhance the general impression of lightness and spaciousness. The abundance of stained glass windows (there are 1 800 of them, and some are 12 meters high) is the most characteristic feature of León Cathedral; because of it, it is often compared to a precious stone. The stained glass windows of the Cathedral of León are the best in Spain. Specialists find many parallels in them with the stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

The most ancient stained glasses (of the XIIIth century) can be seen in the windows of the central nave. In the transept and in the altar section there are many stained glasses of later periods – the result of later restorations.

The cathedral keeps within its walls many treasures of art. The temple is decorated with paintings of the Spanish, Italian, and Flemish masters of the XIV-XVI centuries. Among the sculptural decorations, the relief with an image of Saint James in pilgrim’s clothes stand out, this is placed at the central entrance.

Starting from 1964, a museum functions in the cathedral, where many outstanding works of Spanish medieval art are kept, as well as ancient manuscripts, and historic documents.

After taking a tour of the Cathedral and a walk in the shady streets of León, tiring ourselves out, we decided to have lunch and taste wines of Castile and León. To form our gastronomic impression of León, we chose the restaurant that is rarely visited by tourists, but among the local people it is very popular because of its devotion to the traditional products and dishes. For lunch we were served fresh baked bread, home made cheese and traditional for the entire Spain dry-cured ham called jamon, but prepared in a special local way, and also spicy chorizo sausage. After the starters, we had some traditionally cooked mutton, and rack of lamb on grill, and Spanish blood sausage morcilla. All of that was accompanied by the local red wine.

After we got acquainted with the city of León, with its attractions and history, with the amazing Cathedral, and having enjoyed the hospitality and the delicacies of the local cuisine, we continued our journey. The final destination of our first day in Spain was the city of Lugo.

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