Friday 27 April 2007

The Santiago Road: An Interlude in León

May 20, 2002

As I rode into the city, I was impressed with how hot it was as the sunshine reflected off of the white stone. I quickly found myself in a pedestrian area, which eventually turned into a street named after Generalissimo Franco, the first I had noticed on my travels. I walked my bicycle into a square and admired the magnificent white cathedral but, more immediately, I saw a drugstore across the square and I hurried over. One of the problems of riding around the countryside in hot dry weather under a blazing sun is chapped lips and mine were so bad that they were bleeding. My Spanish is limited as it is but the pharmacist understood with my mixture of French/Spanish/hand gestures and I purchased what must have been the world’s single most expensive tube of lip balm. However, it was worth the money as it worked immediately and I had instant relief.

No cars in León!

Lips back in order, the next thing was to figure out where I might stay. After the refugio in Sahagun and the serial snorers I really wanted to get a good night’s sleep so I wandered up and down the streets looking for a small hotel. It appears that there are no small hotels in León, at least in the old city, and I was hot, sweaty and discouraged. Then I saw a small sign that read “Hostal San Martín” and I thought that sounded promising. I went down a small street a few blocks to the Plaza Torres de Omaña and found the Hostal. It was on the third floor, so I brought my bike inside and chained it to the railing before climbing the stairs with my gear.

The couple operating the hotel did not really speak much English. The place looked very clean and cool and I was pretty exhausted by this point. I was quite shocked when they told me that the room would be 50 Euros but at this point I was beyond caring and did not want to look around any more. The communal bathroom was in the hall next to the small room and was quite wonderful, with lots of marble and several big showers.

I unpacked my panniers and organized my gear, taking some of my dirty laundry into the bathroom and cleaning it as best as I could. This worked quite well since my room had a little balcony and everything dried almost immediately in the blazing sun. I took a long wonderful shower and then napped for an hour, awakening completely refreshed and ready to see the town. The only thing left before going out was to enquire about a laundromat where I could clean some of the larger items. My touring shorts were getting kind of stiff and I was pretty anxious to look after them. The hotel people could not comprehend what I needed at first but then they understand and told me about a laundromat which was near the university, several miles away. But then they were very nice and offered to put my touring shorts in with the hotel laundry since that was all I had. When I came back from my walk around León they were all done and I had nice fresh clothing for the next few days. The Spanish are not well set-up for travellers wanting to do laundry and it is not practical to bring clothing for two weeks straight when cycling.

All practical matters attended to, I was free to wander the streets of León for several hours. The sun was not so intense now in the late afternoon and I was able to go back and enjoy the cathedral, which is a magnificent Gothic structure, the fourth church on the site. It was begun around 1205 and is apparently a 2/3 scale replica of the cathedral in Rheims, France. It was pretty well finished by 1302, although there were some alterations made in the 15th Century for the more modern taste of that later time. The stained glass windows are particularly striking, and apparently the León cathedral has more glass and less stone than any other cathedral in Spain.

Stepping out of the cool gloom of the cathedral back into the streets of the city, I walked around, admiring the impressive remains of the Roman city wall, which was originally constructed in the 3rd or 4th Century and was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current section dates only to the 11th Century! Next to it is the Basilica de San Isidoro, an 11th Century Romanesque complex, which was built to house the bones of San Isidoro, which were brought into León in 1063. The king of Castile and León, Fernando I, had harassed the Muslims in Extramadura to the extent that they offered him the saint’s bones, not having any gold as their own kingdom was in decline. Pretty lucky that they had some spare saintly relics around...

The church was expanded later in the 11th and 12th Centuries but otherwise was not changed much except by the collapse of its central apse in 1513 and damage caused by the French invasion and by a lightning strike and fire in 1811. As I walked around, I saw several tall columns, and on one of them a family of storks had a huge nest. The baby storks were being fed and I watched them for a while. Nobody else paid the slightest attention.

Another very interesting building in León but quite modern in construction if not appearance is the Casa de Botines, an example of the work of the celebrated Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Constructed in 1892, it looks like a grey stone Gothic/Art Nouveau fortress but was meant to be a commercial building, housing a department store on the ground floor and three floors of apartments above.

I spent the remainder of the day sightseeing, enjoying the carless streets and exploring the hidden squares. I even walked past the main refugio in the city, but was happy to finally return to the Hostal San Martín and get a good night’s sleep.