Sunday, 15 April 2018

Camino Day 25: Villar de Mazarife - Astorga (04/04/17)

I woke refreshed; I had actually slept very well for a change, with no sinus problems or headaches! The walk from Mazarife to Astorga took 8 hours and 40 minutes, but that was partly because we were wandering along and taking our time as usual. Our original plan had been to only walk to Hospital de Órbigo, but we found that when we got there, we still felt fresh and decided to walk on to Astorga.
Felt arch support
The first section to Villavante was hard – the path was straight, stony and monotonous and my left foot was still really hurting due to arch strain from the excessive pronation. At Villavante however, we had second breakfast and I constructed a felt arch support that I taped underneath the insole of my walking shoe. This did the trick and the pain in my foot quickly settled down and I no further problems for the rest of the trip.
David drying his socks near Villavante!
We had a pleasant walk to Hospital de Órbigo, stopping occasionally, to watch foraging Storks, who were following the tractors ploughing in nearby fields in just the same way that Gulls do in Ireland.
The bridge at Hospital de Orbigo
At Hospital we paused to admire the bridge; the longest and best preserved medieval bridge in Spain according to John Brierley. Built in the 13th century on earlier Roman foundations, it is famous as the site of a famous jousting tournament that lasted from July 10th – August  9th1434 and which has given the bridge it’s nickname – el Passo Honroso. A noble knight from León, Don Suero de Quiñones, who had been spurned by a noble lady, declared himself imprisoned by his love for her and calling on St. James as his witness, vowed to break 300 lances as a ransom to escape from his ‘prison’. Knights came from all over Europe to take up his challenge and afterwards Don Suero travelled to Santiago and offered a gold bracelet belonging to the lady in thanksgiving which has become associated with the collar that adorns the reliquary bust of St. James in Santiago cathedral.
Monument to Don Suero on the bridge
The bridge was also the site of battles between the Visigoths and Swabians in 452 and later, when Alfonso III ‘The Great’ confronted the Moors in about 900.
Apart from the bridge, the town of Hospital turned out to be smaller than I had expected, so we walked on and had lunch in a bar at Santibanez de Valdeiglesia. On the way, we met two middle aged Belgian ladies who were starting their Camino at Hospital and fell into conversation with them.
The last section to Astorga was very beautiful with gently rolling hills covered in woodland, open fields and vineyards. We saw beautiful yellow butterflies and spotted a large green lizard and the snow-capped Montes de León could be seen in the distance.
Cruceiro Santo Toribo with Astorga in the background
Eventually, we reached the hill on which stands the stone Cruceiro Santo Toribo and looked down on the small city of Astorga. The stone cross marks the site where Bishop Toribio of Astorga is said to have shaken the dust from his sandals in the 5th century as he looked back at the city for the last time when he was forced to leave his diocese.
Astorga turned out to be a beautiful little city nestled within it’s ancient city walls. It is the capital of the Maragato region – the Maragatos being a distinct ethnic group with their own customs, language and traditional dress, who in the past made their living by guiding pilgrims through the dangerous Montes de León.
San Javier
We made our way into the old city through the Puerta Sol and along the narrow streets to Albergue San Javier, close to the cathedral – a evocative converted traditional 3 storey house, with creaky timber floors, stairs and beamed ceilings that had a pervading smell of wood smoke, which was permeating through the house from a wood burning stove on the ground floor. The Fire Officer in David was not impressed with the fire safety aspects of the accommodation, but as usual the Pilgrim in David came to the fore and these concerns were put to one side!
Cathedral viewed from San Javier
After showering and laundry we briefly explored the city. We admired the beautifully ornate Baroque façade of the cathedral, its’ features being highlighted in the evening sun and wandered through the old city, stopping to admire some Roman mosaics in an excavated Roman house that is on view near Plaza San Francisco. 
Roman mosaic
Nearby in the building adjoining the church, a religious Confraternity were busy organising their pasos or religious floats for the forthcoming Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions. Each paso was highly ornate with life-size holy statues showing tableaus of scenes such as the crucifixion or the descent from the cross. The organisers kindly invited us in and allowed us to examine the pasos at close quarters.
One of the pasos
The day finished off with dinner in a restaurant in the Plaza Mayor, where we met the two English ladies we had talked to at Mazarife and we were also joined by an Austrian female pilgrim. I had pulpo – octopus stew, as a starter. Well we were nearly in Galicia, so it had to be done and I did enjoy it!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Camino Day 24: León – Villar de Mazarife (03/04/17)

After a lovely breakfast in the Parador, it was time to cast aside soft living aside and return to the life of the pilgrim! The statue at the base of the cross outside San Marcos seemed to be gazing back longingly at the luxury we were leaving, but we bade him farewell and crossing the 16th stone bridge over the rio Bernesga, made our way out of León through industrial zones and rather ugly suburbs.
Last look at San Marcos
I had woken up at 4am again with very bad sinuses and a pressure-related headache so I stopped off at a pharmacy in Trabajo del Camino to buy Pseudoephedrine and Ibuprofen (I noticed that you get a bigger dose of 300mg of the latter per tablet than the 200mg in Ireland – but that suited me as my sinus headaches had been unpleasant!). Nearby was the little chapel of Santiago, which seemed to me a little island of peace beside the busy road, so I stopped off briefly to pray and enjoyed the silence with one other pilgrim.
Industrial suburbs at Trabajo del Camino
There was a slow and steepish climb out of the city past some residential apartment blocks and some more old bodegas, which seemed marooned amongst the modern urban sprawl, until we crested at the site of another old ruined cross which gave a view back over the city but was surrounded by rubbish and detritus.
Chapel of Santiago at Trabajo
We reached the suburb of La Virgin del Camino; really the last part of León’s conurbation and stopped for second breakfast in a trendy little café that seemed to be frequented by an interesting mix of locals and business people looking at laptops or discussing sheaves of documents.
David went off to buy some provisions for a picnic lunch and I spent a long time in the wonderful modern church of La Virgen del Camino in contemplative prayer. Although built in 1961, the church is on the site of an earlier 16th sanctuary, where according to tradition, a shepherd saw a vision of the Virgin, who told him to throw a stone and build a church on the spot where it fell. The church has huge bronze statues of the 12 apostles on its façade and a surprising richly gilded baroque high altar from the earlier church, set in an alcove of natural stone, which somehow didn’t seem at dissonance with the clean lines of the modernist architecture and managed to provide a focal point, in which at the centre of the altar, is illuminated the statue the of Virgen del Camino herself which became a focus for pilgrimage.
Church of La Virgen del Camino
As previously mentioned in this blog, I am not a great fan of holy statues, but some are special, and worth contemplation, like the ‘Y’ crucifix that I discussed at Puente la Reina. The Virgen del Camino was one of those. It is a pieta; the dead Christ lies sprawled sideways, half hanging off Mary’s lap. This is rendered in a most unusual way and there is the sense of the dead weight of Christ’s corpse and that Mary can hardly hold onto him for much longer and that any moment, he is going to fall off her knees and slide to the ground. As I gazed at this statue I felt the Lord reminding me how he wants us to fully put our entire weight on him and not try and hold onto to other things. He can take our full weight; our sins, our cares, our anxieties.
Local with Harris Hawk
David returned from shopping and we sat a while longer enjoying the peace and serenity of the place.
Picnic near Oncina
We reached the end of the urban sprawl and decided to take the optional route to Mazarife. There has been local rivalry between supporters of this, modern route, which takes you out through quieter, open countryside (which is why we chose it) and the traditional route which runs to Villadangos del Paramo on a senda alongside the N-120 road. Obviously, the residents of Mazarife are keen to promote this new alternative route, as it brings them business from pilgrims travelling through their town, but the residents of Villadangos are worried that pilgrims will stay away from the busy N-120, as we did and they will lose the business. There were therefore, many rival graffiti messages (with accompanying arrows) sprayed on the tarmac such as “VILLAR DE MAZIRIFE” or “CAMINO ORIGINAL”. Well, I try to follow the original Camino route (whatever that is anyway!) where possible, but I wasn’t walking approximately 25km alongside the N-120 to Hospital de Orbigo just for historical accuracy, so we turned off towards Mazarife!
Modern Campanile
Just as we did so, we met a local guy coming back from the open fields where he had been out flying his Harris Hawk and he stopped to let us examine and stroke the magnificent bird of prey. It was good to be out of the city and back into the open countryside and to hear Cuckoos and Skylarks. As we walked I realised that I missed Matthew’s company on the road and his eye for spotting birds of prey. He and Heather were now travelling back to Bilbao, however we exchanged many texts during the day, which was encouraging.
Landscape after Chozas
Beyond Oncina, we stopped for our picnic and then had coffee at Chozas de Abajo where we fell into conversation with two middle aged ladies from Southern England (one of whom had an Irish husband). We also noted the interesting modern pyramidal steel campanile beside the church. We later saw more of these as we continued walking; they are obviously a stylish must-have local ecclesiastical addition to any church!
Doorway in Mazarife
I found the last section into Mazarife hard going, as my left foot was now hurting under the longitudinal arch, due to excessive pronation. We checked into the Albergue San Antonio, which was very nice. A family run business it was modern, clean and friendly. We were able to get our washing done and there was an excellent communal meal of paella which we enjoyed while talking to pilgrims of various nationalities including the English ladies that we had met earlier in Chozas.
My own foot problems seemed nothing compared with a young German woman who was also in our dormitory who had started the Camino at León that morning and whose feet were already in ribbons. I doubted she would be able to continue. 
Communal Meal at Albergue San Antonio

Sunday, 27 August 2017

León Part II – The Cathedral & Monastery of San Marcos (02/04/17)

We left San Isidoro and made our over to the cathedral. The Spanish journalist Carlos Herrera has described León Cathedral in these poetic terms: “It stands before the tired gaze of the pilgrim a blazing light which fills everything and takes over the dark shadows inflicted by the fatigues of the penitent…rising in the middle of the path [the Camino] like a lighthouse…which serves as a guide, refuge and consolation”.
It certainly makes an impressive sight. Built over the Roman baths within the old Castro, there was an earlier Visigothic church and the royal palace of Ordoño II on this site, which was followed by a Romanesque Cathedral in the 11th Century. However, the present structure dates largely from the 13th Century, when Alfonso X, The Wise and Bishop Martín Fernández promoted the construction of a new and highly innovative cathedral in the French Gothic style. Unusually, for a medieval cathedral, the main church (excluding the later towers and cloister) was completed in only 50 years and this gives the cathedral a great architectural harmony. In the shape of a Latin cross, it has a three-aisled nave and a pentagonal apse with ambulatory and five radiating chapels.
The main achievement of the builders was to give the building great verticality and to support the walls through stone rib vaults in the roof which rest on the internal pillars and tie the whole building together, allowing for very large areas of stained glass, for which the cathedral is famous. There are 1,765 square metres of stained glass, and these include 31 windows in the nave and transepts, three rose windows and the windows in the chapels around the ambulatory. It must have been a revelation to medieval pilgrims entering the cathedral’s light - filled soaring spaces, full of coloured glass, after being used to the architectural vocabulary of the Romanesque with it’s bulky pillars, heavy semi-circular arches and smaller windows and consequently darker internal atmosphere. The cathedral is basically, a coloured glass box, or as close to it as medieval architects dared, which evokes the colours of the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21:11 “It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal”. It is not a surprise that the cathedral is also called the Pulchra Leonina – the beauty or jewel of León.
And it was beautiful; very beautiful and yet, for all that, shocking as it may be to admit it, I think we all agreed that we still preferred San Isidoro! Maybe it was getting near lunch and we were tired and hungry; maybe the audio guide was just too detailed and even I was suffering from a surfeit of side chapels and medieval architects; maybe we missed the mini radiators to warm our legs when sat down for some contemplation or maybe we felt it was just too soaring, vast, and full of tourists so that it lacked the intimacy of San Isidoro. Who can say? Certainly, Matthew and Heather were under-awed!
Time for tapas!
It was time to step out and find some tapas! Outside the cathedral in the plaza, an animal rights organisation was staging a good- natured rally and members had brought their pet dogs; a wide variety of interesting and unusual breeds, and Heather enjoyed watching them for a few minutes as she is a dog trainer. Hunger pangs soon drove us onwards however and nearby, in the warren of streets and lanes of the Santa Maria Quarter, we found a large selection of interesting tapas bars. The choice and variety of tapas was mouth-watering! We made our way into a nice one.
Matthew & Heather
with Casa Botines behind
The idea in a tapas bar, for the uninitiated, is that you buy a drink and then the tapas comes free with the drink. And so, you wander around different tapas bars having a drink here and a drink there and lots of interesting and artistic snacks to go with them, chatting to your friends and enjoying the atmosphere. I recently read, as an aside, that the word tapas comes from the Spanish for lid or top and originally referred to the plate of snacks that covered your drink. I don’t know if this is true, but it makes sense to me.
City walls
We ordered our drinks and tapas, then sat outside to eat them in the Spring sunshine. Then we moved onto another bar to sample more wine and more tapas; what a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon! It was a bit chilly, but still pleasant sitting in the sun to eat and the Santa Maria quarter was buzzing with friends and families circulating around the tapas bars and cafes, socialising and enjoying themselves. I said in my last post that to begin with, I was quite ambivalent about León; feeling that it seemed scruffy and down at heel, but now I began to see the city in a different light; that there was vibrancy and beauty too. Overall, though I still think I like Burgos better, but shhh…I don’t think we should tell the Leónese that!
Plateresque entrance to San Marcos
After eating, we wandered over to the Parque de El Cid, where there is a surviving section of city wall and ascending the ramparts, we had nice views: in front of us, the Palacio de los Guzmanes, which houses the City Council offices and Gaudi’s extraordinary 19th century neo-gothic Casa Botines and behind us, back along the wall to San Isidoro.
Matthew & Heather's suite
At 15.30 we checked into the Parador Hotel at San Marcos. To stay in a luxury Parador Hotel may not seem quite in the spirit of pilgrimage, and some of my friends have mocked me for staying there when I should be living frugally in an albergue! However, in my defence I would say three things. The first is that the Monastery and Hostal of San Marcos is the third of the three historic architectural treasures of León, along with San Isidoro and the Cathedral, and I wanted to see it properly, so what could be better a way of seeing it than to stay there? Secondly, it was after all, built as the main pilgrim hospital for pilgrims passing through the city, so I was still following in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims! Thirdly, I had booked the twin room for David and myself months earlier and it only worked out at €45 each – great value for a luxury hotel – we had paid as much for some other cheap hotels that we had stayed in on other Camino trips.

San Marcos Cloister
In addition to our twin room, I also booked a suite as a surprise treat for Matthew and Heather for their final night in León before they returned home. San Marcos surpassed our expectations –it really was quite spectacular inside! Not only were the rooms themselves excellent, but we had free reign to wander around the complex admiring the historic fabric of the old monastery.  A grand staircase near the reception impresses on arrival, and a beautiful two storey cloister and garden is fully accessible. On the second floor of the cloister, tables and chairs were arranged for guests to sit in the sunshine and there were adjoining rooms very tastefully fitted out with period furniture, while a balcony led through to the monastery church, where we could look down into the nave. Perhaps most astonishing, was the Chapter House of the monastery, also situated off the cloister with a second door beside the main entrance. This large room has a magnificent 16th Century Mudéjar coffered larch ceiling, decorated with pineapples and rosettes and a frieze of cherubs.
Lord & Lady Roxboro graciously
welcoming guests on the Grand Staircase
San Marcos dates to the 12th Century when Alfonso VII and his sister Sancha of Castille made a donation for the construction of a modest church and hospital for the shelter of pilgrims; “the poor of Christ” outside the city walls beside the Bernesga river. The building was also the headquarters in the kingdom of León of the Order of Santiago; an order of military monks similar to the Knights Templar and the Knights of St. John.
Church of San Marcos
The present building however, dates from the 16th Century, when Ferdinand The Catholic made a grant in 1514 to replace the dilapidated medieval building with the vast complex we see today. Work continued through the 16th Century, with additions added in the 17th and 18th centuries. The result is an architectural creation that is considered one of the most important Renaissance buildings in Spain, especially due to it’s highly ornamented Plateresque façade.
Matthew examining the Mudejar ceiling
San Marcos unfortunately, also has a very dark recent history, which a lot of guests staying at the Parador do not realise. During the Spanish Civil War, between July 1936 and the end of 1940, the complex was turned into a concentration camp for Republican Militia members and political prisoners. Every conceivable room, including the church itself were turned into impromptu prison cells and at any one time approximately 7.000 men and 300 women were incarcerated. It is estimated that 20,000 prisoners passed through the cells and of the 3.000 deaths from political oppression recorded in León during this period, a good many of these occurred in San Marcos. Wandering around the Parador in the warm sunshine, it was hard to imagine the terrible deeds that had occurred around us and it was best not to think in too much detail what might have happened in the very room in which we were staying. The only mention of this grim past that we came across, was a plaque in the cloister explaining that damage to a religious monument had occurred when San Marcos was used as a political prison, and a passing comment on the sign regarding the Chapter House Mudéjar ceiling, stating that the room had been used a guard room for the prison guards. It may seem discordant to turn a former concentration camp into a luxury hotel and I read some criticism online about it, but I suppose what else could be done with such a landmark building that couldn’t be demolished due to it’s historic and architectural significance and had to be somehow rehabilitated?
We retired to our rooms to rest for a while and then David and I were cordially invited by text to attend a late afternoon soiree at the sumptuous apartment of Mr and Mrs Watson! We were given a grand tour of their suite and remarked on its generous size and on their balcony, which looked down on a peaceful garden of box parterres (unlike ours which, (this is just a tiny gripe) rather than looking out onto the Plaza de San Marcos, provided a view across a wide concrete area to the modernist building of the Junta of Castille and León), Then David and Matthew nipped out to the shops (well. You didn’t think we were paying for room service, did you?!) and bought some drinks and snacks and we spent an enjoyable time chatting and relaxing before taking an exploratory tour around the building itself.
Junta of Castille & Leon
There was a rather bizarre moment when we asked at Reception how we could visit the parterre garden that we could see from Matthew and Heather’s balcony and were directed into a nearby conference room where we were told we could climb out one of the large windows. Later we discovered that it could have been easily be accessed through the café / restaurant beside the front door!

The garden however. gave us a nice view of the Puente San Marcos crossing the rio Bernesga and to finish off the evening we walked along the riverside and then up into the San Claudio quarter for some dinner. Unfortunately, on the way back to San Marcos, my usually excellent sense of direction escaped me and as the new EU regulations on roaming data charges didn’t come in for another fortnight, we wandered aimlessly around for quite some time before we made it back – I suitably humbled!
Puente San Marcos
David and I said a fond farewell to Matthew and Heather and returned to our room to have showers and relax before bed. David commented on how quickly we had succumbed to luxury living in the hotel and how distant the rigours of walking the Camino already seemed. I had to agree with him -it was definitely time to enjoy a good night’s sleep in our very comfortable beds, but then in the morning cast soft living aside and get back on the road!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

León Part I – The Basilica of San Isidoro (02/04/17)

It was Sunday; the last day the four of us would be together, before Matthew and Heather returned home to and David and I walked on for a few more days and we had set the day aside for some sightseeing in León. There were two places I especially wanted to visit; the Romanesque basilica of San Isidoro with all it’s treasures including Urraca’s Chalice and the Royal Pantheon - the burial place of the kings of León, and also the great 13th century Gothic cathedral – the Pulchra Leonina.
San Marco in the early morning sun
The city has a long and interesting past dating back to the Roman period when it was the military garrison or Castra of the VII Legion “Gemina”, which was formed out of other Hispanic contingents by Galba before he briefly became emperor in A.D. 69. León’s name itself is a corruption from the Latin “Legio” and the castra was defended by a rectangular fence or quadrata that measured 550 x 380 metres with a gate on each side and it was this that formed the basis for the medieval walled city.
Pilgrim statue outside San Marco
After the Visigothic invasions little is known about León until the Moorish leader Muza conquered it in the 8th Century. Alfonso I and Ordoño I rebuilt it and it became the capital of the kingdom of Asturias & León under Ordoño II in 914. Although devastated again in 988 by the Moorish leader Almanzor, it became the most important capital city of Christian Spain in the 10th & 11th centuries, but after the union of the kingdoms of Castille & León in the 13th century, it lost it’s status as a capital city. The present city walls were built in the 14th century, incorporating many Roman elements.
Podiatry on the pilgrim feet!
After a warm night in the convent dormitory, we had a light breakfast of coffee or hot chocolate and bread and jam sitting around a long communal table with other pilgrims and then left the albergue to walk through the city centre to the Hospital and Monastery of San Marcos, where we had decided to treat ourselves by having a luxury stay in the Parador hotel which now occupies the building. San Marcos looked lovely; it’s Renaissance Plateresque façade gilded in the early morning sunlight and we stopped to look at the medieval cross in the plaza in front of it, which I believe was originally sited on the Alto de Portillo and now features a bronze statue of a weary pilgrim sitting at it’s base with feet that looked even worse than Heather’s, so I took a few seconds to offer him some Podiatry treatment!  But more about San Marcos later; we dropped our bags at reception as we couldn’t check in until the afternoon and made our way back to San Isidoro.
We reached the outside of the basilica just as our Danish friend from the day before was passing on by his way out of the city and he pointed at San Isidoro and exclaimed “there is a good museum in there and I recommend you visit it!” “Yes…I know!”, I thought to myself.
San Isidoro wasn’t open yet as it was still well before 10 am, so we looked around and found a bar opposite the basilica in the corner of the plaza and went in to order a nice breakfast. While Matthew was at the bar ordering his he was approached by another customer sitting at the bar who was clearly drunk and possibly also on some form of drugs. Matthew chatted to him politely, however he then followed him back to our table and quickly became a bit of a problem. He was harmless enough, although his behaviour was starting to make Heather nervous as he began invading our personal space and began rambling away, sometimes incoherently and in halting and slurred English, whilst being over familiar and over sentimental in the way of some people who are drunk. He would then leave us briefly before repeatedly returning to talk to us some more. He said he was half Spanish and half Mexican, but was also claimed to be a Muslim and went on at great lengths about how he loved everyone and how all religions should live together. We felt sorry for him and tried to be respectful, but his behaviour was becoming increasingly intrusive and after the waitress brought us a coffee that he had insisted on paying for, even though we had politely declined, we decided that we would have to move on to shake him off.

Before we did, I visited the toilets, which were situated downstairs below the bar in a basement. Just after I had gone into the cubicle and was standing in front of the toilet, the door suddenly crashed open and another man burst in; I was convinced that I was about to be attacked by our drunk friend and maybe stabbed and robbed. Luckily, it just turned out that the lock on the door was not working properly and another customer was just innocently coming in to use the loo! He retreated apologetically, but the episode gave me quite a fright!

The whole incident in the bar and also that of being accosted by the other drunk in the convent courtyard the previous night, gave me pause for thought concerning the city. My impression was that León seemed more “down at heel” than Burgos; there seemed to be more social deprivation and the town seemed scruffier. I wondered whether the Junta of Castille and León spent more money on Burgos, which had seemed more prosperous. Certainly, it was interesting that when David and I later walked on to Astorga we saw Junta signs with Castille scored out and other graffiti saying, “León sin Castilla!” “León without Castille!”. I recently listened to the excellent BBC Radio series “The Invention of Spain” and as one historian commented – when you think of the regional rivalries in Spain you should think of the UK and then multiply it by at least four. Even the Spanish National Anthem doesn’t have words, because it can’t be agreed what they should be!
The museum of San Isidoro opened and we took the first guided tour in English. A convent was built in the north-west corner of the Roman camp during the reign of king Sancho the Fat (don’t you just love the names of some of these kings!) who reigned A.D. 955 – 67, however a new basilica in the Romanesque style was constructed by Ferdinand I (1037 – 65) and his wife, Queen Sancha. The portico of the church became the royal pantheon of the kings of León (in this period non-religious burials could not be placed inside the church) and the relics of two saints - San Isidoro from Seville and St. Vincent from Avila were translated to the basilica to increase it’s status.
Urraca's Chalice
©Adrian Fletcher

The tour was excellent. We were first taken up a winding staircase inside the “Cockerel Tower”. This is a free-standing tower built in the 11th century and is so named because it is topped by a replica of a gilt-bronze medieval Arab cockerel which was captured from Muslim Spain. The original is now on display protected from the elements in one of the cloisters. Apparently, the cockerel would have originally been a garden water feature and pollen analysis shows that it came from the Middle East.

City Walls and the Cockerel Tower
The main treasure to be seen in the tower is the Chalice of Urraca; this was something I was eager to see. It is an ornate chalice consisting of two pieces of agate - a cup and a dish – the latter forming the base, the two having been joined together with ornate bands of sheet gold encrusted with filigree gold decoration, gilded silver, and precious stones such as amethysts and emeralds, seed pearls and even a vitreous enamel cameo face. The stem of the chalice where the two pieces of agate are joined is further ornamented with green enamels, cabochon pearls, emeralds and sapphires. Apparently, the workmanship bears many similarities with German goldwork from the same period in Vienna.
Royal Burial Vault
An inscription on the gold banding “IN NOMINE D[OMI]NI VRRACA FERDINA[N]DI” - “In the name of God, Fernando’s Urraca” and this shows that it was donated to the basilica by the same Princess Urraca, daughter of Ferdinand I and sister of Alfonso VI that I mentioned in my post about Sahagún. As mentioned, she along with her sister Elvira had been given charge of the monasteries of the kingdom as their patrimony in their father’s controversial will, as long as she remained unmarried and Urraca governed them from León.  It was spectacular piece and enjoyed examining it at close range inside it secure glass display case.
©Adrian Fletcher
The chalice however, recently came to much greater prominence in 2014 when two researchers - Margarita Torres Sevilla and José Miguel Ortega del Río in their published research ‘The Kings of the Grail: Tracing the Historic Journey of the Holy Grail from Jerusalem to Spain’ claimed they had uncovered evidence that the chalice was in fact the Holy Grail. Interest in what had been a relatively obscure Romanesque treasure rocketed and it was moved to it’s present location in the Cockerel Tower for greater security. Apparently, carbon dating has shown that it is indeed a Roman cup dating from between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. and records show that it reached Spain from Egypt via a Muslim Emir and then was given to Ferdinand I as a dilpomatic offering by an Andalusian ruler, but so what? There are 200 chalices and cups around Europe that also claim to be the Holy Grail and Diarmuid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, described the claims as “idiotic”.
Farming Calendar: January - June
©Adrian Fletcher
Personally, I don’t understand the obsession with Holy and all the legends and secret rituals supposedly associated the Holy Grail; things like king Arthur or the Knights Templar, legends and mysteries that have often unfortunately also been linked with the Camino itself. As far as I am concerned it is all a load of rubbish! Such “mysteries” tend to promote the Holy Grail itself as an item of misguided (and idolatrous) veneration instead of focussing on what Christ did himself for us on the cross to pay for our sins and achieve for us salvation and eternal life. Whatever type of cup it was that Jesus served wine in to his disciples at the Last Supper is of no importance.  (No doubt it was probably just some peasant’s pottery drinking cup rather than some ornate jewel encrusted agate bowl!) What is important however, is what the wine and the bread themselves symbolised for them, gathered in that little room and what it still symbolises today for us when we take Holy Communion – life! When we declare with our mouths ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead – then we are saved! (Romans 10:9). And there are no secret initiation ceremonies or secret rituals needed to know God – God’s message is freely available to everyone and all we need to do is believe – it’s as simple as that. Taking the bread and the wine to remind ourselves about what Christ did for us and by choosing to identify his him in his death and resurrection is infinitely more precious than any treasure this world can offer!

I was excited to see the Chalice of Urraca; but not because it was the Holy Grail; for me it’s value is in it’s historical interest because it is a tangible link with Medieval Spain, and Alfonso VI whose tomb I had visited back in Sahagún and in my view the most interesting and greatest of all the royal patrons of the Camino!
Farming Calendar: July - December
©Adrian Fletcher
Descending the stairs of the tower once more, we came to the Royal Burial Vault. Also known as St. Catherine’s Chapel, the structure is really the narthex or portico of Ferdinand and Sancha’s Romanesque church; the bricked-up doorway into the church itself can still be seen in the east wall. Eight metres square, a surviving wall from the Royal Palace forms the south side, while the west and north are bordered by an open gallery. In the centre are two robust columns and from these spring six arches that form the vaulting of the ceiling that connects with the wall columns and the arcading. 21 pillar capitals contain some of the first Romanesque stone carving in Iberia and haver a variety of iconographic motifs including scenes from the gospels such as the Raising of Lazarus or the Healing of the Leper, Old Testament scenes like the sacrifice of Isaac or Balaam and his Donkey or phyto-zoomorphic scenes of animals entwined with vegetative motives such as wolves’ heads, wild animals vomiting serpents or gryphons drinking from a vase set amidst palmettes, leaves, stalks, and vines.
Visigothic- Mozarabic Bible
©Adrian Fletcher
Here, in stone sarcophagi, lie eleven kings, fourteen queens, as well as princes, princesses, counts and countesses and other notable figures from the kingdom of León:
Alfonso IV, Ramiro II, Ordoño III, Sancho I, Ramiro III, Vermudo II, Alfonso V, Vermudo III, Sancho the Great of Navarre, Ferdinand I, Garcia of Galicia, Urraca, wife of Alfonso IV, Elvira, wife of Ordoño III, Urraca, wife of Ramiro III, Elvira, wife of Vermudo II, Elvira, wife of Alfonso V, Jimena, wife of Vermudo III, Sancha, wife of Ferdinand I, Urraca, Queen of Zamora, Elvira, Queen of Toro, Isabel, wife of Alfonso VI, Zaida the Moorish queen of Alfonso VI, Urraca, queen regnant, Sancha the Princess-Queen, Teresa, wife of Ferdinand II.(1)
An amazing litany of medieval Spanish rulers!
However, like the royal tombs of Castille in the monastery of Santa Maria la Real de Huelgas, the tombs were pillaged for their treasures by French Napoleonic troops. On the 30th December 1808, San Isidoro was occupied by the invading army and the minutes of the Chapter record what happened:
“Not satisfied with the expulsion of the Canons…they reduced this holy temple to a barn, putting it’s altars out of use, looting and selling the ornaments and sacred vessels and throwing out the bones and ashes of so many kings and royal personages without the least respect”. (1)
After the occupation, the bones, which had been jumbled up were piled into a few of the coffins and it was only in 1997 that the Spanish Palaeopathological Association studied the bones and sought to reassemble the skeletons. It is hoped that further studies and DNA analysis will eventually allow identification of some of individuals who lie in the plain stone coffins.
If the present plain sarcophagi are but are a shadow of what must have once been a sumptuous display of royal tombs, thankfully the chief glory of the Royal Burial vault remains largely undamaged by Napoleonic vandalism – and that is the outstanding painted ceiling. The vault is often called the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art because of the of the outstanding quality of the painting and what amazed us was the way the colours and scenes have survived largely intact over so many centuries; even Matthew and Heather seemed impressed and we stood for a long time beneath them enjoying the explanation given the tour guide.
Painted sometime before 1150 by now anonymous artists, the scheme of the design largely follows the Mozarabic Mass that was used in medieval Spain before the introduction of the Latin Mass by Alfonso VI in his ecclesiastical reforms. The scenes portrayed are the Annunciation, the Tidings brought to the Shepherds, the Circumcision, Epiphany, the Murder of the Innocents, the Arrest in the Garden, the Crucifixion, the Ascension and Christ in Majesty. There is also a striking portrayal of Christ Pantokrator surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists, and a delightful farming calendar for each month of the year (January is shown as two-faced Janus looking backwards and forwards, March as a farmer pruning his vines and December as a farmer warming himself in front of a brazier). We particularly enjoyed the scene of the shepherds as it shows scenes from everyday life in the Montes de León during the period – a shepherd is playing his pan pipes, whilst another is so startled at the appearance of the angel that he doesn’t notice that his dog, a León mastiff, is lapping milk out of his cup! Nearby some goats are locking horns and a herd of pigs are eating nuts falling from a tree. It is a delightfully rendered scene, full of life and vitality.
During the tour, we also visited the cloisters and saw various other treasures including: the wonderfully illuminated Visigothic-Mozarabic Bible dating from A.D. 960; St. Isidoro’s silver reliquary chest dating from 1063, which to me was astonishing because inside the lid it still has a surviving lining of Arabic embroidery in the lid and cloth from El-Andalus inside the chest; and the only Viking artefact in medieval Spain - a unique cylindrical box made from Reindeer bone deeply carved with an open-work pattern of entwined animals – quite astonishing! The tour is well worth the effort and is to be highly recommended!
St, Isidoro's Reliquary Chest with medieval Arabic lining
©Adrian Fletcher
Returning outside into the plaza, we took time to examine the exterior of the basilica, warm Spring sunshine threw into bold relief the iconography on the wonderful carvings around the different doorways. On the tympanum of the main doorway of the basilica Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, Ishmael is riding through the desert and Sarah is looking out from the door of her tent; all below a roundel of the Lamb of God.
San Isidoro
Further to the right is the Pardon Doorway; so-called because pilgrims who couldn’t make it to Santiago could receive a pardon by passing through the door and it is still opened to celebrate Holy Years (when the Feast Day of St. James, the 25th July, falls on a Sunday). Above the doorway is displayed the Deposition, the three Marys before the Sepulchre and the Ascension, although we felt that the rendering of a dog’s head below the door lintel looked rather too much like a teddy bear to be impressive and lacked gravitas!
Door of Pardon Tympanum
We completed our visit by spending a long time sitting inside church itself, enjoying the peace and tranquillity as we took some time to meditate and seek God. Even though Romanesque architecture can often be heavy, the church was full of warmth and light – helped by the sunshine outside and the golden glow of the stonework. A lovely vaulted gothic chancel also drew the eye and added to the feeling of airiness. The modern wooden pews were very comfortable and there were even mini radiators at shin level which I have never seen before in a church which made praying much more pleasant!
At the end of our visit, David and I had one of those lovely moments that for me make the Camino so memorable. We walked over to the Sacristy to request a stamp for our credencials. We were ushered inside by an elderly robed priest who was very welcoming. He stamped our credencials and then asked in broken English if we were Catholic or Protestant and if we were English? Having explained that we were Protestant / Christian and Irish, he smiled and nodded, reached into a drawer and produced three cards -two in English for both of us and one in Spanish, then, as we stood together, he raised his hands in blessing and prayed the prayer on the card in Spanish, whilst we followed along in English. It was a beautiful, touching, and intimate moment and we felt sent on our way with God’s protection and the blessing of a Patriarch!
Blessing and Prayer for the Pilgrim
Dear Lord Jesus Christ, who brought your
servant Abraham out of the city of Caldeas,
protecting him through all his travels / wandering,
and who was the Hebrew nation’s guide through the desert,
we ask you to bless these children of yours who,
for the love they bear your name,
are on a pilgrimage to Compostela.

Be for them their companion on the way,
Their guide at the cross-roads,
Their shelter on the road,
Their shade in the heat,
Their light in the darkness,
Their comfort in weariness and their resolve in intentions.
So that through your guidance they arrive sound at the end of their road,
And enriched with grace and virtue,
return home healthy and full of worthy virtues.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

March in the name of Christ who is the way,
And pray for us in Compostela.
Chancel of San Isidoro
(1)   St. Isidore’s Basilica – The Treasure House of León. 2nd Edition. Antonio Viñayo González. Edilesa.