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 we 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.
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!