Monday, May 2, 2016

Feeling young in León

Banners on a lamppost in León, Spain

Our two-day stop in León on our way back to France from Portugal, yields some sweet surprises. Our accommodations on the Plaza San Marcelo may not be the most luxurious, but the 3rd floor, walk-up apartment brings me back to my college days. And our hosts, a 21-year-old student and his exuberant primary-school teacher girlfriend, are the friendliest we've encountered during our month-long trip. They are eager for us to drink in the best of the northern Spain city and insist we start our visit with some wine made by their roommate and licor de Orujo — the main ingredient of the traditional Queimada ceremony in Galicia. (It also may be useful as a paint-thinner.)

Plaza Regla in León

León's roots go back to Roman times when the site was a military encampment. In 910, the city became the capital of the Kingdom of León, one of the most influential areas of Spain in the early Middle Ages until it lost its independence and was consolidated with Castile.

Statue in León, Spain

Today, the Castilla y León region is one of the largest food-producing areas in continental Europe. León itself is a vibrant university town, known for its cathedral and, (more relevant to us), one of the few Spanish cities whose bars serve free tapas.

Along Rio Bernesga in León

Our apartment is steps away from the intriguing Casa de Botines. Designed by Antoni Gaudi and built in just 11 months, the building looks like a Gothic castle. It's a bank now, so we have to limit our admiration to the exterior, which features a statue of Saint George fighting the dragon; Gaudi later replicated the statue for his Sagrada Familia masterpiece in Barcelona.

Casa de Botines in León was designed by Antoni Gaudi in 1892.

Saint George and the Dragon on the façade of Gaudi's
Casa de Botines in León

We decide to forego visiting the Catedral De Santa Maria De Regla De León, but admire its vast golden sandstone walls from the outside. In recent years, the cathedral started charging admission in order to pay for its renovation. Our new friend tells us the costs have been more than recovered, and so, on philosophical grounds, he is opposed to paying for visits. Agreed, but I think I'll go inside the next time we visit León. Seeing light pour through 1,200 meters of stained glass (125 windows and 56 oculi) may be worth the price of admission.

Catedral de León is known as the cathedral without walls
because it has more glass and less stone than any other church in Spain.

Catedral de León at night

Another popular attraction in León is Basilica de San Isidoro. The royal mausoleum is the final resting place of 23 monarchs, 12 princes and 19 counts. The basilica's construction spanned the 10th to mid-18th centuries.

Detail above the entrance to Basilica de San Isidoro in León

Interior detail, Basilica de San Isidoro in León

The Spanish government owns a chain of hotels called paradors, which usually are converted castles monasteries or other historical buildings. León has the Hostal de San Marcos, built in the 16th century as headquarters for the Knights of Santiago. The ornate façade is Plateresque, a Spanish architectural style that is named for the method of decorating the stone surfaces.

Hostal de San Marcos in León

Penitentes walk the streets during Holy Week in Leon wearing capirotes
or pointed hoods. These somewhat unsettling figurines are found 
throughout the city including in this pharmacy window.

We unexpectedly come upon Museo Vela Zanetti. The docent is eager to share information about the museum's namesake. José Vela Zanetti (1913-1999) grew up and started his artistic training in León. His father was executed by Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War, and Zanetti went into exile in the Dominican Republic in 1939. He is best known in America for creating the vast mural "Mankind's Struggle for Peace" at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Mural by painter Vela Zanetti in León

In addition to sightseeing, we take advantage of one of our final days in Spain by shopping for cultural necessities (OK, I mean alcohol) before heading to León's old quarter to verify that rumor about free tapas. Sí, es verdad. ¡Viva!

Ken is great at making friends with the locals on our journeys. 

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