HISPANIC DAY CELEBRATIONS IN LEON
We arrived in Leon this afternoon to the chaos and party atmosphere of a Spanish long weekend; the streets were packed with families and young couples walking in arm-in-arm, and the main square was abuzz with gaggles of teenagers. Luckily it seems everyone’s invited to take part in the celebrations of Hispanic Day so we got to spend our Saturday enjoying the festivities along with everyone else! Along the way we also managed to see some of Leon’s best sights and learn a little about the town’s history too.
We arrived in Leon by bus (we’ve basically given up on the trains for now thanks to rail strikes, industrial sabotage, etc), once again travelling through La Meseta on a journey that took us through a dozen or so small villages and past numerous farms. With most of the crops harvested and the fields already lying fallow for the winter, the landscape here is pretty desolate and uninspiring – makes us feel for the pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, this would be hard terrain to walk through mentally if not physically.
Despite its unassuming appearance, however, the region we passed through today stands at the centre of Castilla, a region that is in many ways the heart of all things Spanish. It was from here that the Reconquista (i.e. the push to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors) began; it was the marriage of the rulers of Castilla and Aragon united 2 great kingdoms to form the core of modern-day Spain; and it’s Castellan Spanish that is spoken across Spain and the Americas today.
Leon was founded as a Roman military encampment around 2,000 years ago and, thanks to its monopoly it held over the merino wool trade, grew to become one of Castilla’s most prosperous cities during the Middle Ages. Along with Burgos and Santiago de Compostela, Leon was also one of the 3 important stops pilgrims had to make during their trek along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The Medieval prosperity and religious heritage of the city is writ large in its magnificent Gothic cathedral and its beautiful buildings.
The cathedral was our first stop after dropping our bags off at the small guesthouse we’re staying in. The walk up Calle Ancha, with its shops and cafés was pleasant enough, but it was the cathedral at the end of the road took our breath away. Like the cathedral of Burgos, Leon Cathedral is a masterpiece of the Gothic style. Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral, also called The House of Light, was built on the site of previous Roman baths and, starting in the mid 13th century, took 3 centuries to complete.
The interior equaled the exterior in its beauty. Stunning traceried windows created an ethereal lighting effect in the sanctuary and the cathedral’s 13th century stained glass windows were truly wondrous. The cathedral has more than 1,800 square meters of stained-glass windows, some of which are amongst the oldest in Europe.
It’s not hard to understand why people making the pilgrimage hundreds of years ago would have been awed by the magnificence of cathedrals such as the ones we’ve seen in Zaragoza, Burgos, and now Leon. We can only imagine how the richness, details, and splendour of these cathedrals would have impacted the peasants and merchants who arrived in Leon, either on foot on riding their donkeys. Compared to their in crude cottages and rural villages, this must have indeed seemed like a piece of heaven on Earth. It does make us a cringe a little though to see such incredible wealth displayed so openly when the Catholic church also preaches charity and giving to the poor. It’s that sort of hypocrisy (amongst other things) that makes us vehemently opposed to organised religion (not faith, but religion).
Though it’s the grandest church in Leon, the cathedral is by now means the only one. The Basilica of San Isidoro was also lovely, though far less grand. Built on the site of an ancient Roman temple, San Isidoro dates back to the 12th century and is Romanesque in design. Inside the remains of San Isidoro, once bishop of Seville, are on display.
Perhaps our favourite church however was the very modest Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Camino (Church of Our Lady of the Pilgrimage), situated in the centre of the cobbled Plaza del Grano (Grain Square). The church is the oldest surviving chapel in Leon and dates back to the 10th century. The square it sits in used to be the Medieval town’s central market square and still retains its old world charm. Being a little out of the way, the Plaza del Grano was much quieter than the rest of town so, with the autumn sunshine warming us, we stopped there to relax for a bit.
Eventually we headed back into the fray and made our way to Casa Botines, one of Leon’s newest historical buildings. Designed by Antoni Gaudi (of Barcelona fame), this Modernist building was built in 1893 as the home for a wealthy Leonaise textile merchant, Joan Botinàs. In designing Casa Botines, Gaudi wanted to pay tribute to Leon’s emblematic buildings so he designed a building with a Medieval air and numerous Gothic characteristics. The building’s principal entrance is even crowned by a stone sculpture of Saint George show as he is slaying a dragon.
In 1929, the savings bank of Leon, Caja España, bought the building; the bank still has its offices in the building (which means its interior is off-limits for tourists).
A few blocks away from Casa Botines, Plaza Mayor is the main town square of Leon. This spacious public square was lined with restaurants and cafés, all busy with people enjoying a late lunch or just relaxing over a drink. On once side of the square was the Consistorio Viejo (former town hall), a lovely twin-towered building that dates to 1677.
From Plaza Mayor the little streets of the Casco Antiguo (i.e. Old Town) radiated out in every direction. We happily spent a couple of hours wandering the atmospheric cobblestone streets, enjoying the holiday atmosphere and buzz.
We stayed out well into the evening, stopping to listen to the free concert in the main square for a while and enjoying dinner in one of the many restaurants in the old town. The celebrations are in honour of Hispanic Day, which is held on 12th October every year to celebrate the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. The anniversary of this date is marked as Hispanic Day in Spain and is widely celebrated as a momentous event in Spanish history*.
*Less so in many South American countries – like the Aborigines’ refusal to celebrate Australia Day (i.e. the day Captain Cook landed and claimed Australia for the Brits), seems not everyone sees the colonisation of their land as a reason to party.
The long weekend has certainly leant Leon a convivial atmosphere that we really enjoyed being a part of, and it seems a shame that we’re only here for 1 night, but the road calls us and we’re keen to keep moving. So tomorrow we’re going to bid farewell to Leon and continue along the trail of Northern Spain’s great churches and pilgrimage towns, with Astorga our next stop. For now however we bid you hasta leugo!