The old kingdom’s device indeed displays a león, a lion, but its name means “legion”. Not a natural defensive position – if there are heights in the area, I never saw them – the town of León began as a river camp for Roman soldiers. Later it was Muslim, Visigothic, other things; and at times it was scarcely lived in.
Finally, that settlement became capital of the Kingdom of León, starting in the early Middle Ages, and in spite of shifting boundaries and shifting relations with Castile, León has since kept the look of a royal capital. To top off its importance it became a protector, patron and major hub of a certain confluence of pious tourists, called the Camino de Santiago. It’s possible that the Camino was, for centuries, the most important means of cultural exchange in Europe, and this government city was perhaps the safest and most powerful on the entire route.
León has what people used to call “tone”.
Its commerce has a very complete feel. When a shop can sell multiple varieties of pimentón in these quantities, you know you’re in a true regional centre.
Bar snacks, called pintxos in Navarre but here called tapas, make a major reappearance in León, whose reputation for tapas is very high. I can vouch. Perhaps because high-end snacks are such an expensive add-on to a business, and competition between bars is vigorous, the Leonese hospitality industry is particularly unhappy with anti-tobacco laws.
The medieval and Romanesque, of course, are heavily represented, but in such a long-busy town, expect many additions to the old. San Isidoro, built on a Roman temple, is a mix of styles and eras, but it’s a mix that works.
The Convent of San Marcos, in that very late medieval style called “silversmith”, is now a plush Parador hotel. I’d like to do an entire Camino staying in Five Star accommodation. It would put me in such a good mood, I’m sure I could pass for spiritual and enlightened.
In more modern times, but reflecting older Leonese architecture, Gaudí built the Casa de los Botines. It’s a little two-dimensional for my taste, but I’m so well disposed to Gaudí that I hardly care. If the ensemble fails, I’ll enjoy the detail. The skimpy rocket-ship towers, reflecting those grand ones seen on the cathedral, are a hoot.
The building is now a private bank, and an unfortunate security guy spends his life shooing away tourists like me who try to peek at the interior. If you think it’s silly, I won’t argue. I saw one tourist frankly screw up her face at the too-flat and too-busy frontal view of this major Leonese attraction.
Gaudí. We’ll see him again in Astorga.
I’ll speak of the cathedral and the Gothic without pretending to expertise. There is so much to be known about this most freakish and expensive of artistic movements, yet I never want to delve or look too closely. Gothic may have balance, or lack it; may succeed as a harmony, or may not. These are important elements. Taste, as a Renaissance and modern notion, is not a central issue: if it were, there would be no Gothic.
For Gothic is celestial bad taste.
Gothic is for emotion and drama and entertainment. The exterior of Leon’s cathedral, belonging to an era and style where lightness and illumination had come to matter more, does not have the mobility and muscularity of Burgos’ cathedral.
But step inside.
Light, colour and upthrust. A guardian spirit has pulled a lever: that’s the best way I can describe the emotion on entering. I tried entering and leaving several times, to see if the lever worked reliably. It does.
You don’t wander in a forest, as you may in Chartres. Nor are you in an ecclesiastical complex, which is the feeling in Siena or Burgos. Here it is one single sensation in one single, if partitioned, space.
Of course, there are the wombs. The niches for huddling.
But always the light.
My God, it’s almost in good taste!
The cathedral has a cloister, and I wasn’t going to miss a cloister, was I?
It’s a weighty fourteenth century affair, and good for a few laps.
There were more things to see in Burgos, and of greater interest than my cloister. In particular, one should not miss the “Sixtine Chapel of Romanesque”, the Royal Pantheon within San Isidoro…but I did miss it.
I love cloisters, and that’s that. They relax me greatly while distracting me quietly. And when I saw what I am about to show you, I forgave, thinking it to be some practical and temporary structure placed there for restoration work, perhaps to shelter staff or store expensive machinery.
No, it was a permanent structure and exhibition. The luvvies were here!
On leaving the cloister I went to the ticket office, thanked the staff, and said what a fine cloister they had. Then, very meekly, I enquired how long the coloured plastic thing had been there, and how much longer the coloured plastic thing would be there. They answered squirmingly. (Shut up WP Spell-Corrector!). And that was all.
I don’t do indignation. However…