August 29, 2020: An Audible to Leon
I was in Cudillero in Asturias after two days on the Galician Coast. It was incredibly rainy. It was such a downpour that I did not think I could sightsee. Therefore, I decided to see if I could take a day trip elsewhere. When scouring the weather report, I realized that Leon, just 2 hours south, had a 0% chance of rain in the forecast.
I cautiously drove south across the Asturian mountains. The fog and rain were intense, which made the scenery almost jungle-like. Eventually, I reached the 4,000-meter long Negron tunnel.
Popping out on the other side, the scenery was vastly different. Gone were the thick forests. In their place was the treeless chaparral found in most of the rest of Spain. Also, I was no longer in Asturias- instead I was in Castille-Leon, the largest autonomous community by land area.
After crossing an impressive reservoir and suspension bridge, I reached the city of Leon.
Leon has quite the illustrious history. It was once the capital of an independent kingdom containing all of northwest Spain. Leon was the capital and they even had their own language (Leonese, which still exists today). In 1230, King Alphonso IX did not have any legitimate sons to inherit the kingdom, so he left it to his daughters. Unfortunately, his illegitimate son formed an army and took over the kingdom in the name of Castille. Leon enjoyed a form of semi-autonomy under Castille all the way up until the 1800’s at which point it was incorporated fully into Spain.
Today, Leon is both proud of its independent history but also extremely proud to be part of Spain. The lion on the flag of Leon is incorporated into the Spanish coat of arms which adorns the Spanish flag.
Leon’s main landmark is its cathedral. It was constructed during the 1200’s during the transition of Leon from an independent kingdom to part of Castille. Perhaps King Alphonso X of Castille put resources into the cathedral to appease these new subjects. Because it was built so quickly, it is pure Gothic- quite rare for Spain. In fact, it looks and feels more like a French cathedral such as in Amiens or Reims.
The highlight of Leon’s cathedral is its stained-glass windows, which are perfectly intact.
A few minutes’ walk from the cathedral is Leon’s other church, the Romanesque Basilica of St. Isadore.
This older church is home to the Pantheon of the Kings of Leon (yes just like the band). You can visit the Pantheon and see the amazing graves and frescos. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in the Pantheon.
I then wandered around Leon’s many plazas. There was a farmer’s market in the Plaza Mayor and I was able to buy cecina- a beef version of jamon iberico that for some reason can only be found in Leon.
Leon is known around Spain for having the least-healthy and most caloric foods. This trend continued at lunch when I got a huge entrecote steak!
My final stop in Leon was Casa Botines, a building designed by…Antonin Gaudi. Gaudi was a proud Catalan and only built 3 buildings outside of Catalonia. This is one of them. He accepted the commission- for a fabric factory- because one of the business owners was Catalan.
The inside has a museum that covers the history of the building plus Gaudi.
I would have also liked to see the modern art museum, but with my limited amount of time decided to visit one more city: Astorga.
Astorga is 30 minutes west of Leon along the Camino de Santiago. The drive passed along the Camino de Santiago and it looked very boring. I was glad to have not walked that part of the Camino and instead start in Galicia.
Astorga is a super traditional city that is proud of its unique culture that is different from Leon’s. For centuries, women from Astorga wore colorful traditional outfits that were recognizable all throughout Spain. They also have many unique foods. One of those is cocido maragato- an enormous bowl of soup. There is also mielitos- a puff pastry similar to baklava. Astorga is also one of the oldest cities in Spain- it was founded by the Romans during the reign of Augustus Caesar.
Astorga has two landmark buildings. They happen to be located right next to each other. The first is the cathedral with its incredible façade.
As one of the oldest cities in Spain, Astorga was one of the very first Catholic dioceses created in Spain back in the year 250. As a result, the Cathedral’s museum is full of treasures. The inside of the church is just fine.
The second attraction is the palace of the bishop, who ruled the diocese. This building was also built by…Gaudi. He took this gig because the bishop was from his hometown of Reus.
The palace is a stunning fairytale-like castle!
Inside is a religious art museum. The art and architecture are both sublime. Gaudi used all of his signature elements. This truly is a wonderful place.
It was now 6pm and I still had a 90-minute drive back to Asturias. So I headed out.
I thought that Leon and Astorga were fantastic. The culture was completely different from Asturias. The food was epic. And the sights were good. I probably could have stretched this into a day and a half if I went to all the museums and had another good meal in Leon. But with a day I felt like I saw a lot and don’t feel like I left anything major out.