“See that?” D said. “That’s the Valle de los Caídos.”
D is a softspoken Spaniard who works in software development. He was our only driver, poor man, because none of us could drive a stick-shift. We were on the highway going north. D was pointing out the window at a gigantic cross in the distance; this was the famous and controversial monument erected by Franco after the Spanish Civil War: the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen.
“Anyone want a piece of avocado?” T asked.
T is a lively Russian émigré, who teaches English here. We had a very international car.
Our first stop was León because it was the closest. The drive there took about four and a half hours, which is quite a long time when you’re sitting in the back and have long legs and achy knees. I was going into my typical hibernation mode, which I use for all long car rides, when a thought popped into my head.
“Hey guys,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I forgot to bring underwear.”
“Too late now,” GF said.
“Yeah,” T said. “You’ll just have to buy some when we get there.”
I spent a few minutes panicking about whether any stores would be open; but the panic quickly passed, and within an hour I had fallen asleep, as I always do, with my head pressed against the glass.
I woke up. We had arrived. It was dark outside. My neck hurt the way it always does when I sleep sitting up, and my mouth was full of that disgusting taste I always get when I take a nap. D was trying to find a parking spot near our hostel. As we drove along, I looked out the window in the hopes of finding an open clothing store. There were several, and I tried to remember their location as the car went along.
T really had to go to the bathroom so D dropped us off near the entrance to go find a parking spot by himself. The hostel was confusing. We pressed the buzzer to get in and walked up the stairs to the first floor. There we found two doors, one right and one left, each with a sign on the side of it. T went to one of the doors and knocked. No answer. She knocked harder. Nothing.
“What the hell?” she said. “Does nobody work here?”
She knocked again and we waited, but the building was absolutely silent.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I’m calling them.”
She took out her phone and dialed the number of the hostel.
I couldn’t follow the conversation, but after a minute T went over to one of the doors and dialed a number on the keypad. The door clicked and we pushed it open.
We walked inside and found an empty hallway with several doors along the sides. Each door had a keypad on the side of it. The hostel was completely automated, apparently. Pretty cool.
Soon D arrived from parking the car.
“We need codes to get in,” T said.
D looked in his phone and found an email from the hostel. They’d sent it just two hours before. We typed in the codes and went into our rooms. But I couldn’t relax. I had to buy underwear.
“Hey, would you mind if I went to buy some underwear real quick?” I said to T.
“What, are you embarrassed if we come with you?”
“It will only take a minute,” I said. “I want to go before the stores close.”
“Okay, go, go,” T said.
GF and I walked out into the street and started looking. On the next corner was a Hiperasia. These are locally owned shops—most often owned by Chinese immigrants—that contain every variety of product you can imagine, from window fans to a white boards, from candelabras to Halloween costumes, from cigarette lighters to potted plants. These products are often of mediocre quality, but the stores are quite convenient—not only because of their variety, but also because they are open when most other stores are closed.
We walked inside.
“¿Hay ropa de interior para hombres?” I asked the woman standing near the door.
From the confused look on the woman’s face I could immediately tell that she couldn’t speak Spanish. It was really weird to have the shoe on the other foot, for once.
Thankfully, I soon noticed a bunch of underwear hanging nearby. I picked two of them, paid, and went back to the hostel, where D and T were waiting for us.
“Do you guys wanna go walk around and get something to eat?” D asked.
“Sure,” we said.
The four of us went down to the street and started walking. On our walk we passed a park, where there was a small metal model of a settlement.
“This is the Roman camp,” D said to me, pointing at the model. “León was originally a camp for Roman soldiers. The name comes from the word for ‘legions’.”
(According to Wikipedia, this is true; the name comes from the old Roman name Legio. This is an interesting coincidence, since león is also the Spanish word for lion.)
After about fifteen minutes we found a restaurant and went inside. All of us ordered drinks first, to see what food would be included. Our drinks came with two small plates, one of chorizo, and one of mushrooms in a sauce made from queso de cabrales.
Queso de cabrales, or goat cheese, is a type of blue cheese that is native to Asturias (the province immediately to the north of León). I was not prepared for the flavor of this cheese. I winced as soon as it touched my tongue. It did not taste sour or rank the way some blue cheeses do, but bitter and earthy. But it wasn’t the flavor that made me wince, but something else; as soon as it touched my tongue I felt an electric shock—the flavor was intense. I did not like it very much, but everyone else loved it.
We sat there and ate and drank, all of us a bit tired. After three rounds of drinks and three rounds of tapas we’d had enough and went back to bed. I stayed up for a few hours reading Anna Karenina. Anna and Vronsky had just moved abroad to Italy where they were dallying in European art, and Tolstoy was satirizing them beautifully, with the lightest and most compassionate touch. There’s nothing like traveling with a good book.
We woke up the next day, bright and early, ready to see León.
“Did you do a new underwear dance this morning?” T asked as we met in the hall. (I hadn’t. The underwear was a little tight but still quite comfortable, in case you’re wondering.)
Our first stop was the cathedral, but on our way there we went past the Casa Botines (see above), which is one of the few architectural works by Antoni Gaudí outside of Barcelona. It was the first work of his I had ever seen, and I have to admit it looked Disneyish to me. The style is theatrical neo-gothic. All the windows and towers are designed to be narrow, sharp, and tall; and combined with the somber grey color, the building looks like it belongs on a movie set rather than a city block. The building is now the headquarters of the bank, Caja España.
Soon we were standing in front of the cathedral. The building had that wonderful, foreboding grandeur of true gothic architecture. Two large towers flanked the central section with the rose window, flying buttresses extending from either side. So much mass is concentrated in the front of the building that the final effect, for me, is that the edifice looks like it is about to charge right at you when you’re standing in front of it. All of the architectural elements are pushing and pulling against one another, giving it a feeling of tension and poise.
We went in. It was quite dark inside. The walls and chapels seemed bare and unadorned—not that it mattered, since it was impossible to focus on anything but the cathedral’s stained glass windows. These must be the most beautiful in all of Spain. Standing in that dark room and looking up at the glass, with their deep greens and blues and reds, I felt strangely at peace. Looking back, I am reminded of a quote from Middlemarch:
It is strange how deeply colors seem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. They look like fragments of heaven.
Indeed these windows were more than mere fragments of heaven, but portals letting heaven shine through into interior gloom. The building—so massive when seen from the outside—is pure air and light within. How could these medieval workmen have built such massive windows in a structure made completely of stone? It is an architectural feat so amazing that I cannot get used to it. Every wall of the cathedral glowed with dancing patterns of glimmering images. I soon gave up walking around the cathedral and just sat down on the pews, lost in silent admiration.
Thirty minutes passed, and we were back on the street. Suddenly the sound of drumming and singing caught my ear. I looked over and saw a procession of about a dozen strangely dressed women. Curious, I started following the little parade. The women were dressed in colorful headscarves, dresses, and black shawls. A man was beating on a little drum and all of them were singing.
“What is this?” I asked D.
“I think it’s a procession for a religious holiday celebrating women,” he said.
We followed the procession for a while and then cut off to visit the Plaza Mayor. There, we found a farmer’s market. Tables were set up, covered in crates of fresh vegetables. The vegetable vendors were doing good business, too; the place was buzzing. Nearby there were parked several vans, with sides that opened up to reveal red piles of meat. D and T, who love buying food from these markets, went right over to one of these meat vans.
I wasn’t particularly interested in buying anything, but the meat vendor almost convinced me. He was giving away samples left and right, giving us a taste of anything we wanted. I was chewing on some particularly good chorizo when a very short man with a big blond mustache, wearing a plastic Viking’s helmet (with the two horns) and carrying about thirty balloons, walked up and started talking with the meat vendor.
Then the balloon Viking noticed a wineskin hanging from the meat van. He walked over, grabbed the wineskin, and said “¡Mira!” (look!) as he proceeded to squirt a stream of red wine into his mouth, turning his tongue blood red and leaving scarlet specks in his blonde mustache. A true viking indeed.
We had plans to see Oviedo and Gijon that same weekend, so we couldn’t stick around all day. Thus, sadly, we had to start making our way back to the hostel.
On our way, we passed by the remains of an old wall city walls, which we climbed up. These are the original Roman walls that protected the budding city. At present they delimit the outer edge of the casco viejo, or historical center.
We got back to the hostel, paid the bill, and then got into the car. But we only got about a mile before we stopped to see something that caught our eye. This was the Hostal de San Marcos, a large, impressive building that was originally a convent, but has since been converted into a Parador de Turismo: a luxury hotel in an old historical building. Despite whatever renovations the building has suffered on its insides, the exterior retains its impressive plateresque façade. Though part of the building is off limits to visitors, since that’s where the fancy guests stay, there is a church and a small museum you can visit—with a lovely gothic interior and several fine statues, not to mention a Renaissance church.
But I was most surprised to learn that this building, one of the most important Renaissance structures in Spain, was used to intern political prisoners in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, during and after the war, this noble building became a symbol of Fascist repression. Thousands of prisoners were sent here, and many were tortured and killed. This beautiful building is thus a fair summary of European history: from religious piety, to fascist brutality, to high-end luxury.
Out in front of the convent, in the middle of the massive plaza, there is a statue of a weary pilgrim, resting his bearded head against a crucifix, a reminder of the important role that the Camino de Santiago has played in its history.
After half an hour of peeking around, we got in the car and drove off again. This time I stayed awake, for the most part.
Addendum: I was only in the city of León a short time, and I certainly missed a lot. One thing I wish I had seen was the Interpretation Center of León’s Roman history.
But the most obvious and grave omission was the Basílica de San Isidro de León, which is considered to be one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Spain. The Royal Mausoleum is particularly noteworthy: I have heard it described as the “Sistine Chapel of the Romanesque” for its extensive, wonderful ceiling frescos. The kings buried here were not kings of Spain, but of León, which was its own small kingdom before the unification of the Spanish peninsula in the 15th century. Hopefully one day I will be able to see it for myself.