The Lion is Roaring. The city of León, Spain
Now, in this witty and highly informative piece, Ana tells us about the city of her birth: León in northern Spain.
Yes!! There is a north of Spain too you know, as our author explains…
Spain is more than the Costa del Sol.
I wonder how many times I’ve had this conversation during my seven years in Dublin. And it is true, there is much more. Appealing as the Costa del Sol is, especially weather wise, the north also exists, and it is, to me, a hidden jewel that not many foreigners are willing to explore. I understand that you don’t want to leave a cold and rainy country to go to another one, but the summers are quite nice up there, so if you are not the kind of tourist who is only looking at roasting both sides of self under the scorching sun, here’s an interesting alternative for you.
I suppose I consider the north everything that it is above Madrid, but unfortunately I’m not equipped to talk about it as most of the cities are unknown to me, I shamefully admit, since I’ preaching about the wonders of the not so well known Spain. In fact, I’m probably not equipped to even talk about my own city, but since most of you probably don’t even know that it exists, you will take my word and end up this article thinking how on earth you have survived all your life without being in León. If you’ve had the great fortune to have read my previous entries – on Marbella and on being a teacher – you already know that this is where I’m from. You may also think I’m terribly patriotic, which is not true, but when you live far away, you only see the coolness of it. And at the moment, in my eyes, León has nothing but coolness.
Just the cathedral is worth a visit.
It’s cute, smallish and super gothic. It´s got stained glass windows that will keep you amused for hours if you care to see them all in detail. I love it. I see other cathedrals and really like them, sometimes I even secretly think that they may be better than León’s, but I go back there and see it again and there is something special about it. In the last years I’ve discovered a new hobby which is becoming fascinated at how pretty it looks when you are getting closer to it and you start getting a peek at some of it in between the roofs of the old city’s houses.
My other favourite spot after the Cathedral is the Plaza del Grano (Grain square, literally). It’s old, it’s quaint, it’s simply beautiful and it’s beautifully simple.
There a few bars there where you can have a glass of wine and a free tapa. I can’t think of a better way of enjoying a lovely evening after an exciting day in some of the stunning mountain villages scattered all around the province.
There is a chance your memory only registered ‘wine and free tapas’ from the previous paragraph. Correct. León is not the only place where tapas are served together with your drink, but not everybody knows that. They are not as elaborate as the ones in the Basque Country or some other places, but they are free and they are not bad. The best thing is that just around the Cathedral there are probably more than 150 bars. And they are not the only ones in the whole city, but the two most typical areas to ‘tapear’ are just within metres from the Cathedral. These areas are called ‘Barrio Húmedo’ (Wet Neighbourhood, maybe because there’s so much liquid going on there!) and ‘El Cid’ or Barrio Romántico. León is well known for its wines, which have improved notably in the last few years. A glass of a very pretty decent wine can cost somewhere between 1.50 and 2.50 euros. In León, we also drink ‘cortos’, which is a very small glass of beer. When we go for tapas, we go to a bar, drink quickly, eat quickly and go to the next one. About ten euros could get you a few drinks and food, so it’s a good alternative to sitting in a restaurant and having dinner.
However, one of the things you would like to do is exactly that, sitting in a restaurant and eat. The food in León is great, if earthy. It’s food for the shepherds, the hard workers who endure long hours in the cold. If you like comfort food, this is your place. Sure there are enough new restaurants which offer a varied range of dishes, maybe more contemporary, with lighter options, but I strongly recommend ‘cocido’, a dish based on chickpeas, lots of meat, vegetables and soup. The best place to enjoy cocido is probably Astorga and the villages nearby, where you can also visit the Cathedral and the Episcopalian Palace, designed by Gaudi, who also left an interesting palace in León, el ‘Palacio de Botines’. León is a great place for meat eaters. The magazine Time features a small village, Jiménez de Jamuz as one of the best places to eat beef. Cured meat is also very famous and we are proud to say that cecina  (both beef and goat) is truly ours. We also have botillo, androlla, morcilla, nice chorizo, cheese, ham… The list is endless.
Wandering around the old city doesn’t take long. In fact, you can get a pretty good idea of León in one morning.
Everything is quite close. Apart from the already mentioned spots you can visit the Plaza Mayor with the very first City Hall, the second City Hall which is now used for weddings and official events, the Diputación building which is a beautiful building from the Renaissance period with a lovely cloister.
There are remains of the old city walls in different areas all around León. The San Isidoro Romanic Basilica and its museum are worth a visit too. I recommend taking it easy though and stop every now and then for a wine and a tapa or sit in a café and just feel the slow pace of this small city which is gaining popularity because it’s on the Santiago de Compostela route. Maybe leave San Marcos for the next day, as it is a bit off the beaten track and use that second day to visit the Auditorium and the MUSAC (the museum of contemporary art). San Marcos can be considered as the most luxurious multipurpose building in León. It was a convent, a pilgrims’ shelter and a prison, to mention but a few. During the course of the Spanish Civil War cells, rooms, stables, cloisters, church, choir, museum and every fast corner of the building were transformed into impromptu dungeons or jailers’ offices. This magnificent buiding with its impressive plateresque façade is nowadays a 5-star hotel. The church and restaurant are among the most famous venues for weddings. The MUSAC is a contemporary building itself, which features a façade of multicoloured window like panels. It seems that the colours are random, but it turns out that what it is displayed there is a pice of one the Cathedral’s stained glass windows which has been pixeled. Cool, isn’t it? You can go there from the city by either going the short way or taking the scenic route by the river Bernesga, which I think is the best option.
The province is a jewel too, and it’s well worth exploring. There are so many beautiful villages in the province, I don’t even know where to start. All I can say is that you can try and discover one area each day. My parents are from a valley called Babia (‘estar en Babia’ is actually an idiom in Spanish, which roughly translates as ‘being away with the fairies’, ‘being absent-minded’) and if you visit it, you will see what I mean. I’m not expecting you to visit just that, although I strongly recommend Quintanilla, Mena, Riolago, Villasecino, La Cueta… because you will be missing El Bierzo and Los Ancares, near the border with Galicia, and the other valleys, Omaña, Riaño and Laciana. You should drive the narrow bendy roads to Maraña, Carande, Boñar. You can get lost in La Cabrera. You can be brave and visit it in the winter and ski in San Isidro. There are magical places like La Vecilla, Lois, Cacabelos, Villafranca del Bierzo… While in El Bierzo, don’t forget to visit Las Médulas, a range of mountains gutted by the Romans to obtain gold. More to the south and the east, León loses the mountains to melt with the Castilian plains, and the landscape, if more arid, turns into a display of grain fields, vineyards and reddish villages. It’s less luscious, but it has the charm of the softly raised hills timidly breaking the plain surface of the fields. It was the poet Machado who compared the Castilian fields with the sea, for you can’t see the end of them and it feels like the sea horizon.
I have suggested visiting León in the summer to benefit from the mild weather and the long days, but I must admit that one of my favourite times of the year is Easter. The weather cannot be guaranteed, although it’s warmer than winter, but the days are already longer and there’s a feeling of spring in the air. Easter is celebrated with sobriety and solemnity in León and even if you are not religious, it is interesting to see the parades, called procesiones. In between procesiones, you can go to the bar and ask for a limonada, which is pretty much sangria, but we like giving it another name. Going around bars, drinking limonada is called in León ‘matar judíos’ (killing jews, literally, a very politically incorrect name, but we only do it once a year for a week, and nobody gets hurt). By Good Thursday, you may already be overwhelmed by so much religion (or limonada), so why not join another parade, the pagan celebration in honour of a man called Genarín, who got killed while peeing against the city walls by the first garbage lorry in town on a Good Thursday. His memory is kept alive by parading a Genarín look alike doll around the city while people drink as much as Genarín was supposed to before death caught him in such an undignifying manner. Apparently Franco wasn’t very happy to see something so terribly uncatholic going on in the middle of such a holy celebration, so he banned it but the people in León kept it going (you know, you can take away our lives but you can’t take away our right to parade a rag doll around).
I am quite sure that I am forgetting so many things and places, food, villages, things to do… but I hope to have raised a bit of interest in you for this beautiful city and province. It can be visited on its own or as part of a bigger trip around other northern regions like Asturias, Galicia, Cantabria, Castilla. So, when you are planning your holidays in Spain, think north. You won´t regret it.
A brilliant piece of writing once again Ana! You always squeeze so much useful information into such a small space, and your characteristic wit is an ever-present. Great stuff!
See you next time readers,
Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee®, home of the most comprehensive Spanish learning program for children ever to appear online
Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain with his two bilingual children. Loves it! More…