May 23-4: León

We began our Camino in the city of León, which is two and a half hours north of Madrid by train. It is located near the halfway point of the Camino, so it is 322 km from Santiago—our final destination. Although the French Way of the Camino de Santiago officially begins at the Spanish border with France, to obtain a certificate or Compostela pilgrims need to walk at least 100 km. We are walking a little more than that!

Today, the city of León has close to 130,000 inhabitants, multiple hostels or albergues, and many pilgrims. But in ancient times, it served as the military garrison for the seventh Roman legion. The city boasts many architectural styles, many which are built using the Roman walls, including the Romanesque Real Basilica de San Isidoro, the Gothic Santa María de León Cathedral, the Renaissance San Marcos, and the Neo-Gothic Casa de Botines. It also boasts many culinary delicacies, including cured pork tongue; some of us tried it at dinner the night before when we arrived in León.

We started our first full day with a visit to the Santa María de León Catedral, which is the city’s most important building. Construction of the cathedral began in the middle of the 13th century and took 100 years—a remarkable accomplishment for that period. The cathedral is inspired by the French style of Gothic cathedrals. In fact, some say it is a two thirds copy of the cethdral in Reims, France. But perhaps more curiously, the cathedral was built on the site of three (less impressive) churches and King Ordoño II’s castle.

My favorite part of the cathedral is the central portal on the west façade, which depicts the Last Judgment. In the portal, Jesus sits at the center of a table and is flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. On opposing arches above them are both the elect and the damned. This image is a reminder to us of the purpose that people in medieval period has for pilgrimage: namely, to ask for forgiveness and seek salvation. However, as we talked about in our class this semester, today’s peregrinos we walk for many reasons: religious, cultural, emotional, and social.

Another beautiful element of the cathedral are the choir stalls. Situated in the center of the cathedral, the stalls are made of wood and were made to seat choirs during services. The bottom part of each seat, a plaque at foot level depicts figures of the Old Testament while the top part, the back of the seat, depicts a number of saints. The stalls are a reminder to us of the importance of both scripture and tradition in the Catholic faith.

After a break for lunch, where we had Spanish wine and a siesta, we visited the Real Basilica de San Isidoro, which is the second most important building in León. This basilica, which houses the relics of San Isidoro, is fascinating because it is the epicenter of a struggle between royal and ecclesiastical authority. The king of León brought these relics from Seville, where they originally order to assert his power over religious matters and in León.

Adjacent to the basilica is a small gift shop. Although we bought many postcards to send home, the real fun startes with the stairscase down to the Panteón de los Reyes. This pantheon the resting place of 23 kings, we princes, and 9 counts of León. But more importantly, it houses some of the best-preserved frescoes of the 12th century. On the celining of the crypt, these frescoes depict the Life of Christ in four stages. Also accessible through the gift shop is the Museo de Léon, where we saw many treasures of the basilica and León.

All in all, it was a busy first day of our Camino—and we haven’t even walked yet! But now that we know a little about León, we are ready for the long journey to Hospital de Óbrigo, our next stop.