The walk into León is a wet but short 19 kilometers.
It’s a rare opportunity to journey on foot from the perimeter of a city to its core. For instance, who has ever walked from semi-rural, semi-urban Headingley at the outer edge of Winnipeg to the Exchange District at the city’s core? The Camino forces that opportunity on each pilgrim as he or she is transported from some bucolic rural landscape, through forest paths or along charming canals and into the messy backlots that surround big cities like Pamplona, Burgos, León and Santiago.
First come the small industrial enterprises with their concrete block or tin sheds, rusting signs, broken fences and junk strewn about. Then come the pedestrian-defying highways and interchanges, requiring passage through all sorts of circuitous paths, bridges and tunnels. Gradually the density of the city increases. First we pass fenced enclaves, the more formal palaces of industrial giants. Architecturally decorated boxes surrounded by nicely landscaped grounds and parking lots. Then come the commercial big box outlets plying furniture and cars. Finally newer residential neighborhoods appear. This is usually where the navigation becomes tricky. City roads sprout in all directions from roundabouts and confusing intersections. Spotting whatever symbol the city has adopted as a navigation aid for the baffled pilgrim becomes a ‘Where’s Waldo’ exercise. A painted yellow arrow on a light post? A shell icon embedded in the sidewalk? Getting temporarily lost is almost guaranteed.
But we pilgrims are lucky. At least here the Camino path is respected alongside the endless expansion of cities and roads. No matter how tortured the pedestrian route might be, at least there is one. And it works. It’s an infrastructure that is likely non-existent in any other city. Because who, in their right mind, would dare to wander a city’s cross-section?
Today, the reward for our suburban journey is the the medieval core of León.
We first make our way to San Marcos, a pilgrim hospice founded in 1152. The structure built at that time is long gone, replaced by the superb Renaissance monastery we enter today. Construction started in 1515, but it took 200 years to complete. An important transformation – at least for weary modern-day pilgrims like us – occurred in 1961, when the monastery was remade into one of Spain’s elite Parador hotels. This would be our luxurious digs for two nights.
León is a very agreeable place for a Camino day’s rest. There are pleasant streets to be lazily plied and major architectural landmarks to be explored.
It is easy to spend several hours weaving through this massive 13th Century Gothic cathedral. At the time of our visit in 2012, there was a significant restoration project underway. The interior was marred by scaffolding criss-crossing the central nave. However, this allowed us to see the church from a unique perspective.
Before entering the church for the first time, we happened upon a just-starting tour of the restoration work. We jumped on the opportunity. Donning hardhats, we climbed scaffolding outside the cathedral, scaling stone walls, winding through flying buttresses and crossing terra-cotta roof tiles. Our guide slid a panel aside. revealing our entrance into the church. A stained glass window had been removed from its pointed-arch stone frame, barely taller than a person. We had to duck our heads to pass through. Then, raising our gaze, we were greeted with an overwhelming panorama of vibrant colours. As each of us entered through that small aperture, our jaws dropped. Light poured in through large expanses medieval stained glass, just a few feet from our eyes. Here we were, high above the floor of the central nave, at eye level with the translucent artistry of medieval craftsmen, their delicate work set in a frame of impossibly slender stone columns reaching up to the tracery in the Gothic roof not far above. It was a powerful experience.
A visit to Casa de Botines may seem anticlimactic, placed next to the Cathedral. Not so if you are a fan of Antoni Gaudí, the famed Catalán architect from Barcelona. This is one of two chances to see a Gaudí building on the Camino Francés route (the other is in Astorga). Built in 1892 in just 10 months, it was originally a department store on the main floor with residences above. Cathedral comparisons can be made. The rugged stone exterior is Gothic-inspired, a favourite motif in Gaudi’s early work. At the same time, you can see him using it as a creative springboard, inventing his own unique style in the process. Inside, the floors are supported by slender iron columns, which would have been novel and daring in 1892. But no more daring than the thin stone columns miraculously holding up the roof in the Cathedral.
It was an exciting day of architectural explorations, capped by an evening organ concert in the Cathedral. We headed back to our deluxe room, an excellent pizza from Solopizza in hand and a fine bottle of Spanish red waiting on our bedside table.
Tomorrow, we walk again.
This is the fourteenth of a number of planned posts to my on-going Walking the Camino de Santiago, A Photo Essay. If you have any observations or your own Camino experiences to relate, feel free to use the Comments section below.
If you are interested in purchasing prints for any of the photographs in this series of Camino de Santiago blog posts, they can be ordered directly from my website at www.firmangallery.com/camino-frances