LEON: PLACES TO VISIT
The city of León was founded in the year 29 BC as a Roman-legion military camp, intended to protect the routes towards the north-east of the peninsula, where significant gold deposits were located.
This camp became a permanent settlement with the establishment of the Legio VII Gemina, from which the name of León derives and which remained on this site until the beginning of the 5th century, supporting the Roman provinces in Hispania.
After the Roman period, the city formed part of the Kingdom of the Suebi and later the Visigothic Kingdom. At the start of the 7th century, León was conquered by the Muslims — later recovered in the year 754 by King Alfonso I of Asturias.
In the year 910, King Ordoño II made it the capital of the Kingdom of León, actively participating in the Reconquista against the Muslims. It becomes one of the fundamental kingdoms in the configuration of the future Kingdom of Spain.
In the year 1118, under the reign of Alfonso IX of León, the city housed the first Cortes (Courts), the charters of which have been preserved and reflect a new model of government, in which the people participate in decisions alongside the king, the church and the nobility, through representatives elected in the cities that would subsequently make up the Kingdom of León: León, Astorga, Avilés, Ciudad Rodrigo, Oviedo, Salamanca, Toro or Zamora.
From this Kingdom of León emerged the counties of Castile and Portugal which, over time, would become independent kingdoms. From the year 1217, the kingdoms of Castile and León were joined under a single crown, the Kingdom of Castile.
León has preserved a rich historic heritage. From its origins, we have the Roman city walls, completed by the kings Alfonso V of León and Alfonso XI of Castile in the medieval period.
The pantheon of the Kings of León, known as the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art, is housed in the Royal Collegiate Church of San Isidoro.
Also worth mentioning is the gothic Cathedral of Santa María de Regla, known as “la Pulchra Leonina” (Latin for “the León beauty”). It has more than 700 ornate and colourful stained-glass windows and rose windows that create an impressive spectacle of light and colour within. As a result, the cathedral is said to have walls “of glass”.
From the renaissance period, we have the Hostal de San Marcos, with its cloister and Plateresque facade, constructed thanks to a donation from King Ferdinand the Catholic. The poet Francisco de Quevedo was imprisoned in this convent for four years. Today, it houses a Parador de Turismo hotel.
In more recent times, the Casa Botines stands out – a beautiful building constructed at the end of the 19th century by architect Antonio Gaudí in the neogothic style, with modernist influences – and the MUSAC (Museum of Contemporary Art of Castile and León) from the 21st century, with its main facade consisting of a mosaic of glass in 40 colours, obtained from the digitalisation of one of the main stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of León.
The Camino de Santiago passes through León, and in its province you can visit Astorga, with its Cathedral and Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace; Ponferrada, capital of El Bierzo, with its Templar castle-fortress; and Villafranca del Bierzo, Molinaseca, Sahagún, Peñalba de Santiago or Castrillo de Polvazares.
Travellers seeking nature and landscapes should definitely visit Médulas, the most important open-pit gold mine of the Roman Empire; the Sierra de los Ancares, where, thanks to its isolation, ancestral customs like the pallozo (traditional thatch-roof dwelling) have been maintained; the Riaño reservoir with the so-called “León Fjords”; or the valleys of the Babia region, where the Kings of León used to retire to rest, giving rise to the Spanish expression “to be in Babia”, meaning “to have your head in the clouds”.
A good starting point for León cuisine is the “barrio húmedo” district, where you can try cecina (cured beef or horse meat) or morcilla de León (a type of black pudding made only with pig’s blood and onion). Other typical León dishes include the Botillo del Bierzo (a stew made with pork sausage), the Cocido Maragato (a stew eaten in reverse: first the meat, then the chickpeas and finally the soup) or Sahagún leeks. When it comes to desserts, try some Astorga mantecados (a type of sponge cake) or the puff-pastry Nicanores de Boñar. All this, accompanied by an “El Bierzo” or “Tierra de León” PDO wine.
Documented by: Olegario Llamazares García-Lomas