León — A Pilgrim’s Respite and Gothic Grandeur

Nov. 15, 2022

The principal from my host school planned a visit to see her family in León and offered to take me along for a visit. My weekend included a stroll down the pilgrim’s route of the Camino de Santiago (more on this in an upcoming post), a visit to a classic Gothic cathedral, late night pintxos bar hopping and some medieval history lessons.

The grande dame of León is the 13th-century Gothic cathedral in the heart of the city’s center. Construction of the Santa María de Regla de León Cathedral took only 50 years, which is relatively short compared to many other grand cathedrals of the era.  With its dramatic buttresses, classic Gothic features and thousands of stained glass windows, the cathedral’s design is reminiscent of Paris’ Notre Dame. The beauty of the church is embellished by its simplicity of design and towering stained glass windows — some of the finest in Europe.

The beauty of the church is embellished by its towering glass windows — some of the finest in Europe. 

Click photos below for larger views.

León’s other must-see attraction is the San Isidoro Museum. I made the mistake of arriving at 1:30 p.m., just a half hour before the mid-day closure and visiting in late fall, at a time when many museums close off areas or exhibitions for renovations. My visit was also inhibited by three large tour groups that were roaming the museum en masse, making it difficult to move about in the 30 minutes I had to visit. Needless to say, my visit was hurried and limited.

I did manage, however, to escape the museum with a prized possession, a photo of spectacular late 11th-century to early 12th-century ceiling frescoes found in the tombs of the Royal Pantheon. The tombs, discovered in 2002, are the resting place of 33 members of the Leonese Court and several other nobles. It’s a treat to see frescoes such as these in their original site. Taking photos isn’t allowed in the tombs, and I normally obey the instructions of museum monitors, but just this once I took exception when a monitor strayed away. I felt I deserved one takeaway since my visit was so limited. Sorry, museum people. 

My final building to see was the Casa de los Botines, designed by Antoni Gaudí and completed in 1892. The neo-Gothic building, designed for businesses and apartments, is rather simple compared to Gaudí’s Sagrada de Familia and Park Güell in Barcelona, but the building gives a preview of Gaudí’s later works that borrow from natural spaces and forms. In addition to being a showcase for one of Gaudís early designs, the building serves as an art museum.

For many visitors, León serves as a historic stop along the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela. But for me, León is an important stop on a culinary journey through northern Spain. My journey included a late night visit to León’s Barrio Húmedo and its many tapas bars. 

Fortunately for me, I had local guides to help me find my way to the area’s specialties — my school’s principal, Iraxe who is from León and her husband Sergio. Our first, and most essential stop, was to the bar La Bicha (The Ferret) for a plate of the house specialty, morcilla (blood sausage). Locals say La Bicha’s morcilla is the best of all morcilla because it’s saucier and not as dry as others’. I agree.

La Bicha bar is a compact and gritty watering hole. Paco, the bar’s owner and only employee (he’s very busy), has plastered the walls with signs that espouse his political views such as “No hay pan para tanto chorizo” which roughly translates to “The thieves (corrupt politicians) are taking away our food and money.” A portrait of Che Guevara looks out over patrons.

“The thieves (corrupt politicians) are taking away our food and money.” 

We continued our gastronomic journey to Bar Rebote to sample six different kinds of croqueta pintxos (free finger food that accompanies your drink). Only Jamón and queso remained by the time we arrived, but that was good enough. 

Our bar hopping went well past midnight to El Llar for savory potatoes and to other bars until we could barely stay awake to eat and drink no more.

The atmosphere is raucous and lively. 

I love bar districts like these that are found across Spain’s old city centers. The narrow streets and compact spaces confine everyone into a festive communal squeeze. The atmosphere is raucous and lively. It’s a great way to sample many different local specialties for just the price of a beer.

Next stop along my pilgrimmage: Santiago de Compostela.