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In my advance planning for my pilgrimage León had always figured prominently. The city was one of my triumvirate of cities (Pamplona, Burgos and León) where I would spend days resting and recuperating from my walking. It was a good plan that my health on the road cooperated with and I’d like to think that I picked my cities well. When I got off the bus and arrived at León’s bus station it was an overcast and rainy day. It was no problem finding a taxi and I got to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes that I love to engage in when I arrive at a new place; talking to taxi drivers! It may have been cloudy and overcast outside but our conversation inside the taxi was bright and animated. My erstwhile taxi driver was especially effusive when it came to describing to beauty of the women of León and he said that the most beautiful women in all of Spain were in León. He was definitely a true Patriot!! In my best interests and while considering the views of all my Spanish friends that I met before and after that moment in the taxi, I dared not contradict him nor correct him. In fact, as I was to later discover while walking around town the next two days he might have had a good point. What was not debatable was the beauty of the city. As I was staying at the Hotel Alfonso V, a stone’s throw from the Plaza San Marcelo, where the old quarter of the city begins, I immediately was able to enjoy the beautiful plazas and buildings! Even though the day was one of intermittent rain (you’ll notice that my camera lens were always wet!) the beauty of the city was unimpaired.
What excited me about the city was that I knew that León had been the Headquarters of the Roman Legio VII “Gemina” and that the name of the city is derived from the word Le/gi/on. Starting from the founding of the city in 70 A.D. the Seventh Legion protected the Galician gold mines from here and also used the city as a base for the conquest of the Suevi tribe of northwest Spain. The Suevi would not be easily conquered and it took the mighty Roman Empire 350 years to attempt this. The empire was not completely successful and the Visigoth King Leonvigildo completed the conquest of the Suevi in 585. You’d figure that having an entire Roman legion based here and the fact that León was the Roman capital of Northwest Spain you would find a whole host of excavated Roman buildings but that is sadly not the case. Except for a portion of a Roman wall and some Roman baths under the Cathedral, no Roman buildings have been found. While the name of the city, street signs and plaques point to the city’s proud Roman past, sadly very little from the Roman period exists. Nonetheless, I could feel a Roman vibe as I walked around the old part of León that actually is the location of the Roman fortified city (fortified, remember the Suevi!).
You will remember that I had the good fortune to meet a trio of Spanish cyclists from Madrid while sharing a meal with them in the village of Hornillos del Camino. We became friends and they would email me descriptions of places that they enjoyed while cycling furiously ahead of me. Because of them I learned of a lot of good places to eat and one of their tips was that León had a district called El Barrio Hùmedo (the Wet Quarter). Named this way because of all the bars (at least 150!) located within the part of the city that approximates the area that was enclosed by the Roman wall, this area is replete with bars that serve some delicious tapas and restaurants with great food. Of course, any good plan for rest and recuperation should involve some good food. The question is amongst such abundance where does one go? My modus operandi was always to ask the locals so when I was at a sporting goods store (on the Calle Rúa right off the Plaza San Marcelo) buying some needed gloves I asked for some recommendations. Every Spanish person that I met was an expert on where to eat and the gentleman at the store was no exception, after a hurried consultation with a friend of his, he told me of a couple of places where I could go to get authentic local food. Luckily for me the Calle Rúa was the entry way to the Barrio Hùmedo and I was in the right place.
León has so many beautiful sites that you really must devote two days to the city to see all the magnificent churches and buildings but alas my time was limited and interrupted because of the rain. I did however get to see León’s Jewel in the Crown which is its magnificent cathedral. The first day I just had to walk up to see the exterior and I was to save the rest of the the cathedral for the next day because I wanted to have enough time to savor its beauty.
My next post will be about the cathedral.