Sightseeing in León
León’s historical center is north of the Río Bernesga. Most of the sights are gathered in the areas of the Barrio Húmedo and the Cathedral. The Barrio Húmedo is León’s oldest neighborhood, a lively and entertaining area crowded with tapas bars and shops worth getting lost in for a few hours. From the Plaza Santo Domingo the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Calle de Ancha, divides the two and amasses crowds of window shoppers and gawkers en route to and from the Cathedral. The Convento de San Marcos, the only major tourist site outside of these areas, is on the river bank to the northwest. It’s a 15-minute walk from the Plaza Santo Domingo by following the Avda del Padre Isla and, at its intersection with Avda de Suero de Quiñones, making a left.
La Catedral (La Pulchra Leonina)
There is an appreciable levity to León’s Gothic cathedral. Standing before it in the Plaza Regia, it appears more glass than stone and, were it not for the series of buttresses embracing the apse, a light wind might easily topple it. In total there are 125 stained glass windows, plus 57 circular ones and four enormous roses – more than any other Spanish cathedral can claim (“glory,” the largest rose window centered on the west façade between the twin 200-foot towers, measures eight m/26 feet in diameter). Finely detailed and with all the brilliance of a kaleidoscope, these panes depict biblical stories, regional lore and travails of the pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. If you’re standing inside with the sun shining through this array of colors, the cathedral almost sparkles.
Building was begun in 1225 during the reign of King Alfonso the Wise over the former site of King Ordoño’s palace. Many of the workers that had contributed to Burgos’ cathedral were dispatched to León for the construction and the two share unmistakable similarities, most notably in the French-influenced vaults and buttresses. And, like its sister cathedral, León’s is a jewel of purely Gothic styling. No changes were made to the original plan during the 100 years of construction and, other than routine maintenance, there have been no additions since. There are worries, though, that pollution is beginning to take a toll on the cathedral’s soft sandstone surface.
The Museo Catedralicio Diocesan is spread throughout the chapter rooms surrounding the cloister. Along with the large store of codexes, there are numerous early Romanesque sculptures of the crucifixion and the Virgin Mary as well as a notable plateresque staircase and altarpiece by Juan de Badajoz.
Convento de San Marcos
Blister-footed pilgrims have long considered the stretch of the Camino de Santiago passing by León one of the most grueling parts of the walk. In 1173 the convent of San Marcos was established and, along with it, the Knights of the Order of St. James, an elite military contingent charged with protecting the pilgrims and Christianity from the Moors. The convent served as a hospital where those weary pilgrims could rest and rehabilitate. Nothing of the original convent remains; in its place the 300-foot-long rectangular Renaissance structure with its exquisite plateresque façade was begun in 1513. Adorning the 18th-century Baroque portal is an equestrian sculpture of the Apostle St. James, while inside the church is decorated with scalloped shells, the symbol of pilgrims along the camino. Though mass is still held in the church, the convent has since been converted into one of Spain’s most splendid tourist paradors. In building the Hostal San Marcos, every attempt was made to preserve the original construction. If you look closely enough on the old church walls that now double as part of the parador’s walls, you’ll notice names and dates scratched into them by pilgrims hundreds of years ago. The monastery no longer exists, and a hotel and the provincial archeological museum now occupy its space. The Museo de León claims part of the cloister and, in addition to a collection of 10th- and 11th-century liturgical pieces, it displays mostly archeological relics.
La Basilica de San Isidro
Rebuilt in the 12th century after the Moorish ruler Almanzor had burned down the original church along with most of the town, the Basilica of San Isidro is considered a leading example of early Romanesque Spanish architecture. It was consecrated in honor of San Isidro, whose remains were retrieved from Moorish-controlled Sevilla and entombed here. The remains of 11 Leónes Kings and their families lay in the Panteón de los Reyes, a burial chamber founded by King Ferdinand I and Doña Sancha in the 11th century. Here, the Romanesque art is brazen, beautiful and astonishingly well preserved (thanks to the dry, cool confines of the crypt). The vaults, arches and ceiling domes are adorned with beautiful 12th-century Romanesque frescoes depicting a variety of scenes from the New Testament, including the Last Supper, the Annunciation and the intriguing Tetramorph, in which the four evangelists have animal heads – a bull, an eagle, a lion and, of course, a man. Entrance to the museum includes access to the Royal Panteón as well as to the library and treasury. Among the artifacts is a handwritten 10th-century Visigothic bible, the Reliquary of San Isidro and the ornate, gem-studded chalice of Doña Urraca.
León's Other Sights
In 1893 35-year-old Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí was busy overseeing the reconstruction of the Episcopal Palace in nearby Astorga when he was commissioned to build the Casa de Botines in León. In light of the whimsical modernism for which he is famous, the Neo-Gothic Casa de Botines might appear reserved, even serious. The somber mansion is composed of heavy gray stone masonry and dark slate roofs with narrow spires rising from the front corners. Almost as an afterthought, Gaudí decided to add a sculpture of his native Cataluña’s patron Saint George slaying an alligator, perhaps to give the place a little life. The Palacio de los Guzmanes faces the Plaza de San Marcelo across from the Ayuntamiento or town hall. It was built in the 16th century around the same time as the Renaissance palace was going up and the heavy ironwork that characterizes it was installed. Today it serves as the offices of the County Council. To the rear of the palace is the Parque de El Cid, named for the legendary anti-hero who once lived just down the street. A few Roman ruins have been preserved in the park. If you happen to be in town on Saturday, an outdoor market is held in the Plaza Mayor.
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