It’s 10 am and I’m already queuing at the Albergue Monasterio de Benedictines in Leon. I’ve learned my lesson in Burgos. In big cities, better be quick to get a bed. Earlier this morning, I walked the final stretch from Puenta Villarente. A mere formality. And like all formalities, rather dull and annoying. Approaching major towns always means walking through industrial suburbia. Not exactly a crowd pleaser. On top, my legs felt heavy and tired. Crossing the Meseta has taken its toll. Just when moral was hitting rock bottom, fellow pilgrim Remi popped out of nowhere. The cheerful French had big news. Bad news unfortunately: his apartment in Paris had burned down, proving once again why they call him ‘Monsieur pas de chance’ (‘Mister Unlucky’).
Unlike Burgos and Pamplona, Leon feels cosy and welcoming. A series of narrow medievals streets and squares, overlooked by the mighty cathedral. At the albergue, the pilgrims are ecstatic. Like kids leaving for spring break. After 500 km we all deserve a little fun. The injured lick their wounds. The cripple call it quits. And the survivors argue for hours about 'l'esprit du Chemin’ (true Camino spirit). Everybody agrees: the guys taking the bus are stealing the beds of the real pilgrims. It will get worse. Hordes of faux-pilgrims with light packs and fresh legs will soon join us for the final 100 km (the minimum distance required for a Compostela). We’ll deal with that later. Right now, we’re congratulating each other for making it this far. It’s the final line to Santiago. After the purgatory of the Meseta, the green hills of Galicia should be paradise.
It takes forever to catch up with fellow pilgrims. Simply everybody is here. Elodie (Day 12) took the bus, after her ankle collapsed. So did the Aussie bros from the Meseta (Day 14) who didn’t feel like walking through industrial suburbia. The biggest surprise is Jean-Claude, the goodhearted French ex-commando who saved my Camino with his info on blisters (Day 3). ‘Le Chef’ has something special for me. Out of his pack, he digs out Banksy’s Paris flag, on which he has added the Belgian colours to commemorate the victims in Brussels. I thank him for the touching gesture. And guess what? Morten - the Danish pilgrim we had to leave behind in Ages (Day 10) - taps me on the shoulder. This really is a magic get-together.
Time to hit the city. I can’t believe it. I have my first rest day in 17 days. My first stop is the Casa de los Botines, one of only 3 Gaudi creations outside Barcelona. It’s a rather atypical Gaudi design, built in an imposing Medieval fantasy style (1892-93). The rustic walls, the solid iron fences, the faux gothic statue of Saint Georges and stained glass windows clearly pay tribute to the nearby cathedral. Yet inside, a series of light cast-metal pillars create a modern, open space filled with light. The Casa de los Botines is now owned by the Caja Espana. The bank painstakingly restored the neo-gothic marvel to its former glory. Entrance to the ground floor is free, but a guard with bouncer ambitions watches my every move.
From the Casa de los Botines, I walk to the real masterwork of Leon: the Santa Maria cathedral. The audioguide is simply outstanding. It doesn’t just describe every architectural detail, but paints a vivid picture of the timeframe in which the cathedral was built. Right now we tend to look at cathedrals as solid remnants of the Dark Ages. But in the 13th century - after centuries of rigid and dark Romanesque buildings - a Gothic cathedral must have felt like a Frank Gehry creation. State-of-the-art architecture, challenging the laws of gravity, with tons of light streaming through 1800 m2 of stained glass windows. Unlike most Gothic cathedrals - constructed over many generations in a potpourri of styles - Leon was completed in just 50 years, explaining its rare unity of style. Can you believe that the city only had 5000 inhabitants at the time? Faith can truly move mountains. The nearby cloister completes the gothic trip. True fanatics can visit the museum of religious art.
Siesta time soon turns the whole city into sleeping mood. When in Spain, do as the Spaniards. I scroll back to the albergue for some well deserved rest. Enough sightseeing for today. So I think. A little shop with etchings triggers my curiosity. A man gestures to come in and write my name in the guest book. ‘You must be the artist?’ I ask. ‘Artisan’ he quickly corrects me. Jose Holguera is clearly a humble man with an incredible, old school talent. With pride, he digs out endless series of etchings, carved in giant metal plates. With a magnifying glass I get to observe every microscopic detail. I feel guilty for leaving the shop empty handed, but my compliments seem to please the artist. Don’t make the same mistake. Do purchase some of Jose’s stunning artworks, you won’t find anything better along the Camino.
Where to sleep in Leon?
Albergue Monasterio de Benedictinas - Plaza Santa Maria de Camino - +32 987 252 866 - open all year, check in starts at 11 am, the gate closes at 22 pm sharp - Contrary to popular belief, this is not a Donativo. Beds are 5 euro. Still the cheapest and most popular option in Leon, so be early. Separate dorms for men and women. The albergue is right after the city walls, no need to walk all the way to the cathedral. A nice pilgrim’s meal is served. A great pub faces the albergue.
What to see in Leon?
Casa de los Botines - Gaudi's neo-gothic masterwork - free entrance. Opening hours: same as the Bank owning the place.
Cathedral Santa Maria de Leon. Entrance fee: 5 euro (no reduction for pilgrims), includes audio guide. Opening hours:
- Jul-Sep. Mon-Sat: 8:30 am to 1:30 pm and 4 to 8 pm / Sun: 8:30 am to 2:30 pm and 5 to 8 pm
- Oct-Jun. Mon-Sat: 8:30 am to 1:30 pm and 4 to 7 pm / Sun: 8:30 am to 2:30 pm and 5 to 7 pm
- Cathedral Museum. Mon-Fri: 9:30 am to 1:30 pm and 4 to 7 pm / Sat: 9:30 am to 1:30 pm
Where to buy great Camino Art?
Taller de Grabado y Estampa - José Holguera - Puerta Moneda nº 5 León - close to the Albergue - fantastically drawn etchings, all handprinted and signed, different prices and series, starting for as little as 15 euro. Best Camino souvenirs.