Feast day of Saint John Southworth. The route between Mansilla de las Mullas and Puente Castro goes along a local but pretty busy road. The Camino path, however, is wide enough for walkers, cyclists or even horses so absolutely take it. There is an alternative route, apparently more scenic, but personally, I always take the Camino as described above.
Leon is a town of Roman origin and the place where the Seventh Legion was stationed. Santa Maria de Regla is one of three magnificent Spanish temples besides Burgos and Toledo, imitating the great French Gothic cathedrals. It was started in the first years of the 13th century and was finished in only 97 years as the whole kingdom spared no effort to fund the building. As a consequence, regardless of later additions, the cathedral is very much a 13th-century Gothic structure.
Before you enter the cathedral, walk around taking note of the massive buttresses supporting the structure of the building. Thanks to these, the walls of Santa Maria de Regla could be glass-paneled.
The beauty of the cathedral at its height can be seen inside the building. The cathedral has 3 rose windows, 125 large and 57 smaller stained-glass windows. The majority of them were executed between the 13th and 15th centuries. Some of the oldest ones show some interesting scenes from medieval life. On a bright day, multi-coloured light floods into the interior of the cathedral. The view of the rose window from the choir stalls is unforgettable.
The interior is very commodious especially if you compare it to the cathedral you saw not long ago in Burgos. The 15th-century wooden choir stalls draw attention. They depict typical biblical scenes in the most prominent places, while in the background you might notice a moderately interesting depiction of virtues and a fascinating depiction of sins. As said above, the stalls are the place to admire the beauty of the 13th century rose window.
Behind the stalls are alabaster plaques carved by Esteban Jordan, one of the leading 16th-century Spanish sculptors. Personally, I always stop dead and gaze in amazement at the Nativity scene where livestock peeps curiously into a manger.
Basilica de San Isidoro. The Romanesque church was founded by King Fernando I in 1056 and finished in just 9 years. It took its name from the great Spanish Saint Isidore of Seville, whose mortal remains were brought to Leon on the orders of the King in 1063. Isidore, named Doctor of the Church in the 18th century is regarded one of the greatest saint bishops in Spain. Highly educated he is also the author of the first encyclopaedia published at the beginning of the 7th century. Today he is venerated as a Patron Saint of the Internet.
The real jewel of the basilica is hidden inside the original narthex (entrance) of the Romanesque church in its earliest shape. The Pantheon of the Kings (Panteon de los Reyes) is a masterpiece of European Romanesque wall painting. Six vaults and five walls – 64 m2 in total- sparkle with ochre, red, yellow and black colours. The frescos are simply breath-taking. We don’t know when exactly they were painted, probably in the second quarter of the 12th century.
One of the most moving ones shows an Angel announcing to the shepherds that Jesus is born. As you will quickly notice, it is not happening on the hills surrounding Bethlehem, but somewhere in the Kingdom of Leon. The shepherds are completely surprised – one of them was just about to play the panpipes, another one wanted to call out his sheep while the third one was lifting a bowl of milk to his lips. That scene is probably the best example of how true the saying is “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” as the shepherd’s dog, unmoved by Angel’s appearance, takes advantage of his owner’s complete stupefaction and behind his back drinks the milk from his cup. In general, the animals in this fresco seem to take the appearance of God’s Messenger quite naturally. Maybe they just see Angels more often than people do?
Anyway, livestock of Leon –goats, sheep, cattle and pigs – surrounds the shepherds. The last fresco seems to be a very important element of the local economy or maybe just close to the heart of the author of the frescos, as a pig’s life cycle appear in deception of 12 months – in October we are shown pigs being fed with acorns while November is the time of their slaughter in the 12th century the Kingdom of Leon.
Villadangos del Paramo is a small but thriving community. The local church is dedicated to St James and his 18th-century statue as Santiago Matamoros is venerated. On the Baroque altarpiece, there is also another depiction of Saint James as a pilgrim. The municipality celebrates St James’ feast day riotously and, on his behalf, takes care of pilgrims.
The track is parallel to the N-120 and soon becomes narrow crossing small bridges over numerous irrigation canals. Even though you are cycling next to the road, the track is really pleasant. After 6.30 km the field track turns away from the main road towards the right and about 500 meters later you will find yourself on a famous bridge in charming Hospital de Orbigo.
In the 13th century, the Hospital de Orbigo belonged to the Knights Templars. From this time dates the magnificent over 200 meters long bridge, considered as one of the best medieval bridges in Spain. The bridge suffered some damage throughout its history: its spans were blown up during the Napoleon wars; floods damaged others. Nevertheless spans 3 to 6 are still the original 13th century, the others are from the 17th and 19th centuries. The bridge was recently renovated and it’s just amazing. It will lead you to the charming cobbled main street of Hospital de Orbigo. Pay attention to storks, especially church roof with 5 nests!!! In June they are everywhere.
The trout jumping up happily from the waters of the River Orbigo are the stars of the local cuisine. You can try them hot with ham, in soup or marinated or choose to save their lives and have other Leonese delicacies instead.
Astorga (68 km from Mansilla de las Mullas) is said to be the place where Saint James was preaching while converting the Iberian Penisula. The local diocese is very ancient indeed, mentioned for the first time in a letter of St Cyprien in the 3rd century. As it is possible that the foundation of the first church might be close in time to the preaching of the Apostles James and Paul, the cathedral bears the title ‘’Apostolic”.
The Gothic Cathedral de Santa María de Astorga was started in 1471 as an extension of the Romanesque church. Building works were finished off in the 18th century so the cathedral is a mixture of Flamboyant Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classicism.
The Bishop’s Palace, by the Catalan Antonio Gaudi, acknowledged as the most original and creative modernist architect rises up proudly next to the cathedral. It is designed in Neo-Gothic style, the same as Casa Botines you saw yesterday in Leon. The palace was a source of numerous controversies, which comes as no surprise to me. Suffice to say that every time I am in Astorga I look at the building and smile broadly.
When the former palace burnt down, the then Archbishop, originally from Catalonia commissioned Gaudi to design a new one. The architect didn’t have time to come up North, so he asked for photos of the surroundings and then designed the new palace. I believe that if he had come to the city, the palace would have looked different. In other words, I suspect that Gaudi’s absence in Astorga may partially explain the undeniable fact that the palace by its presence slaughters the elegant mass of the cathedral. Don’t get me wrong – the building is a piece of very good architecture, but perhaps it should stand further away from the cathedral.
And it’s perhaps because it looks like a castle for a medieval princess waiting for her prince to arrive on his white horse, that none of the bishops ever decided to live there and quite quickly the palace was converted into a Museum of the Pilgrimage. However, having said all that the Bishops Palace is an absolute must-see. The family of storks is of the opinion that it is also an excellent place to live.
Astorga is famous for its chocolate, slightly different in taste from ordinary chocolate. There are cake shops everywhere in the city with very tasty displays of sweets. The other sweet product characteristic of the region is a spongy cake called Mantecadas de Astorga, in taste a bit similar to Magdalenas.