León — kingdom and province

shortly after leaving Terradillos we crossed into the largest region along the Camino — León — with a population of more than 2.5 million and an area of 6,000 square miles. an independent kingdom for nearly 300 years, the fortunes of León later waxed and waned, tied as they were to the fortunes of Castilla. fraternal conflicts plagued the region for generations, following the division of Alfonso the Great’s territories among his three sons, as did tensions between Christian forces to the north and Muslims to the south.

Ramiro II (who ruled 931-951) brought stability and behind his military advances into land once held by the Moors came a process of repoblación that sought to repopulate the meseta alta with people from Galicia, which brought rise to a distinct dialect as well as unique form of artistic expression in Mozarabic art.  by the end of the 10th century the Kingdom of León had expanded to include the city of Burgos, which it fortified with the many castles for which the far reaches of the region later became known.

when the territories initially merged, León had the upper hand over Castilla; an assortment of military campaigns (mostly associated with the Reconquest) took their tolls on the joint future of the kingdom and in 1157 they split again when a defeat of Alfonso VIII weakened the authority of Castilla. only a few years later, Alfonso IX feared his death would bring the downfall of the Leonese kingdom due to lack of a suitable heir and designated as successors the daughters of his first wife. this proved unsuccessful and his son by another mother, Ferdinand III of Castilla, invaded León after his death (in 1230), assumed the throne, and became the first in a long line of joint sovereigns. perhaps not unlike the “union” of British and Scottish thrones, the “union” of Castilla and León did not go over well with the Leonese and it took Ferdinand III two full years to adequately quash uprisings that opposed his right to the throne. gradually, Castillian influence usurped that of León and though the throne continued to acknowledge the León title by acknowledging it first and using the lion on its crest, power grew more concentrated in Castilla. throughout the centuries, attempts at thwarting or throwing off Castillian influence have tried and failed; without Castilla, León and two other regions declared war against Napoleon’s France in the 19th century and anti-Castillian political parties remain popular to this day and the most die-hard activists persist in defacing governmental signs that acknowledge the autonomous region of Castilla y León that exists today.

Carrión de los Condes

again — sorry about the lack of photos. our experience with Carrión de los Condes, after two soggy days of hiking, largely involved being inside drying out and reading books on the rather-uncomfortable bed. but, in spite of that, the town has a rather interesting history. usual highlights: strategic position, volatile history, Muslims vs. Christians, Roman roots. less-common highlights: link to El Cid (real or fictionalized), fraternal fighting, and an impressive peak population of 10,000.

the earliest settlements occupied land somewhat to the north of where the town stands now, using the nearby hills as natural defenses and (the Visigoths) as location for tombs. following an early 8th century conquest, the Moors built a castle (now the site of a church) which fell to Alonso Carreño (who changed his name to Carrión) several years before the end of that same century. from then the town flourished as an economic and agricultural center, boasting that large population (many of whom, as elsewhere along the Camino, were Jewish).

as do other nearby towns, Carrión has a history with El Cid. Alfonso VI (king of León) took refuge here after his brother, Sancho III (king of Castilla), defeated him and from Carrión ordered Sancho’s assassination; this did not go over well with most Castillians and El Cid in particular. to further tarnish the relationship between Castilla and León, in the epic poem recounting the tale of El Cid the dishonorable men who married and mistreated El Cid’s daughters came from Carrión. in light of the behavior of those fictional villains the town is known as “de los Condes.”


after leaving Agés at just after dawn (as I mentioned — some peregrinos get up really early to start their day’s walking), the first town we walked through was home to an archaeological sight excavating caves around Atapuerca. filled with fossils, the caves contain all manner of evidence dating back 1.2 million years; the hominid remains are the oldest ever discovered in Europe.

the first remains came to light at the end of the 19th century because of excavations for railroad expansion; the regional hub of Burgos lies just over the mountains from Atapuerca. full-scale archaeological excavations began in the mid 1960s and continue today. at the most famous area of the site, some 5,500 human bones have been unearthed since 1995 dating from early humans onward. some of the remains might demonstrate the link between homo sapiens and a precursor of neanderthals (known as homo antecessor).

while its archaeological significance has put Atapuerca on the map, it also hosted a major battle in the middle of the 11th century between brothers and rival kings of Castilla and Navarra. problems arose from the father splitting his territory among son and, according to some sources, perhaps fraternal betrayal, double-crosses and imprisonment. whatever the reasons leading to the Battle of Atapuerca on the first of September in 1054, at the end of the bloodshed King García Sánchez III of Navarre lay dead and his brother Ferdinand I of Castilla emerged victorious, reclaiming land he’d previously annexed to Navarra.

entering Castilla

on day 10 we crossed into the third — and largest — autonomous region on our Camino: Castilla y León. encompassing over 94,000 square kilometers and (in 2011) home to 2.5 million people, it is the largest region in Spain. because the governments are autonomous, each offers slightly different aides for peregrinos — maps, directional markers, municipal albergues. the maps in Castilla y León were perhaps the most useful and comprehensive, though found less frequently than in Galicia, for example. as you can see, it includes all the tiny towns along the Camino, as well as noteworthy sights, plus distances listed by the stages of the medieval method of Camino demarcation — the Codex Calixtinus (about which more soon).

the climate and geography Castilla y León differ quite dramatically from the preceding and subsequent regions and, thinking back, I’m rather surprised at how quickly the change occurred. whereas rolling hills characterize Rioja and Navarra, the terrain of Castilla y León primarily consists of and largely constitutes Spain’s Meseta Central, an arid, mostly flat, high plain with elevations between 610 and 760 meters. basically, it was very flat with the occasional steep mesa or small hill. mountain ranges border and divide Castilla y León into smaller regions; thankfully, for the most part we got to enjoy the mountain views from afar rather than while climbing over ranges. because its buffered on all sides by mountain ranges, the region remains quite arid though, because of its size, temperatures and precipitation vary dramatically. in the central areas, fewer than 18 inches of rain might fall a year while to the west upwards of 59 inches might fall.

as one might deduce, the roots of Castilla y León lie in separate kingdoms of the middle ages. the name of the former comes from the castles and forts built to defend the kingdom’s eastern border (similar to those discussed in previous posts) and was first referenced in 800. over the next century and a half the kingdom was periodically divided and reconstituted until, through the rebellion efforts of Count Fernán González , the kingdom was unified into an autonomous entity in 931 that no longer paid vassalage to León. 

this independence was short lived as a series of political machinations-via-marriage, untimely deaths, and brotherly feuds brought the two kingdoms under the same crown for a brief period during the reign of Ferdinand I. his death in 1065 resulted in division of territories among sons, fighting between said sons, more reunification, more divisions, more fighting, and so on into the 13th century. Alfonso VII divided the territory between his two sons (Sancho III got Castilla; Ferdinand II, León). the two factions finally joined permanently when in 1230, after having assumed the throne of Castilla in 1217 through his mother, Ferdinand III assumed the throne of León through his father Alfonso IX.
León was formed when Alfonso the Great (III of Asturias) divided his land among his three sons, with Galicia, León and Asturias going to Ordoño II, García I, and Fruela II, respectively. Ordoño II’s successor, Ramiro II worked ardently to push back Muslim incursions, successfully driving them back from previously-settled territory and establishing a no-go area along the Duoro river valley that divided northern Christian-held territory from Muslim-held territory on the southern Iberian peninsula.

despite Alfonso IX best intentions, the unification of Castilla and León under one crown remains a contentious issue. the people of León did not take the increasing dominance Castilla well and, even today, we saw lots of anti-Castillian sentiment in the western part of the region. (throughout Astorga, for example, someone had gone around town and spray-painted out the “Castilla” part on governmental signs.) despite the royal centralization, the regions retained separate languages, currencies, flags, laws, and governmental systems until Spain centralized its government in the modern era, though by the 16th century Castilla had assumed majority control and León was, in practice, a captaincy-general. (fun fact: in 19th century, the Kingdom of León joined Galicia and Asturias to declare war on France — presumably against Napoleon.)

and all of this is to say that Castilla y León is big. the biggest region we walked through by a long way and despite the unity one might infer by the name, reality is somewhat different. researching all this has put that portion of the Camino into a different perspective for me — at the time it seemed dully monotonous because the terrain remained relatively static; but it turns out there’s a rich socio-political history to uncover. just took a little digging.