Rabanal and the casa rural

of all the types of potential accommodation available along the Camino, it took us 24 days to stay in a casa rural — basically a B&B — but it was worth the wait. the place I’d tried to book (fancier and farther up the hill) didn’t have a record of my request (which didn’t come as a surprise) so we headed back down the hill ad tried the first non-albergue we could find. the room they offered us overlooked the main road (along which the Camino began its final ascent towards our next set of mountains) and a ruined building with mountains in the distance. a wonderfully peaceful place to rest with spectacular view.

after our standard shower-nap program, our location dictated that either of our food options required a steep climb back up the hill; our fatigued feet opted for the easy way to start (downhill) and delaying the greater exertion for later. immediately next to our casa rural stood a tiny church whose door stood open to entice peregrinos to enter. inside, beyond an alcove with a history of the church written on panels, and through metal bars designed to keep unsavory characters away, stood a remarkably impressive, gilded altar. dazzling in the sunlight that filtered through the open door — in a tiny church in a tiny town way off the beaten path in remote León. in a church that wasn’t even the village’s primary church! the wide-ranging influence of the Catholic church, sneaking up on you in the most unusual places.

the village dates from the period of Roman mining of precious metals in the nearby hills though its location on the Camino — approximately one day’s walk from the popular starting point of Astorga — enhanced its viability. ** an aside: in order to receive the Compostela in Santiago, one needn’t complete the entire Camino Frances (departing from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles). you technically only need to walk the last 100 kilometers (from approximately Sarria), about which more later, though many people complete it in stages. most commonly, people complete it over three years and walk St. Jean to Burgos one year, Burgos to Astorga another, and then Astorga to Santiago. ** in the 12th century, the Knights Templar maintained a garrison in Rabanal tasked with protecting peregrinos heading over the mountain towards Ponferrada, a Templar stronghold. while Rabanal catered strongly to peregrinos, it was merely one of several small villages along the Camino up the mountain to do so, and some itineraries had people continuing on to the nearly-deserted town of Foncebadon instead. after walking through as part of a steady stream of peregrinos, I can’t quite imagine spending the night in such a ghostly shell of a town-that-once-was.

out-of-the-ordinary on the way to Rabanal del Camino

heading out of Astorga, the terrain grew dramatically more interesting if commensurately challenging. hills! and trees! and still more fields though these were marked into smaller parcels by short, stacked-stone walls (that reminded me somewhat of Ireland). this terrain is better for grazing rather than planting and we saw more, though not many, grazing animals.

the second town we passed through out of Astorga had a distinctly remote and timeless quality to it. the houses were stout, the windows small, and some of the roofs thatched. little existed beyond the main street, which hosted three cafes and two or three casa rurales or albergues. the only water fountain was hidden behind some buildings and could only be accessed down a narrow pathway between the two. we stopped to peel an orange on a bench beside what might have been someone’s front door and saw more than a couple people pass the passage and double back when they realized their overshoot.

one of the more interesting sites on this stretch was a cafe (and possibly albergue) in the tiny town of El Ganso. unlike the previous town, it had an odd mix of modern/rustic — maintained but aging homes, presumably inhabited by aging owners without flashy young money to install the latest conveniences, and an assortment of homes being completely gutted and remodeled and re-roofed to satisfy the preferences for city-living, weekend-visiting younger owners. my cultural book indicates its one of the best places to view traditional Maragato architecture and that the main road wasn’t paved until the 1990s.

in El Ganso we stopped at a cafe called Meson Cowboy for our standard bocadilla. as we claimed a spot in the shade, we saw the Australian couple we’d dined with at the albergue in San Martin and said our hellos (we saw them again several more times though not with the consistency with which we saw the Koreans early on the Camino). at the bar we also encountered a herd of cats of various shapes, sizes, and temperaments — as well as some of the ruder German tourists we encountered on the Camino. it’s likely they were peregrinos, but they certainly behaved and carried themselves more like tourists disinclined to engage local culture. at least their presence spurred us to return to the day’s hike with a shorter-than-intended break. suppose it worked out in our favor somehow — helped us nab a room at a casa rural in Rabanal with a great view of the mountains where we chatted with a nice Canadian (?) couple at breakfast the following morning. a stark contrast and heartening reminder of all the reasons people decide to set out on the Camino.

Gaudí’s Palacio Episcopal

Astorga presented with us an unexpected delight: Gaudí‘s Palacio Episcopal. as I mentioned in my previous Gaudí-related post, I only realized we’d seen his work in León after I saw pictures of the building while researching. in Astorga, however, there was no missing it — even if we hadn’t gotten a map from the front desk of the hotel with all the sights highlighted. we came up a side street, past the Museo del Chocolate and into the plaza — with Astorga’s cathedral at the other end with the Palacio Episcopal beside it.

along with the Casa de los Botines, the Palacio is one of three buildings Gaudí designed that stand outside of Catalonia (his works in and around Barcelona make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and was constructed between 1899 and 1913. after a fire destroyed the previous building, the bishop of the time (name Grau) and a friend of Gaudí asked the renowned architect to take on the project of designing a new structure. Gaudí agreed though his work on the Palau Güell prevented him from leaving Barcelona to visit Astorga to get a sense of the city and terrain; instead he relied on photos and other pertinent information sent by Grau to complete his building design.

the supervisory council approved Gaudí’s design in February 1889 and work began in June (on the feast day of St. John) of the same year. following Grau’s death in 1893, however, Gaudí and the council began to disagree — perhaps over Gaudí’s decision to use Catalan workers with whom he’d contracted previously and upon whom he could rely to follow his vision during his absences or perhaps because the modernist building didn’t fit the council’s vision of appropriate religious architecture or perhaps because the project was getting expensive  — and Gaudí ultimately resigned. he took his workers with him when he left construction halted for several years. several of the architects subsequently hired to direct the project came and left without making much of an impact on progress; the last one resigned before the completion of the fourth (and final) floor. the project finally wrapped up between 1913 and 1915. during the Spanish Civil War it served as headquarters for the Falange but in 1956 restoration work (really aimed at finishing up the planned final details) began, aimed at converting it (back) to its intended use as a bishop’s residence. today it serves as a religious museum dedicated to the Camino — the Museo de los Caminos.

soaking up Astorga

after cleaning off the day’s Camio, we headed out to the Plaza Mayor for something to eat, finding a place that served pizza and offered a view of the ayuntamiento and its clock tower with typically-dressed figures of Maragatos (about which more later) that have emerged to strike the hour since 1748. not as elaborate as the astronomical clocks in Prague or Olomouc but significantly less touristy.

waiting for our meal gave us an opportunity to watch the locals out and about in the plaza. a group of people with various physical disabilities came by, presumably from an institution for which I saw a sign off to the south. bikers in Very Serious gear but who seemed to simply be biking rather than completing the Camino on bike. and by far the best: three little kids in various stages of learning to ride a bike. older sister was already a pro on two wheels; as we sat down the middle brother was in his first, tentative laps without training wheels and dad holding the back of his seat; the youngest brother was racing around, supremely confident if tipsy on his training wheels, dodging all manner of close calls at top speed. when we came back later, the youngest had just had his training wheels removed and wasn’t moving quite so quickly as before.

pizza consumed, clock strike witnessed, and training-wheel-free biking observed, we headed out to see what the rest of the city held. in the next plaza over we came across a statue of a lion pinning an eagle — homage to Spanish forces that campaigned against Napoleons invading forces in the 19th century. José María Santocildes led the (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of Astorga in the Guerra de la Independencia. the city was the farthest west that Napoleons troops occupied and following their expulsion, Astorga again prospered with a plethora of bakers, chocolatiers, tanners, and craftspeople. now its primarily a destination for tourists though it remains crucial as a trading hub.

Astorga — convergence of roads

at the outset of the Camino, our stay in Astorga was one of the things to which I was most excited: I’d found a five-star spa/hotel to help soothe what I anticipated might prove dastardly aches and pains. unfortunately, shifting our itinerary to take a day of rest in León meant arriving in Astorga on a Monday — the only day the spa didn’t operate. could have been a tragedy if the bed hadn’t proven so fantastically, magically comfortable. and they gave us bathrobes and slippers to use, as one might expect a spa/hotel might do. it makes me smile just thinking about it.

not only did the day of rest in León give us a boost of energy kicking off the day to Astorga, the fabulous breakfast and knowledge we had a comfortable room booked for the night made the hike that much more tolerable. we arrived with time and energy to spare and got a good look around town before burrowing into the bed for a(nother) good night’s sleep.

foremost, Astorga is a crossroads; two major Camino routes converge here — the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata from the south — as well as the Calzada Romana from Rome and other major trade routes. it’s strategic importance dates from the Asturians (a Celtic people) that pre-dated settlement by the Romans. preserved Roman baths and a museum explaining the city’s heritage stood between the first albergue and our hotel — one of the first things you see as you enter the city on top of the hill. the city walls are (in part) of Roman construction. during Roman times, the city functioned largely to protect the roads, especially the one that headed to precious metal mines in the surrounding mountains. (our map noted several mine ruins — all of which seemed way too far off the Camino on day 22 to even consider venturing towards for investigation.)

because of the converging roads, nearby mines, and proximity to Santiago, Astorga became important for early Christianity in the Iberian peninsula; one of the first three bishoprics of Spain was established here before the 3rd century and the title of the officeholder is one of the oldest religious titles in Europe. rumor contends that both St. Paul and Santiago preached in Astorga at some point.

after the re-conquest, Ordoño I fortified the city and emphasized it as a Christian stronghold; it remained un-raided during the 10th century wars to the east consequently became the de facto capital of León. the following centuries saw Camino-driven prosperity and trade. the city declined somewhat with the tapering off of peregrinos but continued prosper because of its location; in addition to all manner of other goods and treasures it acted as the royal drove road for livestock going virtually anywhere in the Iberian peninsula. no wonder it’s thrived so long — it had way more than the presence and demands of peregrinos to keep it humming.

lunch and lounging in León

after a good look around the cathedral we went in search of tolerable rest-day sustenance. one downside to the larger towns: you pay more for mediocre food and, in most of the areas we found ourselves, really good food proved elusive. couldn’t complain about the food, exactly; it wasn’t any worse than your average bocadillo or bar sandwich — it just cost more.

but, as in León, people watching tended to be more interesting — fewer of our fellow peregrinos whom we’d seen every day for the last 20. in fact, after our day off in León we didn’t see many of the people we started off with ever again. they didn’t take a rest day, arrived in Santiago earlier than we did and, presumably, headed off home. anyway, we found a decent cafe and sat outside with our small cervezas and bocadillas to watch people — Saturday shoppers, families coming or going from weddings, crazy homeless people (and I say “crazy” as a person who regularly sees non-crazy homeless people out and about in town), American college students just wrapping up their semester or just starting their mini-terms or summers abroad. lots of dogs. more dogs than I recalled seeing in any other city we’d passed through yet. and fewer babies. saw lots of babies in Pamplona but fewer in Burgos and León. perhaps different population demographics, perhaps all the Leonese babies were at home sleeping.

our second evening in León, after enjoying some wine and reading on our balcony, I discovered the Eurovision song contest on one of the television channels available in our room. I’d seen a fair number of adverts with the Spanish entry but didn’t realize how imminent the competition was until I happened upon it that Saturday night in León. watched about half of it before the signal went out including the eventual winner, Loreen from Sweden (as I discovered the following morning). we also saw Russia’s entry (Buranovskiye Babushki) and, after discovering that he’d never heard of Lordi much less seen or heard their entry, made Andy watch their 2006 Eurovision-winning performance of Hard Rock Hallelujah (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend doing so). in the process of looking up the Lordi video, I also learned that Celine Dion won the contest in the mid-90s as did ABBA in 1974 with “Waterloo.” Ireland’s won the contest more than any other country and I can’t say that surprises me.

anyway — León offered a bit of history, a bit of contrast, plenty of rest and reading, and a little bit of crazy nationalistic European song contest.

exploring inside one of the Camino’s cathedrals

as impressive the history of the construction of the cathedral, the interior offers remarkable sites and has a fair bit of story as well. the fact I found most impressive: most of the stained glass (some 1,800 square meters of it) is the original glass and dates from the 13th to 15th centuries — something nearly improbable for me to comprehend having seen so many restored or battle-scarred cathedrals across Europe. moreover, the cathedral in León has more glass and less stone than any other cathedral in Spain; it’s sometimes known as the “cathedral without walls.”

without question the windows impress in their detail, color, and diversity. designs include scenes of traditional medieval life as well as depictions of “heavenly” saint-types and “earthly” saint-types. the northern windows, done in darker colors and which receive less light, depict the “heavenly” scenes — apostles and biblical scenes from the Old Testament. the south-facing windows, which receive more light, depict more mundane, “earthly” images, including vegetables, as well as stories from the New Testament.

on the wall of one of the south transept, mimicking that on the wall of the north transept, and tucked beside the door and beneath one of the rose windows, stands the tomb of Bishop Rodrigo, who oversaw the early stages of construction of the cathedral. he died before its completion and was laid to rest under an impressive and intricate sculpture. the Bishop of Zamora lies in a similarly designed tomb to the north.

there were some other unique features — a wall (transcoro) that cut the choir off from the front of the church fronted with alabaster plaques in a distinctly different style than the rest of the cathedral’s artwork; carvings in the back of all the choir seats of various noteworthy people (monarchs, Apostles, prophets, saints) in the 15th century style; a retablo behind the altar that went from five panels to a great deal more stretching up and obscuring the stained glass windows and back to five in one of the more modern restorations. and in the Capilla de la Virgen de la Esperanza there’s a sculpture of a pregnant Virgin Mary something my audio guide highlighted as unusual. can’t say I’ve ever seen one like it elsewhere … and it certainly stuck out from all the other art I saw in the cathedral. while the windows were my favorite aspect of the cathedral, as well as the openness of the space, the gaps in the stained glass — where white light streamed onto the floor — was almost as magical.


view of the Catedral de León

the community of León became a bishopric under the Romans and a full two hundred years before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. the cathedral in León is the second of three massive sacred sites along the Camino — the cathedrals in Burgos and Santiago de Compostela being the other two. three other structures occupied this site, beginning in the 10th century with a Visigothic-style church over ruins of the Roman baths, with the churches lasting only about a century before replacements were deemed necessary. (church one begun about 924; church two, in 1084; church three, in 1175; church four — the current cathedral — in 1205.)

the first, simple structure, built on lands donated by Ordoño II, was replaced after a century under the direction of the bishop with a more impressive Romanesque building. the second building, which included a palace, library, and hospice for peregrinos and the poor, saw the coronation of Alfonso VII as emperor of Castilla and León in 1135 with all the major monarchs and rulers across Spain in attendance. work on the third church began 40 years later and its designers aimed at creating something to rival other monumental churches on the Camino and effectively demonstrating the immense wealth and political clout of León.

work on the Gothic cathedral that stands today began in 1205 and continued for just under a century, though the south tower wasn’t completed until the 15th century. the plan largely copies that of the cathedral at Reims, but at two-thirds scale, and shares elements with other major French cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Paris, and Saint-Denis. financial backing from both the the monarchy of Castilla y León and the papacy meant progress moved smoothly and concluded in near record time. according to my reference book, Alfonso X “contributed handsomely, in part to compensate morally for never having repaid a loan the Pope had given his father Fernando III for his war to conquer Sevilla.” for his generosity, Alfonso (as well as other major contributors to the project) received an indulgence and part of his father’s loans were forgiven.

one of the more remarkable facts about the cathedral is the length gone to restore it in the 19th century. essentially, they removed the roof, reinforced the walls, and put the roof back on — all while more than slightly concerned the building might collapse entirely when the roof went back on. from early on, weaknesses in the foundation and poor structural integrity of the stones used posed major problems for the cathedral. part of the south transept collapsed in the mid-17th century and was rebuilt. discussion about restoration began in 1844 when, in an effort to highlight the importance of the building, the cathedral was named a national monument; it took another four decades before restoration got underway in earnest, however, and lasted two decades. it reopened to worshipers in 1901 and the fortification efforts worked. it was reputedly one of the most complicated and risky restoration projects in 19th century Europe. the project’s primary architect, Juan de Madrazo, posthumously received a gold medal at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts for his work on the project. it’s undergoing another round of restoration now to clean and restore the facade.

León – a history of a city

as befits a still-grand city, León’s origins date from the Romans who established a military outpost here in the year 70 to protect gold mines and it later became the seat of the VIIth Legion and capital of the empire in northwest Spain. a massive wall, remains of which still mark the limits of the old town, encompassed the Roman settlement. that wall, along with some baths under the cathedral are the only structures that remain from that period.

fortunes in the city ebbed and flowed with the decline of the Romans, incorporation into the kingdom of Asturias, conquest by the Visigoths (in 585), and then the Moors (712) under whose control it remained for over a century. in 746, Ordoño I managed to extricate the city from Moorish control and his successors invited Mozarabic refugees (Christians who hadn’t fled their lands and chose to remain under Moorish rule) from farther south to repopulate the city. despite the success of Ordoño and his immediate successors in building León up as a Christian city (and transforming the Kingdom of Asturias into that of León) — establishing churches, granting land to the bishop to construct a cathedral over the Roman baths, relocating the Asturian court and building a royal palace — subsequent generations proved weaker-willed and in the 10th century monarchs were paying protection money to caliphs in Cordoba to maintain “peace.” evidence of the 10th century prosperity vanished in 988 when the king, seeking aid from his “protectors” to defeat a rebellious brother, essentially invited an attack and occupation. in the 11th century, Alfonso V began a successful campaign to wrest control of Spain from Moorish control and his success led to eventual unification of the Castillian and Leonese crowns (as discussed in a previous post). by the middle of the 14th century, however, economic and political activity had shifted elsewhere as more and more of Spain fell under Christian authority. a series of continent-wide cataclysms, culminating in the arrival of the bubonic plague in 1349 or 1350 decimated León and effectively stunted its importance and growth for several centuries.

population growth stagnated until 19th century; most of the increase came down to influx from surrounding farming communities after the arrival of the railroad in the 1860s, in search of alternative means of employment. throughout the 20th century the population of the city grew rapidly — from about 21,000 inhabitants in 1920 to a peak of over 147,000 in 1995 — still due primarily to rural exodus.

the Leonese language is considered extremely endangered (more nearly extinct) by UNESCO, though the movement to attain Leonese autonomy from Castilla has made an effort to revive it. in 2006, the provincial government approved a Leonese Language Day as advocated for by a variety of language associations. as we proceeded farther along the Camino and away from Castillian influence we saw more and more graffiti promoting independence for León. I assumed the ” Llión Solo” signs we saw stemmed from an autonomy movement like the one in the Basque country, but hadn’t any confirmation of that until now. the University of León established a teacher training course in the Leonese language in 2001 and there are both adult-education courses in the language and lessons at high schools around León.

it seems like León has a good history of protest and procession (you know, like events during Semana Santa) (maybe it’s just a Spanish and/or European thing to go out for a protest of a Saturday?); there was a notable rebel population here during the Franco regime, though a failed attempt at fomenting popular unrest resulted in the arrest and execution of a number of rebel organizers in 1936. when we were out at lunchtime in Saturday, a clump of bicyclers and pedestrian-types streamed past us down the middle of a major road –led by a police vehicle as often happens in the U.S. with permit-holding protesters, headed farther into town to join some kind of protest. based on the protest attendees in the plaza, it must have been something to do with cyclist and/or pedestrian safety and awareness.

Casa de los Botines

I’d heard of Gaudí before going to Spain but had no idea what his buildings looked like. so much so that when we walked past the back of this interesting building in León it didn’t occur to me it might be one of his — even though I knew he’d designed one that stood somewhere within the old city walls near-about where we were wandering. when we saw the Palacio Episcopal in Astorga I began to suspect we might have passed what I now know is the Casa de los Botines in León and after seeing pictures of it I know we did, even if it was just the back side.

after he completed of the Palacio Episcopal in Astorga (about which more later, once we’ve made it to Astorga), businessmen Simón Fernández and Mariano Andrés commissioned Gaudí to design a multi-use structure — as a warehouse and department store on the ground floor with residential space on the three floors above. in a notable contrast to surrounding buildings, Gaudí designed the Casa de los Botines in a neo-gothic style with a distinct medieval air to it, complete with turrets on the four corners and a kind of moat on two sides that allows sunlight and ventilation into the basement. a sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon stands watch over the main entrance. the small granite blocks of the facade resemble those used in the Palacio Episcopal (probably due to their local source), though that did not have six skylights to illuminate the attic. one of the characteristics I found more remarkable is how the size of the windows diminishes with each floor; the shape remains the same but the smaller width emphasizes the size and design of the building.

Gaudí signed off on plans the last day of 1891 and preparations for the building began in January of 1892 after the property owners won a dispute with the municipal government over use of the property. during the project, Gaudí faced opposition from local engineers who believed the design for his foundation — a continuous base like the one found in the city’s cathedral — completely inappropriate for local conditions. they insisted that pilotis were necessary, which would require excavating much deeper than Gaudí envisioned. when they could not produce persuasive proof of the necessity of their plan Gaudí went ahead with his; because of this people feared the building would collapse on itself upon completion. after waiting with bated breath (or not) during the 10 months of construction, Gaudí was vindicated and his building did not collapse. the building officially opened in November of 1894.

inside the building, Gaudí left much of the floor plan open by transferring weight to internal pillars and the exterior walls. when purchased by a bank in 1929, several of the interior pillars were removed. when the Caja España obtained the property, they renovated the building back to Gaudí‘s plans and re-installed the removed pillars. during restorations in the 1950s, workers discovered a tube of lead concealed under the statue of St. George that included original plans signed by Gaudí, as well as press clippings from the time of construction. today, as I mentioned, it’s offices for a bank.