… with diverse modern uses

the Convento San Marcos functioned as a monastery until “excloisteration” in 1837; it subsequently went through numerous uses from the mundane to the sinister before becoming a museum and hotel. among the mundane uses: a high school, a veterinary college and stud farm, a Jesuit residence home, military offices, and military barracks.

in the 1870s the government proposed leveling the building to provide space for alternative projects but the plan was fortunately scuppered. this building is one of the few pre-modern buildings that still stands outside the city walls; after walking between all the period buildings that line the warren-like streets within the walls of the city, it’s rather remarkable to emerge onto the wider avenues beyond, packed with bland 20th century construction. there are certainly unique architectural sites outside the walls and their overpowering modernity provided a peculiar contrast to the site of the Plaza San Marcos but mostly it was blocks of flats and the characterless but functional facades of any modern city.

on the more sinister end of uses, the Convento San Marcos served as a prison — both during its time as  a monastery and after it fell under government control. during the mid-17th century, the politician and and poet, Francisco de Quevedo found himself an unwitting occupant of the basement dungeons of the monastery. he’d allegedly written a satire against the king but his true “crime” stemmed from engendering the enmity of the prime minister of the time, the Count Duke of Olivares. because of his (honorary) membership in the Order of Santiago, Quevedo was permitted to serve his sentence in the Order’s headquarters, rather than in a civil penitentiary. while imprisonment did nothing for his physical health, during the four years he spent at San Marcos Quevedo wrote three of his most notable philosophical works (Life of Saint Paul, Providence of God, and  Constancy and Patience of Saint Job). upon his release, he retired to another monastery, where he died two years later (in 1645).

while certainly no easy punishment for Quevedo in the 17th century, the unwilling guests of the 20th century had an even harsher experience within the walls of the ex-monastery. during the Spanish Civil War, the building served as a concentration camp for republican prisoners and other opponents of the Franco regime. between 1936 and 1940, the prisoner population reached some 6,700 men while a further 15,000 filtered through on their way to other prison camps elsewhere. numerous executions took place within the grounds and it became a symbol of repression in León and throughout Spain. when we visited, they had an exhibit in the cloisters featuring remembrances from those who’d been imprisoned in the monastery during the Franco regime. harrowing stuff.

the building was given over to the Parador chain in 1964 for conversion into a luxury hotel and museum (housed in the church and cloisters). the church houses an array of art collected from around the area, as well sculptures designed and crafted at the time of the church’s construction. numerous famous and royal guests have stayed at the Parador, including the King and Queen of Spain, who first visited in 1970 while still Prince and Princess, as well as Latin American presidents, Nobel winners and others.

Convento de San Marcos – a site to behold …

while sufficiently impressive as a structural marvel, the building occupying the Plaza San Marcos — once a monastery, now an up-scale hotel — has a rather remarkable back-story to go with it. in the 12th century, Alfonso VII provided funding at the behest of Dona Sancha to construct a simple building outside the walls of León to serve peregrions, later becoming headquarters for the Knights of the Order of Santiago. by the mid-15th century, however, the structure was mostly in ruins and offered little in the way of services for peregrinos; improvements were recommended but little done for another eighty years or so, when a grant from Ferdinand prompted the demolition of the modest accommodations for replacement by the far grander building that stands today.

consecrated in 1524, the church and attached convent was designed by architect Juan de Orozco (church), with help from Martin de Villareal (facade) and Juan de Badajoz (the Younger — cloister and sacristy). Ferdinand fired the original architect when the project did not proceed at his desired pace; this decision proved only partially successful as it took a further two hundred years to complete the structure.

one of the most impressive examples of a plasteresque facade in the Renaissance style, work on the the front of the building in San Marcos began in 1515, was interrupted in about 1541 and resumed in 1615, and features an array of portraits of important historical and mythical figures. the medallions sought to exemplify human virtue and include such notables as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hercules and Hector, El Cid … and an array of Spanish political figures of the period whose names have largely faded into obscurity. to say some seemed out of place next to momentous such momentous figures of history, religion and myth is a monumental understatement. (yes, yes I did that on purpose.) the plinths above all these medallions were designed to display sculptures but funding ran out; seems in the best for the impressive array of grotesques adorning the rest of the facade — sirens, sphinxes, winged horses, dolphins, dragons, and more. in 1715, the crowning piece was installed over what is now the entrance to the Parador — a Baroque depiction of Santiago Matamoros (Santiago the Moor Slayer … have I discussed that story yet?). in addition to grotesques and medallions, the buildings are also covered in scallop shells — the sign of Santiago.

Santiago Matamoros

a peregrino’s dream at the Parador

although the film “The Way” inspired us to book a room at the Parador San Marcos (for two nights!), we opted against the palatial suites seen in the film. after traveling on a budget for so long I, for one, couldn’t quite imagine splashing out more than 300 euros a night on a room (or more than 600 euros on a suite) — a spectacular room with views of the plaza, I’m sure, but what an expensive view…

even without the period furniture and amenities of a suite or plaza-facing room, our digs were pretty great. the Parador in Santo Domingo offered some of the period touches — square windows covered by thick wooden shutters, sturdy wooden furniture with decorative draperies, tapestries on the wall — and the one in León still had our most desired features: comfortable beds and a nice big bathtub that filled with steaming hot water. it also had a private-enough balcony overlooking a tiny courtyard and a governmental building — after walking for 20 days straight and covering more than 336 kilometers all we needed or wanted was someplace comfortable to rest and recover from our aches. and to sleep in as late as we wanted. that was fabulous, too.

highly satisfying and relaxing, our experience at the Parador was also interesting; they book rooms for plenty of peregrinos, to be sure (and even once offered free dinners to the first 10 peregrinos to arrive every day which, eventually, they had to relegate to a separate dining room because of “offensive odors”), ready for a little luxury after (perhaps) 20 nights in albergues with varying degrees of comfort or amenities, but it’s also without question an upscale (5-star) hotel aimed at wealthy travelers and business people. valet parking, pricey meals, concierge service, guests lounging in reception wearing designer labels of the understated, old-money school.

I don’t know why it struck me, but standing behind us as we checked in was a young-ish couple who clearly looked like they lived a roving rock-n-roll (in the I-play-in-the-band-on-tour vein) lifestyle who seemed very much of the old-money line. perhaps it was the parents who joined them, ready to pay for four nights’ accommodation, as we headed off to our room that exuded that vibe. like I said, quite the change from where we’d stayed the preceding nights — at a family-run guesthouse, in the last room to be had in town, at one of the only albergues in town. these non-peregrinos with whom we shared the hotel were having a monumentally different experience of Spain than us. in conversation, we learned that rock-n-roll couple was headed on to Santiago that same day — picking up their rented, valeted car and driving to the city that we were still nearly two weeks from reaching. it’s actually rather hard to convey how, at the time, such a means of reaching Santiago boggled my mind. “You’re just going to drive?! Who does that?!”

in a way, then, maybe it was better we got a view of the Junta de Castilla y León from a simple cement balcony with wrought-iron furniture, stepping out of a nice, comfortable, well-appointed but not overwhelmingly upscale hotel room. if we’d gotten one of those snazzier, rock star rooms that Martin Sheen books for himself and his traveling companions I wager I’d have felt out of place; a hostel-bunk-sleeping, backpack-wearing, own-food-making, modern-day rambler wholly out of place among those who have people to fetch cars and bags — not unlike how I felt staying at the resort in Key West where it seemed almost as if everyone was speaking a foreign language (one that came from one’s relationship with money).

arriving in León — complete with psych hospital

the arrival into León, while also following a busy highway and DIY stores that seemed to go on for ages, was a vast improvement over that into Burgos (though still couldn’t compare to arriving in Pamplona); pedestrian overpasses that gave us our first glimpses of the city. we passed the headquarters of the Caja Espana and took a breather on a bench at the end of the bus line — next to a psychiatric hospital.

 we resisted the temptation to climb aboard the air conditioned bus, which rolled up to the stop for the driver’s smoke break just as we plopped down to rest our feet. even officially within the city limits we had a goodly walk to reach our destination but — I don’t know if I can stress this enough — it was so much more pleasant and interesting than trudging into Burgos. the Camino followed the twisting, older side streets, over a pedestrian bridge and past remnants of the city walls. the sidewalk followed broad, sunny avenues, lined by an array of stores, restaurants, and businesses. the closer we got to the heart of the city, the more character emerged. the Camino followed a somewhat circuitous route — through the heart of the old city, past the cathedral and all the major sights — to our hotel outside the old city walls. not a problem when you’re walking straight through León and on to some farther destination, the sights for which León is known are worth the detour — while it pales somewhat in comparison to the impressive size and detail of the Burgos cathedral, the one in  León is truly remarkable (and about which more later). we arrived on a Friday at lunchtime (early afternoon) and the yellow arrows took us through one of the more remarkable pedestrian-oriented center-city shopping areas, down narrow alleys, past trendy and touristy bars alike, abandoned buildings and ones in the midst of remodeling. but when you’ve already come nearly 19km on a sweaty day on calves that still twinge and feet that are again uncomfortably sore … the sights could have waited until the following day when we took the time to sleep in, relax and soak up the character of the city — a shortcut wouldn’t have gone amiss. but once we finally made it to the Plaza San Marcos and got our first glimpse of our lodgings for two nights … the detour was worth it!

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.

Sahagún — one way to say half-way

depending on how you measure your Camino, the town of Sahagún marks the half-way point … if you start your Camino in Roncesvalles and not St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, as we did. it’s long been an important religious and trading center.

it was named after San Facundo, whose body was buried near the river in the 4th century and later marked by a Visigothic church (which was under renovations when we passed). as rich agricultural land, it proved a focal point for conflicts between Muslims and Christians. over the course of the 9th and 10th centuries, Muslims destroyed the Visigothic church (833), it was rebuilt and a monastery added (872), reclaimed by the Muslims, rebuilt (904-5), destroyed (987), and rebuilt again. once chartered in 1085 and fully reestablished, it became the most important Christian religious and economic center in the region outside of León. Alfonso VI took refuge, was educated, wed his third wife, and was ultimately buried here. 

its location on the Road made it an excellent market for trading the the agricultural goods grown in the fertile area surrounding it. the three-week-long annual market the ruling powers permitted starting in 1155 was a length unheard of elsewhere. in the mid-13th century, Alfonso X granted safety and rights to all merchants travelling to the city, regardless of their religious affiliation. the rights and opportunities prompted rapid population growth and religiously-segregated neighborhoods quickly grew up within the city limits and then beyond. the city prospered for several hundred years; the monastery grew in strength and influence and by the 14th century housed a University. tensions gradually grew worse between Christian merchants and their Jewish counterparts, however, undermining the city’s influence and prosperity; local riots in 1127 killed many Jews, nationwide ones killed even more in 1391 and by 1492 very few Jewish families remained in the town. in the 19th century, the once influential monastery was closed and the building destroyed; now Sahagún is a small market city in the middle of the dusty Meseta Alta of León.