The kingdom of Leon was created when the Asturian King, Alfonso the Great, divided his realm amongst his three sons.
Leon was inherited by Garcia I in 910AD and so began several hundred years of fighting amongst competing feudal families to claim and hold onto the throne of the Kings of Leon. It was a city we were looking forward to exploring.
To reach it, we left Portugal on a toll road and commented that we were being charged escalating fees every three miles to the border with Spain. The road was a long climb up and out of the country at times reaching more than 1,300 meters.
Bertha bowled along empty stretches of road separated by high moorland of boulders and gorse bushes and with just the lonely company of towering wind turbines.
Across the Spanish plateau, we arrived in late afternoon sunshine at the River Bernesga encircling the legendary city of the Kings of Leon. We were waved into the final space at the excellent city parking for motorhomes by smiling Spanish families. It felt good to be back in the country we had spent so much time exploring at the beginning of this trip.
The Kings of Leon fought civil wars, wars against neighbouring kingdoms as well campaigns to repel invasions by both the Moors and the Vikings, to protect their kingdom’s changing fortunes.
Ferdinand I, called the Great, was the Count of Castille from his uncle’s death in 1029 and the King of Leon after defeating his brother in law in 1037. He was the first to be crowned Emperor of Spain.
The city of Leon became its capital in the Middle Ages and a massive programme of building work was carried out on the foundations on the site of the earlier military camp and civil town of the Roman’s Seventh Legion.
The fascinating Centre of Roman Interpretation museum displayed black and white images from the city’s past and showed how the old Imperial walls were re-fortified and embellished with watchtowers. Inside their lee, homes and palaces were built, including the Colegiata de San Isodoro.
This beautiful and resonant complex is three interlinked buildings; a basilica, a monastery and the Royal Pantheon, the last resting place of more than 20 monarchs.
We waited patiently for the strictly limited and guided tour to see inside the Pantheon.
The exquisite vaulted stone hallway was created in the 11 century and beautifully decorated with carved capitals of beasts and flowers. Its domed ceiling, columns and arches are decorated in hand-painted frescoes that depict scenes from the New Testament.
No restoration work has been carried out and the paintings are as they were first unveiled nearly 1000 years ago, when commissioned by the Princess Urruca.
Biblical scenes tell of the life of Jesus, and an interesting detail is the inclusion of a wine-bearer at the Last Supper called Marcielis Pincerna. His name is written next to his image (see below).
Our Spanish guide, Arantxa, explained that he is only recorded in the Apocryphal Gospels know at the time of painting by the French monasteries in Limousin, leading to the assumption that the painter of the frescoes was indeed French.
There is also a colourful pictorial depiction of the months of the Medieval year. Pruning, planting and harvesting scenes depict the Spring and Summer months. A tunic-wearing farmer feeds nuts to his little black pig in October but roasts him on a spit in November. It was amusing and beguiling at the same time as a glimpse into the rhythms of rural life in the kingdom of Leon.
Craning our necks to admire the paintings we jumped at sharp barking from Arantxa. A hapless German chap had sat down heavily upon the tomb of the Christian King Ferdinand I of Leon, Urruca’s father and who had ordered the building of the pantheon!
At one time 33 members of the Leonese Court were interred here, but during the Peninsular War against France in the 1800s, Napoleon’s army used the hall for stabling and removed or demolished many of its tombs. The French it seemed were responsible for both glorifying and destroying the pantheon.
We were led up to the second floor of the monastery passing dusty reconstruction works and across unswept wooden floorboards. A beautiful stone Madonna and child were caked in an inch of greasy grey dust. Arantxa apologised, “sorry for the grubbiness”.
Securely tucked away in a dark room deep within the monastery and only dimly lit, we peered at the gorgeous and jewel-encrusted ‘Chalice of Dona Urruca’.
Slightly wonky, it is two onyx goblets joined together, one turned up, and the other down. Both are worked together in a gold casing which is decorated with priceless jewels and a tiny Roman glass-paste sculptured face.
It has been in the Saint Isodoro basilica since the 11th century when it was gifted to the church by Urruca. It’s a fascinating object to gaze upon, and it came back to international attention five years’ ago with the publication of new research by historians.
The discovery of two Medieval Egyptian parchments in the basilica shed light on what is now understood to be the chalice’s journey to Leon.
The documents recorded that Muslims took the piece from an early Christian community in Jerusalem. They sent it to Cairo, from where it was later given as a gift of thanks to an Emir (a Moorish dignitary) living on Spain’s Andalusian coast, in return for help that he gave to Egyptians who were suffering from famine. Along the way, the Sultan Sulieman removed a little piece of the rim of the chalice as it was believed to have healing properties which he wished for his unwell daughter.
The chalice came into the possession of the Christian King Ferdinand I as a peace offering during the time of Muslim rule in Spain. He gave it to his daughter Urruca, who donated her jewels for its decoration before offering it to the church.
Carbon dating in 2014 confirmed it was made between 200BC and 100AD, and a missing piece under its rim identifies it as the chalice referred to in the Egyptian documents.
Arantxa barked again at the same hapless chap who crashed his forehead against the glass case housing the chalice.
Our visit was swiftly ended and it wasn’t until researching later online that we discovered historians now argue that the onyx cup which sits on top and underneath the fabulous decoration is that which early Christians venerated as being the one from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, the legendary ‘Holy Grail’. Much dispute rages over this in the academic world, but it was thrilling to consider what we may have seen!
In 1513 another King Ferdinand funded the building of a church and headquarters for the Military Order of Saint James, on the site of an earlier hostel for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
The 16th century complex looks like a palace and is one of the country’s most important works in the Renaissance and Plateresque styles.
Its history since the days of the crusading knights has been chequered. Schools for vets, children and the ‘correction of ecclesiastics’ have been founded within it; army offices, a military prison and cavalry barracks have all been based within it, and most grimly, it served as the site of a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War.
Imprisoning as many as 20,000 republicans who were tortured and executed by Franco’s troops, it served as a symbol of repression in Leon. Fittingly today it has returned to its original purpose and is a high-end hotel, one of Spain’s many Paradors, offering exclusive accommodation in historic monuments.
The gorgeous and slightly off-camber Plaza Mayor in the Old Town and its surrounding alleyways hummed with early evening drinkers.
We joined them at two different but tiny bodegas, both tucked deep into the winding lanes, down stone stairs and under darkly wooden-beamed ceilings.
Platters of fresh bread, chorizo, Iberian jamon and olives were being handed around as tapas and liberally washed down with chilled white Albarino wine. We were made to feel immediately welcome and part of the crowd.
Leon is a charming place with a fascinating history and we greatly enjoyed our two days spent exploring and researching it.