Travelogue Iberia 4: Leon

14 September 2013

With a 2 and a half hour (265km) drive from Santander to Leon, we decided that we would break the journey with a stop en route. Originally planning on breakfast in Santander before handing the apartment keys over at 11, we were bemused to find that we were likely the only people awake in the city at 10, let alone a supermarket shopkeep or open kitchen in sight! Fortunately we had our trusty chocolate mousse protein shakes on hand, so good humour was still intact as we hit the road at 11.

It’s quite a straightforward route along the A-67 South, then the A-231 West, both of which pass directly through a number of small towns. Consulting the Lonely Planet guide, we selected Aguilar Campoo and put foot on the journey to get there.

A small town of only 7700 people, Aguilar has been around forever and a day, being a settlement of the Cantabrians, the Romans and Visigoths, a bulwark during the Arab occupation in the 700s, and then being rebuilt, restored and expanded from 820 to become a very important town in the Middle Ages. King Alfonso X declared the site a Regal Town and the fiefdom of Aguilar de Campoo exercised jurisdiction over one of the most extensive territories of Castille at the time, stretching across current day Cantabria, Burgis and Palencia.

Long history aside, it’s a small town easy to circumnavigate on foot, best begun at the central Plaza de Espana where you can get a free local map. From the doorway of the tourist office you can already see 5 of the town’s 19 top sights! The most impressive of these is the Collegiate Church of San Miguel, elevated to the rank of Collegiate by Pope Paul III in 1541.

We had little interest in touring the town – and seeing the likes of its 120+ shields and coat of arms adorning palace fronts and house facades – until we had eaten, so we headed along the Paseo de la Cascajera running alongside the Rio Pisuerga which is lined with bars and cafés. We couldn’t find anywhere serving off menu – everything being pintxos and raciones, so we chose Nuevo del Rio to have a club sandwich (cheese, ham, egg, tuna) since it was the most substantial looking and ordered Cokes to accompany. The Cokes were served with a snack each – a long crunchy straw that looked like a springroll on the outside and turned out to have a prawn on the inside. Delicious! 

We’d studied the map and the Medieval Castle on the hill overlooking the town was the only thing we wanted to see, so we walked down the Calle Modesto Lafuente which took us to the foot. A short steep climb had us at the Chapel of Santa Cecilia at the base of the Castle’s much steeper hill, so we made do with a photo and moved back to the car.

Leon is gorgeous! We got lost as we entered the town and – frustrated by a series of pedestrian roads blocking us from where we thought we needed to be – parked the car first opportunity found the tourist office to be closed so couldn’t get a map, didn’t have a street address for our destination and couldn’t find anyone who could speak enough English to understand our request for a payphone (messages not going through on cell phones).. and we still weren’t put off the town in the slightest! 

We found help in a hotel where the receptionist spoke English, called our host to extract the street address and arrange our meeting, provided a tourist map and marked simplest route, easiest on foot through the old city. 

We had 15 minutes to kill so stopped in the plaza closest our destination, which is called the “wet district” because it has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in a very bar and restaurant intensive town! The bar we picked, at random, from the 12 or more choices clocked from our pivotal point in the centre of the small plaza, served our beer with a wedge of cheese and a strip of deep fried calamari each. Apparently this is a major cheese producing area, and the mild light white creamy cheese served bears testament that its indeed their specialty!

We were in top spirits when we met our host, Fran, some 20 minutes later, having arrived at our square to find that it’s equally beautiful to what else we’d seen of this wonderful old medieval town, with it’s authentic uneven cobbles on winding warren of streets, but with the added appeal of being alongside the monastery overlooking the central water fountain monument. A quiet square, with only 2 tabernas! 

Fran was very pleased to see us and offered to walk us back to the car so as to navigate us to closer free parking. This chore doubled as an impromptu tour since we’d managed to park all the way across town (still only a 10 minute walk) and we passed almost all of the major sites en route. Fran’s English is about as good as our Spanish (which is coming on quite nicely, thanks to the in-car tutorials), but we managed to communicate quite effectively with slow simple speak and animated hand gestures (and Google translate for absolute fallback).

It was quick ‘n easy to find our digs, now that we knew how, and a free parking right outside Burger King seemed a good omen.

Our apartment is incredible. All the finishes are shiny and new and this apartment is an absolute bargain and highly recommended on facilities and location for anyone visiting Leon! It’s enormous, with a living room (large kitchenette against the back wall, 4 seater granite table against the far wall, couch and big flat screen TV unit occupying the remaining space) as big as both our San Sebastian and Santander apartments combined! That, and a big bedroom also overlooking the square and a bathroom big enough to have a party in! 

But partying in town was likely to be more fun, so we headed out.

It was very early by local standards, being around 5pm, so we took the opportunity to go back to the Tourist Office (that had reopened from its 2-5 siesta) to get a map and cover some of the sights. The first was a neo-Gothic Gaudi building (Casa de Botines) right opposite the tourist office, which delighted me since I am Gaudi’s newest fan. 

Our whirlwind tour included all the Palacios (palaces), mercado (markets), plaza (squares) and Iglesias (churches) as well as a walk around the outside of the old city walls, admiring the merge of medieval inheritance with modern growth… and working up quite a thirst.

Beers are served in a variety of common sizes: corta can’t be much more than 100ml for €1.20, caña about 200ml for €1.60, cañon at 350ml for €2.20. They know about pints (pinta) but don’t stock the glasses because there is no demand. The only place that had was Molly Malone, which had Guinness pints as standard, for €2,50.

Leon follows the doctrine of free tapas tasters with drinks orders – no matter what size drink is ordered. We found caña to be optimal and spent the evening pub crawling:-
Miche – cheese and deep fried calamari
Cervesaria Gotica – baguette with cheese/jamon and jamon croquette
Molly Malone – corn, peanuts, olives and gum sweets
Jamon Jamon – sour dough, salchichon (greasy sausage), chorizo, cheese
Bar La Noria – deep fried mussels; patatas with jamon York (fried potato with wedges of boiled ham)
Enburidos Caseros – sourdough, chorizo, cecina (dried, uncooked, like biltong)
Nuevo Racimo De Oro – sourdough, chorizo, salchicon (and all served in a lovely cellar Bodega with original 2000 year old Romanesque walls!!)
Bacanal – homemade kettlefried crisps sprinkled with bacon
Taberna Orienta Media – chourizo server on a flaming skewer
Vinos Serveca – jamon and cheese on sourdough (seemed a bit dull after the rest)

We learned to pick and choose according to tapas offering. Bearing in mind we’re ordering about 175 ml of beer at a time at an average of about €1.50 a pop… It’s working out cheaper to feed and water here than at home! We can’t work out how they make any money from customers with the decadent offerings and generous portions of the tapas, but a local in the one bar said it’s a matter of bars being compelled to offer tapas to draw customers (locals flatly refuse to support tabernas that offer no free tapas). There is an endless number of options so competition is stiff despite the café terrado (party til dawn) lifestyle and the bigger and better the tapas, the more customers they attract. Especially the student market since Leon is also a major university town.

It would seem that this combination of choice, economy, locale and air of festivity has made Leon Spain’s bachelor and bachelorette destination of choice and we encountered several groups in custom t-shirts with a comically-dressed guest of “honour”.

For such an old town, steeped in religious history as it is, even the churches are good sports and the churchbells mercifully only start their Sunday morning tolling at 11am!