León and Northern Castilla y León

Having left the guys at the Madrid airport, Matt rented a smaller car and headed northward toward León. He took the whole day to get there, stopping at three towns along the way. The first was Pedraza de la Sierra, about an hour north of Madrid.

The restored medieval castle at Pedraza de la Sierra.

Nesting storks are a ubiquitous sight across the north of Spain.

The main square or Plaza Mayor of Pedraza de la Sierra.

Some of the lovely medieval houses surrounding the Plaza Mayor . . .

. . . and the narrow streets throughout the town.

The second stop was Sepúlveda, a dozen kilometers to the north.

Set on the slopes between two hills, Sepúlveda has lots of steeply rising streets.

At the top of one of the hills is this beautiful Romanesque church.

Sepúlveda's main square is small but includes these overhanging houses forming a covered walkway.

The third stop was Santo Domingo de Silos, a famous medieval pilgrimage shrine.

The medieval church is quite striking from the outside, but it was closed for siesta and there wasn't time to wait for it to reopen.

Across the street from the church was this attractive hotel in a medieval building.

Matt was in León to do research on a medieval women's monastery that opened in the tenth century twenty kilometers or so north of León. It was called Santa María de Otero de las Dueñas, and a village soon grew up around the monastery. So on his first Sunday in the area, Matt drove out to the village to see what remained of the convent.

The former church of the convent, mostly rebuilt in the twentieth cnetury, is now the village's parish church.

All around the village are signs of its medieval past--note the blocked in doorway that shows how much lower the street level was then.

The convent was closed in the early nineteenth century, and not much remains except the wall that surrounded it, which still runs in a great loop through the village.

The village was fairly deserted on the Sunday morning, but Matt talked to one woman who said that he had arrived "just in time" to see the place.
At first he thought that he has misunderstood her, but she explained that most of the medieval monastery walls were being demolished to make room for a new housing development. Sure enough, the bulldozer had already knocked its way through the wall, and when Matt returned a few days later, most of it was already gone. Sadly, when Matt spoke with the mayor, he said that no archeological report had been done on the site.

Matt spent his weekdays in the archives in León. But the next Sunday he drove north, about an hour, to the city of Oviedo.

Oviedo is in the mountainous region called Asturias that is nicknamed the Switzerland of Spain.

Along the way is the site of this church of Santa Christina de Lena, built in the seventh century.

It rained most of the afternoon in Oviedo, but it was still a strikingly beautiful city. Here is the cathedral, left, and another church, right.

There are a few remnants of Oviedo's earlier days--between the eighth and the tenth
centuries, when most of Spain was Moorish, Oviedo was the capital of Christian Spain.

Oviedo's buildings are very attractive--and often painted in bright colors.

Beautiful Christmas cacti in bloom on these balconies.

León is a very nice city. It was founded by the Romans, and takes its name from the Roman legion stationed here. The walls from the Roman era have survived almost entirely intact, and still surround the old town. Matt was lucky enough to find a reasonable hotel across the street from the walls and the old town. Here are the views from the balcony of his hotel room. To the east (left) you can clearly see the old Roman walls and towers. To the west (right) you can see that some of the towers have been converted into houses, and you can see the top of the Gothic cathedral of León in the distance (it was about three blocks away).

The cathedral was built in the Gothic style in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The interior has beautiful stained glass windows also surviving from the Middle Ages.

The cloister ajoining the cathedral was built in the Renaissance in what is called the Flamboyant Gothic style.

Across a small square on the side of the cathedral are the cathedral's archives, where Matt did his research.

León's Plaza Mayor is a huge open space that is still elegant with its covered walkways all around its perimeter.

León has a large old town that was great fun to explore while admiring its old buildings and squares.

Here is a tower that was a fortified home in the Middle Ages.

Medieval sculpture still survives on the exterior of the church of San Isidoro. Equally spectacular are the ceiling frescoes in the crypt, where the kings and queens of León are buried. (For about a hundred years, from the middle of the eleventh century to the middle of the twelfth, León was the capital of the kingdom of León. When that kingdom merged with the kingdom of Castile to the east, the capital was moved to Burgos. But the region is still known as Castilla y León--Castile and Leon.)

This is a sheelanagig--a medieval image of a naked woman intended to frighten off evil spirits--here, on a column next to the entrance to the church of San Isidoro!

Nesting storks atop a Roman column in the old town of León.

Also in the old town, the former headquarters of the Knights of Santiago, a medieval military and religious order founded to fight in the Reconquista. This building and its cloister (right) date from the sixteenth century. It now houses the luxury hotel (parador) of León.

Also in León can be found one of the buildings of the early twentieth-century architect Antonio Gaudí (better known for
his buildings in his home town of Barcelona). This was built as a bank building, but clearly intended to evoke a medieval castle.

Every Sunday in the late afternoon across Spain, hundreds of people of all ages converge on the centers of their villages, towns, and cities, to walk around and chat. It is a custom called the paseo, and was very entertaining to watch. In León they walk up and down this pedestrian street, which becomes filled with crowds of families with small children running around, teenagers flirting, and old couples arm-in-arm.

Not far from León is the smaller city of Astorga, where there is also a Gaudí building. It is the local bishop's residence and also given a medieval fantasy look.

There is really no end to the medieval churches and monasteries in this part of Spain--and Matt had to see them all!

The church of San Miguel de Escalada--built in the tenth century in the Moorish style.

The church of San Pedro de la Nave--built in the sixth century by the Visigothic kings who ruled Spain before the Moorish conquest.

The cathedral of Sahagún--built in the twelfth century entirely out of brick.

The church of San Juan Bautista de Baños de Cerrato--built in the seventh century also by the Visigothic kings.

As Matt left this last church, he spotted an interesting sight: a man with his donkey and dog led a herd of sheep through the village.

The church of San Martín de Frómista--built in the eleventh century and a stop along the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.

The church of Santa Cecilia in Agilar de Campoo--built in the twelfth century with a graceful tower and portal.

Agilar de Campoo also had a cute old town--again, note the overhanging houses creating a covered walkway--and the ruins of a castle on the hill above the town.

One evening Matt was lucky enough to attend a concert of the traditional music of León--and see the colorful traditional costumes.

All in all, it was a great time spent in the region of León.

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