Canadians on the Camino, Day 18: León’s cathedral of light

León's gothic cathedral contains wonderful stained glass
León’s gothic cathedral contains wonderful stained glass

(September 21)

We ended yesterday in the town of Mansilla de las Mulas but today we decided to take a cab into Leon, 18 kilometres down the road. That spares us the walk along a busy highway into the city and will allow us to spend a full day in León and to visit its famous cathedral.

Modern pilgrims

Martha has been having more muscle spasms in her back and we think a day of rest is in order. There is quite a lot of chatter on the web, in blogs and among pilgrims about how one should (or not) walk the Camino. Some say it is inappropriate to take a bus or cab or ever to send luggage ahead, that somehow that cheapens the experience.

We have been using a guidebook by a British writer named John Brierley and here is what he has to say: “If the idea of taking public transport seems like heresy it might be useful to ask yourself – why not? Do you judge other pilgrims who take the bus as ‘pilgrim cheat’ and dishonest in some way? Can we know all the circumstances to be able to judge the actions and motivations of others?”

Most pilgrims will have taken one or more jet flights to get to Spain and then a high speed train or bus to get to their starting destination along the Camino.  It is rather odd that, given these modern modes of transport, they would then develop a self-righteous aversion to someone’s taking a bus or cab into or out of a busy city.

Cabbing it to León

When I call the cab this morning a guy named Juan tells me that we should wait at the Camino sign in the town square near our hotel in Mansilla and he will be there in 20 minutes. He is true to his word and soon we are in his taxi passing pilgrims along the road, some of whom we recognize, bent under their packs and walking into central León through its suburbs.

The streets in the old section of León are crowded with people doing a bicycle ride for charity and Juan has to go well out of his way.  Our hostel is found on a small pedestrian street and Juan has a difficult time getting us close to it, but he does so with patience and in good humour. By late morning we are installed in a bare but clean room in a building just inside the old city walls. After a quick check of our email using their Wi-Fi, we are ready to explore.

León’s Gothic cathedral

León’s cathedral, built in the 13th century, and constructed more quickly than most, is one of the most famous in Europe. It is a pure example of Gothic style whose vaulted and buttressed arches allow for more soaring structures with thinner walls and a lot more windows than were possible in the earlier styles of construction. The church features 125 large stained glass windows and another 57 smaller round ones and their artistic quality is stunning.

For only a few Euros, we get to spend hours there using an informative self-guided audio tour. We learn that this cathedral and others in the Gothic style were built in a way that makes the best possible use of light at different times of day.

Martin Sheen’s hotel  

Later we visit what we think is a church and cloister at the Convent of San Marcos.  Our research obviously has been faulty. We find when we arrive that it has long ago been turned into a luxury spot called the Parador, well known now for being the hotel at which Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) purchased lodging for himself and three of his fellow pilgrims in the film The Way.  The origins of San Marcos date back to the 12th century when it began as a hospital and shelter for pilgrims travelling the Camino. It is an architectural jewel of the Renaissance.

Franco’s prison

The concierge at the Parador says that we can visit the ground floor of the old cloister but that the adjoining church is closed and the remaining artifacts are now contained in a city museum. The cloister is impressive and contains good signage in both Spanish and English. San Marcos mirrors the tumultuous history of this region and of the country.

For example, the arched cloister and its adjoining rooms have been used to house soldiers, as a barn for a horse stud farm, and by the dictator Francisco Franco as a prison and torture chamber. Between July 1936 and the end of 1940, an estimated 30,000 prisoners passed through the cells. Many of the 3,000 deaths in the province of Leon due to repression occurred in the dungeons of San Marcos.

Lovely city

Nearby, we also walk along the Rio Barnesega which runs through the city. We are impressed by the parks, pathways, promenades and flower beds, as well as the numerous pedestrian bridges. León is really quite a lovely city.

A metaphor for life

While walking its streets and plazas, we encounter a number of pilgrims who we have met on the trail and in hostels and restaurants, including our friends Cathy, Juan and Teri from California. We fear we may not see each other again because Martha and I are going to leap frog ahead of them. We comfort one another with assurances that we will all meet again at journey’s end. This is kind of a metaphor for life and all relationships, is it not?

Taking the bus

Tomorrow we are going to bus the equivalent of a two-day day hike along the road (it takes all of 45 minutes) because we want to arrive in Santiago by the first weekend in early October. We plan to stay there for a few days so that we can visit with relatives of our son-in-law. We believe it best to arrive for a weekend because they work during the week.


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