The Camino de Santiago stretches across Spain and France. Caministas, those who walk St. James’ Way, begin at various points. Fordham’s Caministas began their pilgrimage in the city of León, the capital of the similarly named province approximately 180 miles from Santiago de Compostela. After settling in at our hostal, Pensión de la Torre, we were treated by our culinary-cultured leaders, Dr. Gyug and Dr. Meyers, to a delicious dinner of raciones, including bread, salad, asparagus, mushrooms with cheese, grilled squid and vegetables, peppers, and tinto de verano (red wine of the summer). Some of us topped off the meal with some chocolate-covered churros before hitting the hay.
The next day was Ascension Thursday, so some students went to Mass in Santa María de León Cathedral. Originally constructed during the ninth century, shortly after the founding of the kingdom of León, the cathedral was rebuilt in 1084 by Bishop Pelayo, who added a palace, library, and hospice to the original Romanesque structure. To attract the increasing number of Caministas during the twelfth century, a grander Romanesque church, some of whose remains can still be seen today, was built. The Gothic beauty that stands in the city today, however, was constructed in the thirteenth century. Begun at the request of Alfonso IX of León in the early thirteenth century, construction was completed relatively quickly by 1302 thanks to generous funding from the Leonese monarchy and papacy. Popes even offered craftsmen indulgences as a part of their labor contracts, which can still be viewed in the cathedral’s well-preserved archives. As students toured the cathedral and its museum, they quickly saw why Santa María had been nicknamed the “House of Light.” The cathedral contained numerous stained-glass windows, 60% of which were the original medieval works, that depicted nature, kings, and Biblical history.
We then saw the city’s Roman remains. León, whose name comes from the Roman military unit “legion,” was originally an encampment for Roman soldiers protecting the nearby mines at Ponferrada from Germanic tribes, namely the Suebi. The cathedral was built atop Roman baths, and some of the original Roman walls still stand, though most were destroyed during raids by the Islamic vizier Almanzor in the eleventh century. We also saw the city’s medieval walls, which were built in the fourteenth century as the city expanded south into the region dubbed “Burgo Nuevo,” near the city’s Jewish district.
Following a quick lunch break, we then toured León’s other major ecclesiastical institution—the Basílica de San Isidoro. This church obtained its name in the eleventh century, when king Fernando I of León, Castile, and Galicia, received the remains of the Church Father Isidore as tribute from the Islamic ruler of Seville. San Isidoro was the royal chapel, and significantly expanded in the late eleventh century under the patronage of Fernando’s daughter Urraca and in the twelfth century under his similarly named daughter-in-law Queen Urraca. We were able to see some of the tombs of León’s royal family when we visited the Panteón de los Reyes underneath the basilica. This royal crypt also had some impressive wall paintings and sculptures of the Labours of the Months.
Emblematic of the struggle between secular rulers and the Church during the Middle Ages, San Isidoro and León Cathedral often vied for power and authority. The basilica had the upper hand until the crowns of León and Castile definitively united in 1230 under Fernando III. San Isidoro was no longer the royal chapel, because rulers of the combined kingdom moved their court south. Relations, not coincidently, between the basilica and cathedral became much more cordial, as the latter became the dominant power in the region.
Like the cathedral, San Isidoro also had a museum, and we were excited to see the Chalice of Doña Urraca. This golden cup, given to Fernando’s daughter, was reputed to be the legendary Holy Grail, often associated with King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Our tour of the basilica left us with quite an appetite, so Dr. Gyug and Dr. Meyers offered to make dinner if we obtained the ingredients at the local supermarket. Using their impressive culinary skills, the two whipped up a scrumptious spaghetti-like dish called puttanesca alongside fresh fruit (grapes and watermelon) and cheese. Some students then went to Compline at San Isidoro before the night’s end. In short, Fordham’s Caministas had a great start to their modern-day pilgrimage.