Travels through History – Northern Spain – Leon and the Holy Grail

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Leon:

The history of Leon starts with the Reconquest although The Romans had a settlement on the site in the first two centuries after Christ. As the Christian forces pushed the Moors further south, the Asturian king Ordono II moved his capital from Oviedo to Leon in 914. As more territory came under the city’s control, they split its administration between the city of Leon and the county of Castile. In 1035, Castile became a kingdom in its own right, with Burgos as the capital.

Leon is on the Way of St James pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. It is a very popular destination and stopping off point because of the Cathedral, built between 1205 and 1301. The North Tower and the extraordinary cloisters were completed later, in the 14th Century. The cathedral was built on some former Roman baths, built by the Legio VII Gemina, and these baths covered a larger area than the cathedral does.

Before entering the cathedral, I looked at the western facade with its huge Rose Window and two towers. Even from outside there appears to be a lot of windows. It’s interesting to work out where the load bearing of the towers and the detached nave is happening. The flying buttresses are substantial and I could only wonder how the architect had worked out how so much stained glass could be in place in such a large edifice.

Leon Cathedral has between 1,800 and 2,000 square metres of stained glass, depending on which source you trust, an area second only to Chartres cathedral in France. Rich red and gold colours bathe the interior in places. There’s an openness about the place, a strange way to describe the feeling that you can view most of the interior from wherever you are standing.

I would recommend visiting the cloisters as they are beautiful and peaceful. There’s still the hint of some frescoes which show how colourful the decoration must have been when first painted. I also visited the museum of religious art and would recommend this too, but if you have to choose between the two, I’d select the cloisters.     

The other major site of Leon is the Basilica of San Isidoro dating from the mid-12th Century and built into the city walls on its southern side. Before entering look at the two doorways on the western facade, whose reliefs are of the ‘Descent from the Cross’ and the ‘Sacrifice of Abraham’. Above the latter, visitors can spy San Isidoro riding a horse.

Fernando I, who united Leon and Castile in 1037, founded the basilica. It was built to house the bones of San Isidoro and act as a mausoleum for Fernando and his successors. The tombs of eleven kings and twelve queens are in the Panteon Real, a portico of the basilica. They painted Spanish Romanesque frescoes on the walls at the end of the 12th Century. A Christ Pantocrator in the dome and an agricultural calendar on an arch are still visible. A highlight of any tour of the treasury at the basilica is the Chalice of Doña Urraca, a jewel-encrusted onyx chalice which is alleged by some people to be The Holy Grail. The cup belonged to Urraca of Zamora, daughter of Ferdinand I of Leon, and has been in Leon since the 11th Century.

In March 2014, a book was published called The Kings of the Grail. This book claims the chalice, or part of the chalice, is the Holy Grail, and this led basilica staff to withdraw the chalice from display, because the crowds seeking to visit the museum were too large for the treasury to accommodate. The museum now displays the chalice in a separate room in the tower next to the old library at the very end of the guided tour of the Basilica Treasury. The room is not open to individual travellers.

The authors, Margarita Torres and José Ortega del Rio, claim they had traced the origins of the chalice to the early Christian communities of Jerusalem. Some recently discovered papers in a Cairo archive provided this information. The chalice was transported to Cairo by Muslim travellers and was later given to an emir on the Spanish coast. From there, the chalice came into the possession of King Ferdinand I of Leon, father of Urraca of Zamora, as a peace offering by a Moorish ruler from Al-Andalus. The dating suggests the chalice was made between 200 BC and 100 AD. Salah al-Din, known in the West as Saladin, was the main opponent of the crusaders in The Third Crusade. When his sister fell ill, he requested a piece of the grail be cut off and sent to him, so it would cure his sister, which it duly did. 

There’s plenty of sights outdoors in Leon. The train station is due west of the old city just over the River Bernesga. When you arrive in Leon station, it’s slightly confusing as the station is a terminus, so even long-distance trains from Barcelona / Irun / Bilbao heading to Galicia go out of the station the same way they came in, rather than going straight through.

Published by Julian Worker

Julian was born in Leicester, attended school in Yorkshire, and university in Liverpool. He has been to 94 countries and territories and intends to make the 100 when travel is easier. He writes travel books, murder / mysteries and absurd fiction. His sense of humour is distilled from The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and Midsomer Murders. His latest book is about a Buddhist cat who tries to help his squirrel friend fly further from a children's slide.

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