This is a bit backside forward, as we say round these parts. It’s the story of our most recent trip, but it’s planned as an epilogue to a book about Spain that I might get around to writing some time relatively soon. If I did, would you read it?
Long years have passed since our first encounter with a bottle of Léon, the cheap Asda wine that (in part, at least) inspired us to set off on our travels round Spain. In the meantime, we’d brought Daughter and Heiress into the world, I’d learnt passable Spanish, and the world had changed around us. By the time, this year, we prepared to finally take a trip to the city where the wine (at least for marketing purposes) came from, a majority of those qualified to vote in the United Kingdom on the matter had elected to take us out of Europe.
To be fair, that had happened the previous year, before our 2016 trip to Salamanca. However, by July 2017, the relevant notice to quit the Continent had been served, and a bizarre (at least to me) series of exploratory talks had taken place amongst the politicians.
This piece isn’t going to go into the politics of it – for any number of reasons, the simplest of which is you can read much better analyses elsewhere – but it did feel a bit odd, travelling in Europe when the UK government was essentially negotiating a divorce from a community of nations that, of course, included the country we were travelling in. Especially when, at the same time, the central government in Spain was grappling with the problem of the Catalans having decided to hold a referendum on October 1st to secede from the rest of the country – a referendum, one suspects, which many Castilian Spanish would feel was only encouraged by the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.
Leaving all that aside, it was the first trip to Spain we’d taken since Daughter and Heiress had gone off to university, and, as any parents of adult children will know, whether said children will continue to travel with you is dependent on a complex set of interrelated factors such as said adult child’s relationship status, alternative options involving mates, and the basic economics of a potential free holiday courtesy of the old folks.
Fortunately, the stars were all aligned in favour of her coming with us this time, but we knew that it might be the last time. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, our next trip might involve us visiting her on placement in Seville, but that’s another story.
If the planets were in the right configuration for D & H’s company, however, they seemed initially firmly set against us making it to Léon. We’d arranged to fly out on the Sunday morning red-eye to Madrid, only to be rudely awakened from our early night by a text from Easyjet telling us our flight had been cancelled. Out of internet range in our flat, we had to wait till the morning to go home and look up alternatives, convinced that by then they’d all be gone.
It made me remember how we’d got as close to Léon as Logroño, many years ago, only to fail to find a bus to the place: it started to feel as if we’d never get there, in the depths of that sleep-deprived night.
Fortunately, although Queasy’s flights were booked up for the next four days, we managed to grab a place on an Iberia Express flight the next day, and, despite increased anxiety levels brought on by the change of plan, found ourselves in Léon by nightfall that same day.
The first thing to say about Léon is that its wine shops and bars held no evidence of a wine of the same name. There is a nearby wine growing region, and you can certainly get the local stuff, but it goes by the name of the local grape – Prieto Picudo. More on wine (and food) presently, but a pause to say thanks to whoever in Asda’s wine labelling department, all those years ago, came up with the wheeze of calling a decently drinkable plonk after such a fine city, and giving us something to aim at.
Because Léon is more than worth a visit. About as northerly as you get before leaving Castile for good, it has the feeling of a hill town: not in the sense of being built on one, but more in the way its rustic charm references the cordilleras to the north. There is lots of evidence of wooden beams holding up ceilings and walls, a bit like the quasi-mock Tudor we’d encountered in the hills beyond Salamanca, the previous year; lots, too, of references in the menus and delis to produce ‘de la montaña.’
Another self-conscious touch of rusticity was in the hotels and hostals, many of whom choose, like our accommodation, to style themselves ‘posadas,’ or inns. In the case of the one we stayed at, La Posada Regia, (Regidores, 9 – 11 24003 – Léon; www.regialeon.com) this meant wooden floors in the rooms, oak beams on the roof, and a general décor that Hemingway would have expected to come across on one of those fishing trips of his.
I mean that in a good way, by the way. Located near the action but in a (relatively) quiet street on the edge of the old town, the two rooms we stayed in were absolutely gorgeous – roomy, with modern bathrooms and all the facilities D & H in particular craved, like wi-fi: it had pleasant, multilingual staff and a friendly, inn-like ambience. Some of the otherwise positive reviews on TripAdvisor had moaned about noise, but although our second floor windows looked out onto the main street and a courtyard restaurant, the windows were modern and shut out any disturbance.
I suppose the only criticism might be that there wasn’t air conditioning, and we arrived in the middle of a heatwave, but hell, I’d put up with sweating the night away in return for all the other good things this place offered at a more than reasonable price.
So far as attractions are concerned, Léon has, of course, the obligatory cathedral plus a few extra chapels and other religious buildings, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you can knock yourself out. The other main building to visit of note is Casa Botines, built by a young Gaudi on a rare excursion from his native Barcelona. This is worth a visit, and by the time you get there might be even more so, because it had only opened earlier in 2017 when we went, and was still a work in progress.
If you do go, drop the few extra euros for the guided tour version, because you won’t get much otherwise – a static exhibition about how and why and for which bozos the building was built, a couple of examples of its life as a textile warehouse and a bank, and a basement gallery, which at the time of our visit, was to be fair hosting a fairly startling set of Goya’s etchings.
The guided tour, however, takes you up to the third floor, where there are not only more significant artworks from contemporaries of Gaudi, but examples of flats on the upper floors that the master architect had designed himself, right down to the window openings and the door handles.
Apart from that, there’s not much in the way of things to go and gawp at in Léon. There are some caves, but you’d need a car to get there. Ditto any vineyards, although they’re pushing the nearby wine regions hard at you, along with the gastronomy. The other big tourist magnet for them, of course, is the city’s being on the Camino de Santiago, so they’re used to feeding and watering hungry and thirsty pilgrims.
And that’s where Léon really scored for us. It has all the usual favourites of Castilian cookery – its own version of cocido, all sorts of stews including carrillada, the ever-present fish dishes like tuna, bonito, and gambas, and good local tatties to go into things like the patatas bravas/con alioli you’d get most other places.
Add to that, though, the local specialities. They have their own version of morcilla, which, visually, doesn’t look much (blood sausage usually ends up as, well, some sort of sausage, but here is served up as a sort of black slurry) but is well worth a try. They’re proud of their cecina, a cured, smoked beef, and of course the poor old piggie has ended up in local versions of chorizo, jamón, and so on. The local manchego’s good, too, although be warned – when they say it’s curado, it’s had a proper length of time to sit down and think about what it’s done, so it’s plenty strong.
And the wine? Well, it’s a tale of two halves for me, because there are two regions which Léon lays claim to: the wines from the immediate area, Tierra de Léon, and the denominación of Bierzo, still within Léon province, but off to the west. To me, on an admittedly limited (no, really, we were only there for five nights, remember?) amount of research, the stuff from Bierzo won hands down.
Having said that, in the wider wine territory of Castilla y Leon, bear in mind there’s Ribera del Duero and even the eastern edge of Rioja, so you won’t peg out from lack of good red wine in the bars round town. The wider Tierra also includes the area known as Rueda, and I had three of the best glasses of Spanish white wine I’d ever had, on consecutive nights here.
As for where to eat and drink this stuff, again, you’re spoilt for choice. The old town isn’t perhaps as historic-looking as some other cities we’ve been to, but there are plenty of narrow streets opening into squares with tapas bars and restaurants ready to serve you at the drop of a napkin.
Key hunting grounds are the areas marked on the street plan as Santa Marina and San Martín and the usual rules of good tapas hunting apply: the closer to the cathedral, the main drag (the imaginatively named Calle Ancha, or Broad Street) or in the Plaza Mayor, the higher the prices and lesser the value.
In passing, Léon’s is the only tourist street map I’ve ever been handed which carries an advert for a brothel: we decided ‘Latin Lover’ – Avenida Alcalde Miguel Castaño, 114, if you’re interested – wasn’t for us. So we never found out what tu copa … tu ambiente … meant in that context. You can probably get it on TripAdvisor though.
Sticking to food and drink, you could have a very fancy meal at Mercado (Las Varillas, 3) – a very imaginative twist on the traditional stuff, if that’s your kind of thing. However, we found the traditional much more to our taste in places like Plaza de San Martín, which is next door to the Plaza Mayor, but much, much livelier and more atmospheric. Do go to the main square for the market on Thursdays, though.
Going a little bit more off-piste, you can eat and drink where the locals do in Plaza Santa María del Camino. A slightly rough and ready looking place with cobbles with grass growing through them rather than the usual spotless flagstones, this square hosts three bars in opposite corners, none of them with any airs and graces or translated menus, but some of the best food and drink we had in our five nights there.
If the mention of brothels and rough and ready bars puts you off, though, don’t be. There was no red light district we ever came across, and we ranged pretty widely across the centre of town; and we felt as safe in Plaza Santa María del Camino as we’d done in any other Spanish city. Which is to say, very safe.
To sum up, Léon was well worth the wait and the fractured travel arrangements. Despite being on the Camino de Santiago, it’s pretty well off the beaten tourist track: apart from the occasional northern European types we’d see striding purposefully along the Calle Ancha of a morning, walking stick (or is it pole?) in hand, one more cathedral ticked off their list, the only other Anglophone person we regularly encountered was a stressed Irishwoman who seemed to be spending her entire holiday taking her children to the local branch of chocolatier Valor to shout at them.
That may make it more the thing for us, (the lack of tourists, I mean, not the shouty Irishwoman) but it is, be warned, less geared up for non-Spanish speakers than the bigger cities like Barcelona and, now, Madrid. When we stayed there, in July, it was at the edge of a heatwave affecting the whole peninsula, and temperatures were in the mid thirties. However, that was, we were told, unusual, and I suspect it might well be a chilly place still most springs.
However, as part of a tour of northern Castile, it would be a pity to leave out Léon. In a longer trip I would probably combine it with a visit to one of our favourite places, Salamanca, contrasting its more rustic (that word again) charms with the dreaming-spires opulence of Spain’s Oxford.
All things must pass. The bottle of plonk that inspired our journey has long faded into Asda’s back catalogue, overtaken by rebranding and the supermarkets’ relentless search to bring us cheap wine at least cost to their profit margins. Daughter and Heiress has grown from a tiny infant, to a cheery blonde tot the Spanish waiting staff doted on, to a self-possessed, green-eyed young woman with her own ideas and an amused tolerance for her eccentric mop n’ pop (at least, I think so).
Spain, having endured its share of terrorist atrocities both from ETA and Islamic extremists, now faces constitutional issues of its own, not to mention the continuing economic woes that have dogged the western world since the bankers we trusted our money with blew half of it away on dodgy deals. The United Kingdom, having set itself on a path to divorce from the rest of the EU, remains mired in a set of problems that none of the politicians seem to have seen coming, or now to know what to do about.
For the Redoubtable Mrs F and me, the only constant is likely to be change: our little one having left the nest, our respective day jobs starting to bank round in the long approach to retirement, a house move at some point on the cards. With all of that going on, there’s only one sure thing: as long as we can, we’re going to keep exploring the Spanish mainland. Cadiz is definitely on the radar, and the trip to Léon gave me the beginnings of a plan: a heretic’s journey, going backwards from Santiago de Compostela against the tide of conventional pilgrims.
Destination? I’ll come back to you on that one, but you can bet your bottom euro it’ll be somewhere in Spain, and food, wine and a damned good time will be involved.