Leon’s Cathedral

I usually like to mix text and pictures, but it seemed a shame to just put up a couple of photos of Leon’s beautiful cathedral. So this post will be dedicated to photos. At first sight the front appears plain, but the three arched entrances are decorated with statues, and the doors are carved.

Once past the ticket office, and the barrier where you show your ticket and are handed an audio guide, you get your first look at the stained glass. Moving further, you realize that the whole building, sanctuary and chapels alike, is more glass than stone.

But I spent nearly as much time in the body of the cathedral, admiring the choir stalls – including the misericords.

Unlike Santiago’s cathedral, its lines hidden by decoration upon decoration, Leon’s stonework has been left in soaring austerity. And in one of the chapels behind the high altar is a rare statue of a pregnant Mary. I apologise for the quality of the photo – I was shooting through a grill.


Leon Got Popular


The facade of Leon’s historic parador

October 16-19, 2015: Of course, Leon has always been an important stop on the Camino de Santiago, which explains its magnificent cathedral and the elaborate plateresque facade of the building that now houses the parador, and was once the headquarters of the Order of Santiago, responsible for caring for the pilgrims. (Pilgrims today may be footsore, and the Camino is not without its risks, but it was far more dangerous, and pilgrims much less well-equipped, in the Middle Ages. They had to walk back home, too.) Leon has also served as both a royal and a provincial capital. But the popularity I have in mind is as a tourist attraction. I previously visited in the spring of 2004, and remember having the cathedral pretty much to myself. Indeed, my photos of the outside show just a scattering of people. Not any more: the outside was busy, people queued to get in, and the inside seemed full despite its size.

In 2004 I traveled along the coast on the slow commuter trains and loved the scenery. This time I rode in Preferente class on a fast ALVIA, traveling inland. Preferente class was plenty comfortable, and mostly empty, but I found a surprise when I boarded. On the floor by my seat was a Fodor’s guide to Barcelona and a small, stuffed black shoulder bag. I thought at first that a seat mate must have gone to lunch and would return to claim them, but no. When it became obvious that the owner had disembarked without them I handed them to the conductor when he finally appeared, along with an explanation on my phone, but it was a chilling reminder to check your belongings when you get off a train, not just a plane.


The parador’s cloister

Last time I had admired the parador’s elaborate facade from outside, and visited the attached church and museum. Now I was looking forward to staying inside, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. For one thing, the parador was a bit of a trek from everything else I wanted to see, and anywhere else I might have wanted to eat – better to do the walk once to see the parador and stay in the old town. Then, the rest of the building really didn’t live up to the outside. The rooms right behind the facade may be lovely. Mine was in the “old” section to the left, fronting the river. Aside from the door and window it was quite plain, with somewhat battered furniture, a decrepit carpet and a bathroom in need of renovation. A third section to the right of the facade looked like a motel, and probably housed tour groups and pilgrims. The food was overpriced and not very good. The staff on the small reception desk were overworked and so curt as to be almost rude. I did get to wander round the cloisters whenever I chose, although part of the upstairs section stayed full of tables for assorted functions. The view into the choir stalls in the upper part of the church was excellent, and I enjoyed hanging out in the bar, where the food was better than in the dining room, but I think I would have been happier staying for a second time in the Posada Regia.


My room was behind the left hand tree

 I was revisiting Leon for the cathedral, as I had heard that the stained glass had been cleaned since my first visit. All 1,800 square meters had indeed been meticulously cleaned and looked wonderful. Then, as with other Spanish cathedrals, the choir stalls were elaborately carved and fascinating. I actually visited three times. The first time I went round with the excellent audio guide. The second time I went round with binoculars and my camera. The third time I just enjoyed being there. (I have so many photos of the cathedral I’m going to do a separate post on it.)

The other building I very much wanted to revisit was the Basilica San Isadoro. Not for the basilica, but for the associated museum and royal burial chamber. Photographs are not allowed, alas, but the twelfth century frescoes in the burial chamber were as engaging as I remembered, and the treasures in the museum as exquisite. I visited the Basilica on a Sunday, and when I reluctantly left, I found a river of women in pink T-shirts processing along the far side of the plaza. It seemed that Leon was honoring Breast Cancer Awareness on a different schedule to Pau.

Leon is also home to one of Gaudi’s buildings, the Casa Botines, a neo-Gothic structure quite different from his more famous Modernisme projects in Barcelona. Wandering the streets near the old town I found several other interesting buildings, along with fountains and sculptures.

The ubiquitous St. George on Casa Botines


Pleased With Pamplona

October 13-16, 2015: Pamplona, to me, has always (and only) meant a testosterone-fueled spectacle I would go out of my way to avoid, not to mention associated alcohol-fueled day-and-night partying, ditto. But the largely useless guide to the Basque country I was carrying included Pamplona, and when I skipped the lengthy information on the Running of the Bulls, the town sounded quite attractive. The Running of the Bulls was long over, as was the smaller autumn festival. It was only an hour by bus from San Sebastian, and a direct ALVIA train to Leon would take four hours, an hour less than the Intercity from San Sebastian. Then I found a good rate on an upmarket (for me) hotel and clicked “buy”.
Although two days would probably have been long enough, I did not regret my choice. Even the bus ride was worthwhile, although I usually avoid buses (my luggage is out of sight and I can’t move around). I had not realized that the whole trip would be through scenic mountains. Probably it also ran through Basque nationalist territory. A couple of times we pulled off the freeway to pause briefly for potential passengers before rejoining the main road, but once we ventured further away to a small Alpine town, where I saw plenty of Basque flags and slogans. To me it seemed more Austrian than Spanish, underlining the differences between the Spanish regions.

The Pamplona Cathedral Hotel gave me a large room with an excellent view, but was on the far northern edge of the old town, while the bus and train stations were well south. Plenty of good views were on offer elsewhere, as a long stretch of the old ramparts was accessible. At one point it enclosed a large grassy area and a fortification. While I had read that swans, ducks and geese inhabited the protected area, I was stunned to see a deer posed at the edge of the fort.

While the distant views of the mountains were good, the foreground views were arguably even better, as the town was amazingly well provided with interesting buildings. Plenty of churches of course, as it is an early stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago (wonder what the pilgrims do during the Running of the Bulls?), although aside from the cathedral they were all closed when I stopped by. Imposing gates, including a couple for the pilgrims. And lots of secular buildings too, some fronting narrow alleys, and some set back around the beautiful Plaza del Castillo. Cafes ringed the square, but so did free benches, occupied by the town folk when the town came alive around 6:00 pm. (Just as we were losing the warmth of the afternoon sun: a schedule that makes sense in the south in the summer makes less in the north as winter approaches.)

Besides the views, the buildings, and the cathedral, the single biggest surprise was in the museum. Aside from the carved capitals I had missed in the cathedral’s cloister, the museum housed a collection of large and remarkably well preserved Roman mosaics. Just stunning. I went round twice. I am a big fan of mosaics, and Pamplona would have been worth a visit just for these. 

 I ate well in Pamplona, too. The breakfast buffet at my Relais et Silence hotel was way too expensive for someone who only wanted coffee, orange juice and yoghurt (muesli would have been nice, but not essential). I found a local bakery just down the street that stocked plain yoghurt, made an excellent cappuccino and squeezed me delicious fresh orange juice. Breakfast with the locals – when the woman perched next to me finished her coffee and carbs she moved behind the counter to help with serving. People dropped in for their own carbs, including one elderly woman who cleaned them out of churros, the pastry twists dipped into chocolate. While churros and chocolate are decidedly Spanish, I also saw people on the street carrying baguettes, reminding me off France, just across the mountains. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish, but on my last morning I typed a thank you note into the Translate app on my phone, which was well received.

I lunched on tapas at a place further down the street, but thought I was going to have less luck with dinner. I set out, on a freezing cold evening, headed for the Bar Gaucho, recommended in my guide book and online, but it was mobbed. I wandered into a couple of other places, but the tapas didn’t appeal. Then I lucked into the Bodegon Sarria (a choice highly approved of by the helpful woman at my hotel). Besides tables at the front for tapas eaters, it had tables at the back for those ordering from the menu. I snagged a table, ordered something that looked like vegetables, and the always reliable shrimp in garlic. The something vegetable turned out to be baby fava beans with slivers of Iberica ham. Absolutely delicious. So good I went back my last night to eat it again, this time with a half order of Iberica ham, to which I could easily become addicted. I had forgotten that Thursday night was cheap tapas and wine night, and the old town was packed. Hurrying back to the warmth of my hotel after dinner, I noted students not just standing outside the cafes, but sitting on the very cold pavement.

The other night I ate in my hotel, mostly in solitary state. The meal served to remind me that I am not a big fan of the latest cuisine. The tomato salad included foam, sardines and sugar. The hake, cooked at 45 degrees, was accompanied only by a little sauce. The cheese balls that constituted dessert were encased in a black current crust and came with ice cream and more sugar. It was all edible, but I preferred the Bodegon Sarria.


October 11-13, 2015: Maybe I would have liked San Sebastian better if I hadn’t just visited Biarritz. Maybe I would have liked it better if I hadn’t carelessly arrived on a holiday weekend. Maybe I would have liked it better in better weather. And maybe I would have been more willing to stay for my planned five nights if the building housing my carefully chosen pension hadn’t been wrapped in scaffolding which would put workmen right in front of my windows and able to look in as soon as the holiday was over. But maybe not.
Let’s take those in order. I had loved Biarritz because of the rocks and the waves, and to lesser extent for the ocean-front buildings. San Sebastian is famous for its semi-circular bay and its golden sands. The bay is, obviously, enclosed by headlands, but they turned out to be a lot further apart than I expected. The bay is fronted by a promenade, but there are precious few places along its length to get so much as a cup of coffee. I did eat lunch at the Cafe de la Concha, but it was a grey day with precious little to look at. Beyond the promenade is a two lane road, and then a solid phalanx of apartment buildings, and hotels pretending to be apartment buildings – nothing so crass as a sign on the seaward side – mostly of uniform blandness. Thanks to the weather it was pointless to go up the headlands, as there would have been no view.

Holiday time at a seaside resort is precisely the kind of situation I take pains to avoid. Unfortunately, I was planning the Spanish leg of this trip at the last minute, and missed this holiday. Not that I’m sure how I would have avoided it if I had known. I understand that San Sebastian is very popular, but on this weekend it was slammed, and very loud. The old town was just not big enough for all the people who wanted to visit, and getting a table in one of the cafes required an eagle eye and a ruthless persistence. I totally abandoned any notion of eating tapas in the old town, and ate in Gros, the quieter area just across the river where I was sleeping.

The day I arrived was grey but dry. The next day the rain held off long enough for me to walk most of the length of the promenade and back, but a downpour arrived shortly after lunch and stayed for the rest of the day. By this time I was trying to remember why I had planned five nights in the town. I think I had had thoughts of day trips, and of food, but I was no longer feeling very enthusiastic about either. The scaffolding outside my window was the final straw.

All was not gloom, I had one very enjoyable evening. Arriving early for tapas at Bodega Donostierra I shared a table with a young Australian couple who had been traveling along the coast and were now headed south for Barcelona and Andalusia. When it became obvious that there was a long line of people hungrily eyeing our space I suggested having a drink somewhere else, and they introduced me to a gin bar local friends had shown them the night before.

I never expected to find a gin bar fascinating, but the Spanish have raised the making of a gin and tonic to a fine art. First, there is the choice of gin. I always thought Gordons was just fine, but no. We discussed the flavor profiles: spicy, floral, lemony, etc. That settled (I wound up drinking Hendricks), the bar tender (I feel he deserves a more elevated title), produced large balloon glasses which would be filled to the brim with sizable ice cubes. I have always felt that ice just diluted the alcohol, but these glasses held enough ice the cubes kept each other from melting. Assorted petals and peels went into the glasses, depending on the gin chosen, the gin, and something that behaved like dry ice, followed by the ice cubes. Finally, the tonic, poured ceremonially from on high. All three drinks tasted different, and all three were very good.

So, that was fun, but the Australians left town the next day, the rains came down, and the workmen were due in the morning. I consulted my reservation, and established that I should be able to cancel without penalty, since I would stay two nights. This took a call to booking.com, but was resolved without too much difficulty. So, where next? I could have just moved to another hotel in San Sebastian, but nothing with availability in my price range appealed and I was ready to leave.

Thanks to previous difficulties with the train system, I had no onward transport booked. Back when I planned the Spanish leg, I had found RENFE trains across northern Spain, although not along the coast, where the situation hadn’t improved since 2004: slow commuter trains that meant a San Sebastian to Leon trip realistically took two days. (I had a reservation at the parador in Leon, I wasn’t going to skip that.) But when I tried to book the trains in England, all but Madrid to Barcelona had disappeared. I sent a somewhat panicked email to Mark Smith, the guru behind the wonderful seat61.com site, and he replied that a high speed Valladolid to Leon train was in the works, and just wait. I waited a long time, and when the train I wanted finally showed up around the Pau-Bayonne stage I decided to keep waiting to buy my tickets until I got to San Sebastian. So, I could go anywhere a reasonable distance from San Sebastian that also had a good train connection to Leon. Nowhere along the coast qualified, because of those slow commuter trains. Where else?


Beautiful Biarritz

October 8 and 10, 2015: Biarritz. Seaside resort par excellence. Grande dame of the Belle Epoque. So not my kind of place. And yet, I had a wonderful day there. So good I thought about staying there instead of Bayonne if I were to revisit the French Basque country – at least until I saw the prices in the cafes.
I’m not fond of resorts, and I don’t much care for beaches – I have mile upon mile of golden sands just a couple of hours drive from my house, and I rarely make the drive. I no longer plan to visit tropical beaches on trips to Asia, unless I am really, really tired. But I love Nice – in the off-season, only in the off-season! – and I loved Biarritz. I don’t think it’s just because they’re French. Nice is a great town to visit quite apart from its (pebbly) beach, on which I have never set foot. And it’s a short bus or train ride away from lots of other compelling destinations.

Biarritz isn’t a particularly good base – Bayonne is better – and I didn’t care over much for the town, although there are a number of interesting buildings along the seafront. But the day I visited the sky was blue and the wind was strong, and there were enough rocks along the coastline to produce plenty of wave action, and that’s what I enjoyed. Since I visited the first time on a weekday in October, the ocean-front walkways weren’t crowded – I found the crowds a couple of blocks inland, on the shopping streets. When I went back on a Saturday, on a calm day, there were many fewer breakers and many more people. Since I was back in town to visit the Asiatica Museum I didn’t mind too much.

The bus from Bayonne dropped me outside the T.I., and I headed down hill to the ocean, roughly in the middle of the promenade. Walking north, at first I was right on the edge of land, but then, after climbing rather a lot of steps, I wandered under wind-blown trees to eventually arrive at a lighthouse and a welcome cafe. Public transport didn’t reach that far, so I walked back into town for lunch (forgettable) before continuing south, finding rocky headlands, one crowned with a Madonna statue, and a small fishing port where I could walk out on the jetties among the waves.

My visit to the Asiatica Museum was also enjoyable, although photographs weren’t allowed because a previous visitor had abused the privilege. Most of the artifacts were south Asian, with some Chinese ivories, and Chinese and Japanese porcelain, and some of the pieces were said to be unique. As in Turin I was surprised to find a number of early Tibetan thangkas and bronzes. Afterwards I indulged in a crepe de citron and coffee in one of the cafes overlooking the beach. 


Basing in Bayonne

October 6-11, 2015: Bayonne, besides possessing plenty of interesting old buildings and a Basque Museum, makes a good base for the French Basque country. When I stayed there in 2004 I spent more time day-tripping than in town, visiting Pau, St. Jean-de-Luz on the coast, and St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the mountains. Having already stayed in Pau, and having not especially admired St. Jean-de-Luz, this time I visited St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Biarritz, and Bidart.
Rick Steves, the American travel guru, recommends basing in St. Jean-de-Luz. I suppose that might make sense if you had a car and were using the same base for France and Spain, but for someone using public transport it makes no sense at all. It is not even part of the Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne bus network, which offers a day pass for a mere two euro, and if you’re taking the train to Spain you have to change in Irun or Hendaye. Then, seaside resorts don’t usually interest me, although I had a wonderful time in Biarritz this trip.

Neither the hotel nor AirBnB offerings in Bayonne were inspiring, so I opted for closeness to the train station and stayed at the Ibis Styles. The rather decrepit hotel I had used in 2004 had closed, and the building which I think had housed it looked ready for demolition. The Ibis was cheap and cheerful but had horrible wifi, and if I wanted to eat well I had to cross the bridge to the old town. (I got plenty of use out of the cheap bus passes.) The hotel sent me to the Bistro St. Cluque, which was conveniently close when it rained, but I found the food at best average. This was sad, as when I checked my old website I saw that it was the bistro I had very much enjoyed in 2004. (My new favorite was La Chistera, under the arcades across the river.)

Two wide rivers meet in Bayonne, and plenty of water was flowing under the several bridges. The Basque Museum was on the riverfront across from the main part of the old town, and kept me occupied for a couple of hours. Farming implements and stone crosses on the ground floor were succeeded by china and furniture further up, and then by information on Bayonne’s history as a port. Nothing on the Basque independence movement, although there was some information on Basque identity. A temporary exhibition informed me that rugby had become an important sport in the area at the beginning of the 20th century, but the permanent collection was all about pelote.

I nearly lost my nice Norwegian umbrella after visiting the museum. As it was wet, I put it on the floor by my chair while I ate a rather good lunch at a place just past the old-style iron and glass market hall. When I left I forgot it, and a couple of hours later when it started raining again, realized what had happened and went back for it. The bistro was about to close and at first seemed to be claiming no knowledge of my umbrella. Eventually they said that one of the waitresses had gone home with it, and once we established I was not leaving town for a couple of days, said they would arrange for its return in the morning. At least they lent me another umbrella, and I did get mine back in the morning. What would have happened had I been a day tripper with no French I don’t know.

I enjoyed Biarritz so much I’m giving it its own post, but St. Jean Pied-de-Port occupied less time. While the train tracks from Bayonne are being relaid passengers have to switch to a bus at Cambo-les-Bains, and the route seemed less scenic to me than I remembered. The town is the starting point for many of the people walking the Camino to Santiago, although I would be inclined to begin on the other side of the Pyrenees! Not too many pilgrims around in October, just a handful in St. Jean-de-Port, and I would see a few others in Pamplona and Leon further along the route.

I loved the mountain views, of course, but once you’ve hiked up (and up) the ramparts to the (closed) citadel, and along the river, and photographed the old buildings on the side streets, there is really nothing to do in town. Bidart, which I visited as an alternative to St. Jean-de-Luz, was particularly unsuccessful, being a more suitable destination for someone with a car, and in any case preeminently a place to surf, or to watch surfers. I did find watching them an interesting accompaniment to lunch, but that was long enough. I went back to Biarritz for the afternoon.

I had arrived in Bayonne on a train with rolling stock so old, it still had compartments instead of airline-style seating. I left the same way, headed for Hendaye, where the train would arrive just too late to connect with a Euskotren commuter train to San Sebastian and I would have to wait nearly half an hour for the next.


October 3-6, 2015: I went to Pau because of a book. Not a particularly good book, I suppose, nor is the author, Dornford Yates, much read these days. His descriptions are too elaborate, and his attitudes too Edwardian, for current taste. But in his day he was quite popular, both for romantic comedies, which I read, and light adventure, which I did not. Pau is also, perhaps, not so popular these days, but in the early 20th century it was a favored winter destination for the English, who rented, bought or built villas there.

While I was interested to see the villas, a number of which remain, what drew me was Yates’ description of the Pyrenees as seen from the town. Pau is built on two levels. At river level you find the train station, the town swimming pool and a number of houses. But take the old-fashioned funicular up from the station, and the rest of the town spreads back from the edge of an almost sheer drop, with a kilometer long promenade between a chateau and a casino, facing the mountains. The boulevard, lined with palm trees, even has a balustrade.

Back in 2004 I visited Pau on a day trip from Bayonne, traveling by train. The chateau was impressive, although the tour was in French and Henri IV’s crib ostentatiously decorated with plumed spears. The park by the casino made for a pretty walk. But the mountains were shrouded in cloud. I promised myself I would return, but for more than a few hours, to improve the odds of actually seeing the Pyrenees.

None of Pau’s hotels were particularly enticing, so I booked an AirBnB apartment with a balcony that promised mountain views. With no good route by train from northern Italy to southwestern France, I was glad to find a cheap flight from Lyon and the mountain train route from Turin. While I booked into the NH airport hotel in Lyon I had thought to go into town for dinner, and even solicited suggestions on the Fodor’s discussion board. But I had been eating rather well in Italy, and needed a break from rich food. In the end I spent the afternoon catching up on sleep, and dined off the hotel’s buffet – lots of salad, meats and cheeses.

For some reason the T-Mobile plan on my smart phone doesn’t work well in the south of France, and I had a little difficulty connecting with my host. But the apartment matched the photos, the terrace looked towards the mountains, and adjacent windows gave me a grandstand view of the Place Clemenceau, which was hosting events for Breast Cancer Awareness. My host also gave me directions to a couple of open grocery stores, which was a relief since I had arrived on a Saturday afternoon.

This was my third AirBnB rental. The first taught me to make sure there was an elevator if the apartment was above the (European) second floor. This one reinforced the lesson from the second: don’t rent from bachelors. True, this time there was plenty of closet space, and even a power point next to a mirror, but only one towel (another was delivered next day) and the sheets and towels were too dark for me to be entirely sure about how clean they were.

I didn’t revisit the interior of the Chateau, although I did stop by the modest house where Marshal Bernadotte had been born. He had a truly remarkable rise, from total obscurity, by way of Napoleon’s army, to King of Sweden. The current Swedish royals are his descendants. The museum, however, is probably only of interest to Swedes. I also had a nice time checking out more of the villas, but aside from the Chateau and the mountains, there really isn’t a lot of sightseeing interest in Pau, it’s more a place for flaneurs. The changing scene in Place Clemenceau enlivened the weekend, but would be tamer during the week. Saturday included couples dancing the tango in one corner of the expansive square and four children’s trampolines in another, with a parade of motor bikes towards the end of the afternoon. Sunday morning was quiet, but a series of marathons started and ended right below my windows later on. A myriad pink umbrellas were suspended over the middle of the square, although almost all were closed.

And the mountains? Yes, I did get to see them, and I enjoyed them very much. Only with real clarity at dawn and dusk though, and I did wonder whether the persistent haze was less a function of the weather than of pollution. The book that sent me to Pau was published nearly a century ago, and in that time Pau has been a center of the aviation industry, after hosting the world’s first pilot school, and later of the petrochemical industry.

Monday afternoon I found a free ebook version of “Jonah and Co.” on the Project Gutenberg website, and enjoyed rereading it.


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