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November 23, 2012

Spain: León

Heading towards León’s Cathedral (HDR)

Speeding towards León a road sign proclaimed that we were on the “Autovia ‘Camino de Santiago’”.  It was true, our Renault Grand Kangoo stuffed with French wine and with our dog Gigi’s travel palace was headed along the modern variation of the most famous of the European Christian pilgrimage routes, the El Camino de Santiago.  Though we were indeed headed to Santiago de Compostela and destined to see a string of spectacular religious structures, our journey was not a pilgrimage, at least not in the traditional sense.

In retrospect, it is more than a coincidence that we’ve been to so many pilgrimage stops.  Cities that we visit, the cities with interesting historic cores, typically have grand religious structures at the center.  The more magnificent the church the more likely it is on a pilgrimage route.  But though we’d seen many grand churches along El Camino de Santiago, we had not seen any of the towns close to end in Santiago.  It’s like reading novel and stopping two chapters short of the finish.  We needed to reach Santiago de Compostela, the goal of all pilgrims.  We needed to see how the book ends.

Our first stop in Spain was León.  León has a comfortable pedestrianized core; its old town has numerous historic buildings including Casa de los Botines, a Modernist building designed by Antoni Gaudí.  On The Way, only 220 miles from Santiago de Compostela, you’d expect grand religious buildings.  And so it is.  The Convent of San Marcos and the Basilica of San Isidoroare spectacular.  But as usual the most impressive building is the massive cathedral.

Santa María de León, León’s cathedral (HDR)

The frilly Spanish Gothic façade of Santa María de León, as León’s cathedral is officially known, commands the central square of the old town.  Inside sunlight tinted by walls of stained glass fills a cavernous space.  The church is an airy and ornate jewel box left to the future by its builders.  León’s cathedral serves a purpose; in any century Santa María de León awes pilgrims.

León, at least when we visited in early October, was not overwhelmed by pilgrims and tourists.  In the evening, after the siesta, old people and young families collect in the squares and then fill the streets for the paseo.  Later, when the university students leave their studies, the bars in the barrio humedo, the wet quarter, pack with patrons seeking cheap drinks and free tapas.

Inside León’s cathedral

It is in the barrio humedo that we began our personal Spanish pilgrimage.  Our quest started with a simple plate of thinly sliced jamón ibérico de bellota, Spain’s exquisite salt-cured ham produced from acorn-fed black-hoofed pigs.  Some argue that jamón ibérico de bellota is the “greatest food item in the world”.  Though we can’t say that de bellota ham is the greatest food item, we do know that we seek out this sublime cured meat with the same conviction that a heroin addict seeks their next fix.

What is it about jamón ibérico de bellota that is so compelling?  What separates this product from the other fine cured hams produced throughout the world?

Inside León’s Plaza Mayor (HDR)

On first taste the salty slightly funky flavor is typical of a country ham.  A complex array of flavors that distinguishes jamón ibérico de bellota comes next.  Notes of nuts, cheese, herbs, and olive oil loiter in the mouth.  Indeed, locals refer to acorn fed Iberian pigs as “olives with legs”.  And science supports the olive oil connection.  An acorn rich diet produces ibérico pigs with fat containing 55% oleic acid; only virgin olive oil has a higher oleic acid content.  The array of flavors from just a thin slice of jamón ibérico de bellota lingers on the palate for minutes.

To us each ham tastes slightly different.  In truth we’ll never know when we find the very best cured ham as there will always be more jamón to try.  Unlike a pilgrim’s journey to Santiago de Compostela, our pilgrimage doesn’t have a fixed destination.  But like traveling The Way, our expedition to the very best jamón ibérico de bellota might find as much pleasure in the journey as in the destination.

Casa de los Botines, a Modernist building designed by Antoni Gaudí (HDR)

Gigi and Becky double check Antoni Gaudí’s work in León.

Buy your meat inside the covered market

A color coordinated meat delivery


  1. Reblogged this on RD Revilo.

    Comment by The Mind of RD Revilo — November 23, 2012 @ 3:07 am

  2. Reblogged this on mjohnns.

    Comment by mjohnns — November 25, 2012 @ 12:29 am

  3. Your photographs are stunning!
    ‘Europe was built on the road to Santiago’ and the cathedrals, bridges, roads, churches, pilgrim hospices, were built in support of the pilgrims to the tomb of Sant Iago.
    Can’t wait for you to get to Santiago and I’m hoping you will continue to the End of the World – Finis-terre!

    Comment by amawalker — November 25, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

  4. […] a sprawling haphazard appearance.  While many other cathedrals on the pilgrimage route, like León and Burgos, have been freshly restored, this is not the case in Santiago.  The buildings in […]

    Pingback by Spain: Santiago de Compostela « Another Header — December 6, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

  5. […] took us to impressive cathedrals in Bordeaux and Angers France.  In Spain, the cathedrals in León, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Oviedo, and Segovia are all pilgrimage-worthy.  Porto Portugal […]

    Pingback by France: Amiens | Another Header — November 16, 2013 @ 6:08 am

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