Leon – Castile and Leon, Spain

A Most Unusual Cathedral and a Shelter for Knights

Begun in 1205, the walls of Leon’s Gothic cathedral were built more with glass than stone. One hundred twenty-five stained-glass windows, three giant rose windows, and fifty-seven oculi fill the lofty interior with bejeweled shafts of light. In the cathedral­ building mania of the Middle Ages, European cities strove to outdo each other with the highest steeples, the biggest rose windows, the largest churches.

Leon’s contribution was certainly the boldest, amazing even modern-day critics and architects with its illusion of weightlessness and the profusion of light. Some of the windows soar as high as 110 feet and are the original 13th-century glassworks; cumulatively, they cover more than 18,000 square feet.

Designated the capital of Christian Spain in 914, Leon is now a charming provincial town that retains the aura of its regal past. Some of the country’s most important and interesting sacred art can be found in the Cathedral Museum. Once an important stop for pilgrims on the historical Road to Santiago, it is an obligatory stop today for anyone interested in medieval architecture.

The Parador San Marcos deserves a prize for its entrance alone—a sumptuous “plateresque” facade (so called because of its resemblance to lacy silver plate work) that seems to stretch forever. The entrance hall is replete with an elaborate coffered ceiling and a 16th-century grand staircase.

Awed visitors might even miss the 10-foot-high cast-iron chandelier overhead. One of Leon’s principal attractions and one of Spain’s finest examples of Renaissance architecture, San Marcos is also Spain’s largest parador since the addition of a modern annex. Its original wing was com­pleted in 1549 upon the earlier orders of King Ferdinand to shelter knights and weary pil­grims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Only 30 of the 250 rooms are housed in the historic wing, as is the regional restaurant with views of the Rio Bemesga. Both the Antiguo Monasterio de San Marcos and Museo Arqueologico, all part of the same landmark edifice, are open to the public. Vast common areas are distinguished by precious antiques, a remarkable mudejar ceiling, tap­estries, and museum-quality artwork, creating high drama that is carried over in the suites.

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