Sunday, September 7, 2014

Camino Twelve – León, León, León.


Standing outside the hotel Q!H I look up at the golden stone of the great cathedral, sense the atmosphere of the people passing and instantly fall in love with León.  But first, a little drama.  The hotel is full.  Every hotel is full, there is a mediaeval fare in León this weekend and today is Friday.  Half of Spain is here in this city to enjoy or participate in the re-enactment of the coming of the Roman Legions to León in 29 BC.  I look with dismay at Johnny Depp’s 18 kg mochila, and at Emiliano’s 12 kg mochila, and at my probably 6 kg mochila, and wonder how on earth ...  The receptionist rescues me, leave them all here she says, go and find a hotel. 
I quash my panic, a part of me manages a wry smile as an aphorism I have used on countless occasions pops into my head and dances time with my footsteps: no good deed goes unpunished.  How on earth was I going to shift such weights ... and where on earth was a hotel that had a room?
After a Very Long Time, and endless wandering, I leave the mediaeval part of the city altogether and cross a large piazza to chance upon a hotel and enter the astonishing art deco lobby of Alfonso V. Oh my!  They have one single room left, and let me have it at the peregrina price of 50€ a night.  It is a four star hotel.  I take it, return to Q!H, they ring me a taxi to transport everything and, uh oh, I meet the most foul-tempered taxi driver in Spain!  He does not want to lift what I certainly can’t into the boot of his cab.  I gesture forget it, I’ll get another taxi, and his snarl clearly indicates his greed for a fare.  No good deed goes unpunished – I could easily have carried my own mochila – but the transport of the other two cost me a rip off fortune, and this unpleasant man refuses to carry them into the lobby of Alfonso V!  Abandoning them on the road he drove off quick smart and left me to run up the grand staircase to ask the hotel doorman to help. 

 What, was written across the doorman’s forehead, is this woman doing with such vast mochilas?  And that proved a sticking point.  Mine was welcome of course, and being carried by a Virgo it was still pristine, but these, the receptionist behind the counter curled his lip in distaste, looked at the two mochilas as if they had rolled in from Roland’s eighth century battlefield of Roncesvalles, were not fit to remain in his lobby ...
Imploring the reluctant hotel staff to hold them on the ground floor for the lads I then run back to Q!H to leave cross-references for the whereabouts of their mochila’s as Q!H – our point of contact – wouldn’t keep them in their lobby.  Oh, no good deed goes unpunished ... this unpromising start to my rapturous love affair with León had taken up four hours of my first day.  And I needed food, seriously.
The brasserie attached to the Q!H solved that dilemma.  Now I could enjoy my explorations.  Rounding the corner into the Cathedral Square I bumped into two glamorous gals from Scottsdale wearing macabis’.  Another American peregrina with her husband took photos; these skirts, the ugliest garment ever created, are simply the best invention for walkers, ever
León is utterly gorgeous.  And the Cathedral ... Pulchra Leonina, the House of Light.  Alas my camera failed me here.  The Cathedral is reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and quite simply the most beautiful Gothic stone poem in the world.  It is Light, bringing Light.  Vast stained glass windows, mostly with their original mediaeval glass, divided by stone tracery, sit above those below, an internal division of upper and lower chapels of windows upon windows.  The entire interior is dominated by colour pouring through the two-tiered windows. The vaulted ceiling so high and so sublime I confess I stepped inside – and cried.  It is too beautiful to find words for.  It held me in a kind of rapture.  I went back to the guide to ask for the audio earphones and listened to its long history, its life and hard times, its miracle of survival as the foundations began to crumble some few hundred years ago, it having been built over Roman foundations.  I recognised a Greek name honoured as its saviour stonemason in the fifteenth century, called in by the Benedictines who were the Cathedral custodians.  To miss this wonder is cause for regret – just being there is a sublime experience.  Like all ancient places of prayer and quietude the stones hold memory; déjà vu comes not from the tiny human mind remembering, but the depth charge of stones re-membering us.  In this case – me.  I felt it in Şanliurfa (which was ancient Edessa), in Harran, in Epidaurus, in Men-an-Tol.  I could write of many others but now I am enchanted with León. 
As I wander round the ambulatory I come to another astonishment – a pregnant Mary; Virgin Mary parturient.  I am astonished.  The statue is pretty well life-size, her face has been carved with an expression of such wistfulness as would make any mother weep, as if in expectant knowing of how she would lose her child in a particularly brutal way.  This has nothing to do with religion, but echoes the human anguish we can all feel when someone we know loses a child.
Later, replete, I wander through the setting up of the weekend’s huge fair, marvel at what stalls I can see already, buy samples of cakes, am told to pose for a photograph by the artisan breads of a young woman baker from Galicia, and return to my wondrous room to wash me and my clothes in the marble bathroom.  By now I am feeling rather off-colour again, though the gold embroidered monogram of Alfonso V on the pillowcases and the shower curtain – how decadent is that, a gold embroidered monogram on a shower curtain – bring a smile to my tired face.  This is an unfamiliar luxury in my life and I silently thank Jeff once more.
Fast forward to finish this story – the lads arrived exhausted around 6pm.  They had been walking for 12 hours.  Because he wasn’t burdened with his own mochila Johnny Depp had carried themochila of an elderly, limping pilgrim they met in Reliegos for the last 25 kms.  Emiliano had blisters and looked so woebegone sitting there in the grand lobby as the receptionist went to retrieve their mochilas.  Aren’t you using NOK, I say, surprised.  What’s NOK, he asks.  Johnny Depp whips his from his pocket.  Taken aback I ask the Arrogance of Youth why he hadn’t told his friend, who is Italian and didn’t know, about this French miracle.  With a Gallic shrug (the one that says everyone else is a fool) he answers: he wants to use Vaseline.  As if that was reason enough not to enlighten his friend.  I shake my head, and don’t bother mentioning the taxi fare between hotels.  The trip to León was on me, the extra, which cost nearly as much because of the long route taken to avoid street closures for the mediaeval fair, was really their responsibility.  I sigh, at least the good deed had resulted in another pilgrim having his mochila lifted from his back for his walk.  What goes round comes around ...
It has been a full day.  I sleep more than well under the thick duvet on my excellent bed, covered by cotton sheets of at least 500 thread count.  Bliss.

to be continued ...

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