Time to Say Goodbye to Spain

Almost four weeks after completing the two-week writers’ retreat in southern Spain in June, it was time to say goodbye to Spain, adios España. I rather hoped it would be hasta luego, España – until we meet again – than goodbye.

Spain Series V: León 

Meantime, I’d spent my last 10 days in León at my friend’s place, working like a little Trojan on my lovely clients’ books. So immersed was I in the work that I’d look up from my laptop and out the window from time to time and think, ‘Oh, I’m in Spain, not at home!’

This visit to the modest and unassuming city of León had great personal significance for me. Way back in the 1980s, I lived, and worked as an English teacher, in León for several years. And the last time I’d visited the city was 24 years previously. You’ll be able to read all about it when I publish my travel narrative later this year, Forty-Four Days in Spain: A Travel Narrative of Duchesses, Dishy Spaniards and Disenchantments in Flamenco-land. Watch this space!

Where is León?

Except for those who’ve walked the famous pilgrims’ way, El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James), and know that León is on the route, the city is little known by most English-speakers on our side of the world. Just an aside: The Way leads to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where it is reputed that the remains of Saint James are buried.

León is located in the northwest of Spain, some 800m above sea level, on the banks of the Bernesga River. It’s an inland city, the capital of the province of León and since 1983, part of the Autonomous Community of Castile and León, with a population of around 126,000. The mountain range of the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) is situated in Castile and León, Asturias and Cantabria.

skifields near Leon
Wintertime: Skifields near León

León has a long history. It was founded around 29 BC by the Roman legion Legio VI Victrix as a Roman military encampment. The name León, rather than referring to the translation ‘lion’, derives from the city’s Latin name, Legio.

To put its location in context, Madrid is two hours south of León on the fast train, the AVE.

What’s to See in León?

For a relatively small city, León boasts numerous historical buildings. These include the Gothic cathedral with its celebrated stained glass windows; the 10th century church Basílica de San Isidoro de León; the neogothic Casa Botines, designed by the famous Catalan architect Anton Gaudí; and the Hostal de San Marcos.

All these buildings have fascinating histories but for some reason, that of San Marcos always captured my imagination the most because of the many functions it’s fulfilled over the centuries.

San Marcos Leon Spain
A building that’s changed functions many times over the centuries, San Marcos is now a luxury hotel

San Marcos has variously been:

  • A hospital-temple providing shelter to pilgrims travelling the Camino de Santiago (12th century)
  • The main residence in the Kingdom of León for the Order of Santiago, a religious and military order founded to protect the pilgrims, ‘defend Christendom and … remove the Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula’ (Wikipedia) (12th century). This was because as the capital of the Kingdom of León, León took an active part in the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. (Want to read more about Moorish rule in Spain? See my previous blog, A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca.) 
  • A monastery/convent (comprising church, façade and cloister and sacristy). The medieval building, in poor condition, was largely demolished in the 16th century and rebuilt over the following couple of centuries (16th—18th centuries)
  • Makeshift prison cell for the lampooning and controversial Spanish nobleman, politician and poet of the Baroque era, Francisco de Quevedo (17th century)
  • A dark part of León’s history was when San Marcos was converted into temporary dungeons during the Spanish Civil War. Cells, rooms, stables, cloisters, church, choir, museum – every part of the building – was transformed into dungeons or jailers’ offices (1936—1940)
  • A luxury hotel or parador, the Parador de Leon: Hostal de San Marcos (since 1965), also housing a church and museum.

Insulting the Queen

Our provocative, rather cruel friend mentioned above, Francisco de Quevedo – who himself had a club foot and was notably myopic – was notorious (or famous, depending on points of view), for enacting a dare by his friends in which he publicly insulted, through wordplay, Queen Isabel de Borbón, who was crippled (coja). He bought two bunches of flowers, one of white carnations, and one of red roses. Presenting the two bunches of flowers to the queen, he said in rhyming verse (the bolded words rhyme):

Entre el clavel blanco y la rosa roja, su majestad escoja. Translation: ‘Your Majesty, Choose between the white carnations and the red roses.’ The wordplay is between escoja, which means ‘You choose’, and es coja, which means ‘You are crippled’. In an era when physical defects were considered hugely shameful, this was, as you can imagine, a huge risk to take!

Francisco de Quevedo
Quevedo, the man who insulted the queen. (For attribution, see Acknowledgements)

A Walk Through León After 24 Years

Naturally enough, I found León a significantly larger and more spread out city to the León I’d last seen 24 years ago.

We arrived from Madrid by bus, and walked from the bus station across the river to the Papalaguinda riverside walk. The walkway was looking attractive with many more gardens, mature trees and places to sit and chat, although the river was choked with weeds. My friend told me the river had been considerably narrowed to accommodate its reduced flow over the years.

It only rains on average 75 days a year in León (although I was surprised to compare the statistics on the Gold Coast that show an average of only 25 days a year over the past 25 years). An innovation since my time in León were the many boardwalks along the river, and a significant extension of the riverside walkway extending over several kilometres.

The Barrio Húmedo

At home, we changed and headed out into León’s nightlife, visiting the Barrio Húmedo (literally, the damp quarter!) in the old part of the city within the Roman city walls. In my day, the Barrio Húmedo was the drinking and tapas ground of my Spanish friends and I. Now, it’s become more upmarket and touristy and dare I say pretentious, with more restaurants than tapas bars and a consequent upsurge in prices. However, the drinking zone has extended to encompass various other parts of the old city, and there are still plenty of watering holes with an all-Spanish clientele.

Each tapas bar has its own specialty, and becomes popular (or unpopular) depending on what they offer. What becomes popular can be surprising. One of the typical bars we visited specialises in spuds cut into thin rounds and deep fried, served with garlic and chilli. Actually – delicious!

A Mix of Work, Wine and Tapas

Each day followed a similar pattern. I’d get up reasonably early and immediately get stuck into my work, wonderfully distraction-free compared to being at home where the cat, meal preparation and housework tend to disrupt one! When my friend got up, we’d have breakfast, usually a smoothie or smoothie bowl with blueberries, banana, soymilk, seeds and muesli. Then I’d get back to work. At Spanish lunchtime, 2 or 3 pm, my friend and I would make a h-u-g-e salad (remember, it was summertime) full of mixed greens, chickpeas, avocado, tomatoes, red peppers and whatever else we fancied on the day. We’d have this with a delicious dark multigrain bread smothered in hummus. We’d talk over lunch, catching up on family and old times, then it was back to work until about 7 pm.

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs in the Spanish Series (Writers’ Retreat in Spain, A Day in the Life of a Writer in Spain, Writing Groups in Madrid, and A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca), 7 pm feels super-early in Spain, where in summer, it doesn’t get fully dark until 11 pm.

Mornings and nights in León are cool even in summertime, though the days are hot. Nothing like Madrid hot, but in the high 20s or early 30s. Being amongst mountains, it’s very cold in wintertime (averaging highs of 8°C and lows of below zero).

We’d go for a long evening walk, taking in areas we used to live in and places we used to visit, as well as new areas – probably established 15 or more years ago, but new to me! Then we’d settle in a tapas bar and have their specialty tapa along with a delicious local red (or two) for me, and a beer for my friend.

Sunday, Sunday

Sunday morning was a break in the daily routine, with a Spanish breakfast out in a café: pastry and coffee. I ended up settling for a small black, as many bars don’t yet have soymilk and those that do use the sweetened variety. After breakfast, it was back home to work.

I’d been expecting to see a familiar face since arriving in León, but in the 10 days I saw only one other person I knew from way back when. We were out walking on Sunday afternoon – and it was still very hot at 8 pm – when I recognised her walking towards us with a couple of friends. She couldn’t believe it was me, and there was a lot of fast talking to try and bridge that 24-year gap. We caught up again a couple of days later for morning coffee to talk some more about our families and what we were both up to now.

cathedral of Leon
The Cathedral of León

The Time to Say Goodbye to Spain Arrives

The time for goodbyes finally arrived on the morning of Saturday 13 July, when I left León on the fast train, the AVE, for Madrid.

My friend kindly walked me from his house to the train station, about 10 minutes. We always used to walk everywhere, so this visit was like old times. Then it was goodbye, waving from the train carriage, watching him disappear as the train left the station, and shedding a few tears.

In Madrid on the Saturday morning, it was still cool, and relatively quiet in the train and metro stations. From the train station, the metro trip to the airport was straightforward. I only needed to change lines once and my terminal, T4, was the last stop. The only confusing thing was that at the airport stop, I had to pay an extra 3E on top of my transport card – like Brisbane, the last part of the metro line to the airport is privately owned – and it wasn’t at all clear how to do this! I wasn’t the only one confused, and the poor staff were backwards and forwards helping people. The authorities need to sort that one out!

I had hours at the airport before it was properly time to say goodbye to Spain, but preferred that to depositing my suitcase somewhere and passing the day in Madrid’s heat. A perfect opportunity to catch up on some more work. I mucked about in the airport shops, bought the Saturday special edition of the Spanish newspaper El País that I intended reading back at home, then ordered lunch – and left the newspaper on the restaurant counter.

My Emirates flight left on time at 10 pm. My seat had plenty of leg room, though I had absolutely no sleep whatsoever on the eight-hour trip. But I watched two good movies, The Joy Luck Club and Five Feet Apart. Emirates is proud of its multiculturalism, always announcing at the beginning of flights which countries the staff are from and the number of languages the crew speak – 20 different countries and 14 different languages on this flight.


Arriving at my hotel around 8.30 am, I had a whole day in Dubai, plenty of time to catch up on sleep, leisurely arrange my clothes for the homeward flight next day – I’d need something warmer than what I’d been wearing the past six weeks – then shower and change into my glad rags for a visit to Dubai Mall. I’d had no time for tourism on my way to Europe and honestly, Dubai in summertime is too hot for wandering outdoors or visiting deserts – at least for me. So contrary to my normal self, I was happy with mall walking in air-conditioned comfort.

Dubai Mall was in sight of my downtown hotel, but I took the hotel transfer there to avoid arriving sweaty and agitated. One of the streets we drove along was Happiness Street. My plan was to wander, eat, and watch the fountains/light show in the evening, before getting the second-to-last transfer back to the hotel at 7.45 pm. Check: Although I had no desire for shopping, I took in the entire centre and found the prices surprisingly reasonable, possibly because it was summer, an unpopular time for tourism.

The mall includes a giant aquarium, ice-skating rink, and waterfall with diving sculptures. Check: Happily found a restaurant with an extensive vegan menu. Sorbet in a cone for dessert while wandering around the mall. Check: Braved the still-crazy heat outdoors to watch the fountain and light show. Check: After running all the way through the mall and outdoors in the heat, made the 7.45 pm transfer to the hotel – sweaty, but not agitated. Breakfast next day was at 6.30 am, when the restaurant opened, and I was being collected by the shuttle at 7 am for the 14-hour flight to Brisbane, so I packed unhurriedly, had a nice early night and slept wonderfully.

Uneventful Flight

The flight home was uneventful – the type I like. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but I did watch a trio of classic movies: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (James Stewart, 1939, director Frank Capra), Humoresque starring Joan Crawford (1946, director Jean Negulesco), To Catch a Thief starring Cary Grant & Grace Kelly (1955, director Alfred Hitchcock).

Brisbane greeted us with an 8°C but stunningly sunny, still morning. It was a strange feeling arriving home on the Gold Coast after six weeks away. But my boss gave me the day off – she’s so generous.

It was a day of firsts. First time back home in six weeks. First decent soy cappuccino in six weeks. Writing up my first Spanish Series blog in my local waterfront café, rugged up but enjoying the sunshine sparkling off the blue waters of the Broadwater.

It had been time to say goodbye to Spain. Now it was time to say hello to home on the Gold Coast.

Acknowledgements for Time to Say Goodbye to Spain

Francisco de Quevedo photo: Attributed to Juan van der Hamen – [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27702609

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convento_de_San_Marcos. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Quevedo. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le%C3%B3n,_Spain. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Santiago. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picos_de_Europa. Accessed 8 August 2019.

World Monuments Fund, Parador de León (Hostal de San Marcos), 2017.  https://www.wmf.org/project/parador-de-le%C3%B3n-hostal-de-san-marcos. Accessed 8 August 2019.

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