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Jan 30 2017

Tapas, Wine, The St. James' Way and The Holy Grail

Those interested in Medieval History will recognize the name León, the ancient Spanish kingdom that today represents a province in the community of Castile-León. Its homonymous capital offers an extremely attractive setting for enjoying a weekend where tapas, wines, the St. James’ Way and, supposedly, the Holy Grail, guide our steps. A warning: this is not a city for vegetarians. León’s tapas and its pork products are virtually synonymous. 5 Keys to León


1. Barrio Húmedo, the pincho tradition

León’s city center is pedestrian and it is divided into two areas by the popular shopping street calle Ancha, which ends at the imposing Gothic cathedral. On one side of this street lies the city’s historic district known as the Barrio Húmedo (húmedo means “wet”, an adjective that doesn’t refer to the rain, but rather to the local custom of washing down evening chats and strolls with wines from the province). León is ruled by the custom of giving customers a free tapa with every wine or beer. This is where the custom of making “pilgrimages” from one establishment to another in search of the best tapa originated.

Various recommendations: an obligatory stop at the plaza de San Martín to try the morcilla (black sausage make with pork, onions and pimentón or Spanish paprika) at La Bicha, the charcuterie tapa (cecina or cured beef, cheese and chorizo) at El Tizón and the creamy croquettes (choose between blue cheese, cecina, wild mushrooms or Spanish ham flavors) at El Rebote. Make sure to stay on the plaza long enough to try the hearty (don’t forget that León is one of the coldest cities in Spain) garlic soup at El Rincón del Gaucho, one of the favorite bars of the thousands of pilgrims that follow the St. James’ Way every year, given that León is one of the main stops along the way before arriving to Galicia.

2. Barrio Romántico, custodian of the Cathedral

On the other side of the calle Ancha is the Barrio Romántico, a maze of narrow streets that seem to be protecting the city’s principal monument, its cathedral. This is the locals’ favorite area for going out for wine and tapas, and here one can find interesting places like El Jouja, with its vintage decor and delicias (delicacies) from León (a dish meant for sharing with morcilla, chorizo, lacón, salad and potatoes fried in olive oil); El Cid and its tapas, including the squid and bacon brochette or chickpea broth; El Trébede and its celebrated picadillo tapa (fried ground pork seasoned with salt and pimentón), served with French fries; Camarote Madrid and its paella tapa; and Monalisa, a wine bar where customers can feast on a baguette of either squid or fried chorizo with every glass of wine.

3. Tapas with a vintage air

The city’s youngest tapas bars exude a vintage vibe. These establishments have a clear inclination for color, hydraulic tiles and decorative touches that hint at pastoral scenes and give a nod to the 1950’s and 60’s. The tapas themselves however remain faithful to the local passion for pork products. Our favorite is Rúa 11, a small bar whose owner, Rubén, surprises customers with tapas and pinchos that combine artisanal products with carefully aesthetic presentations. The Plaza Mayor boasts two other good examples: Mamá Tere, where a glass of Bierzo wine tastes even better when accompanied by a porcini mushroom croquette or a torrezno (pork lard) preserved in olive oil. La Trastienda del 13 with its toast of cecina de León and extra virgin olive oil, or morcilla and apple preserves, is another fantastic place, where one can imbibe the hipster vibe of this Castilian city of barely 130,000 inhabitants.

4. Passion for wine and food from León

Visitors to this city are easily charmed by the locals’ passion for the wines and foods of the province of León. In fact, you almost never hear someone order a wine from anywhere else. Local wines from DO Bierzo and DO Tierra de León rule: fruity young and crianza (aged) wines made from Mencía or Prieto Picudo grapes, crisp rosés made with Prieto Picudo, or aromatic whites made with Godello or Doña Blanca grapes. Bars proudly display their selection of local wines – which seldom cost more than 2.50 euros a glass – from wineries like Pardevalles, Pittacum, Casar de Burbia, Altos de Losada… all of them, incidentally, graced with attractive labels.

Strolling through both the historic and shopping areas of the city center, one comes across numerous stores specializing in traditional local foods, where its tempting to pick up tasty souvenirs like cecina, chorizo, morcilla, Valdeón blue cheese, jams and artisanal fruit preserves and sweets like mantecadas from Astorga… Some recommendations: Cosas de León on Rúa 11, La Despensa de Fran on calle Ancha, Artesa on Ordoño II, the charming cheese shop Tori on Azabachería, and the mercado de Abastos (market) on the Plaza Conde Luna.

5. The Holy Grail and cathedral’s stained glass

One of our objectives at www.foodswinesfromspain.com is to spotlight gastronomic destinations in Spain, but we can’t avoid adding cultural highlights to our trips. One of them is the basilica of San Isidoro de León, which boasts the so-called Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art: a Royal Pantheon that safeguards an interesting collection of frescoes (11th – 13th centuries). Its representations of Biblical scenes and the agricultural calendar are astonishing.  

This building also houses a medieval library and a museum containing the chalice of Doña Urraca, the subject of recent research that directly relates it to the legend of the Holy Grail. According to studies carried out at the Universidad de León and the Arab History Department at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense, this chalice, which consists of two pieces in the form of a bowl, comes from a temple in Jerusalem and dates to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

The chalice became part of the Fatimid Dynasty of Egypt and, from there, it made its way to the Iberian Peninsula during the 11th century, thanks to the Taifa of Denia (starting in 1030 the Caliphate of Córdoba broke up, giving way to small Muslim kingdoms called taifas along the Spanish Mediterranean coast). Its vizier presented it to King Ferdinand I of Castile as a gift (1017-1065) to commemorate a peace agreement. This passionate journey from the Middle East to León is reflected in the book Los Reyes del Grial (The Kings of the Grail), written by researcher Margarita Torres of León.

If there’s a star monument in the city of León it’s the Gothic cathedral, built in just fifty years during the 13th century with a stylistic uniformity that challenges comparison. Its interior is striking, thanks to the stained glass windows that, together with those of the Chartres cathedral in France, constitute some of the finest examples of medieval stained glass mastery in existence.

Its influence still imposes today: the Spanish architecture studio Mansilla y Tuñón, which is behind the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC – contemporary art museum) – also located in this city –, paid a 21st century homage to these stained glass windows through its coloristic designs for the large glass windows of the museum, an icon of the recent Spanish architectural Avant-garde.

So, who’s in the mood for León?

Those interested in Medieval History will recognize the name León, the ancient Spanish kingdom that today represents a province in the community of Castile-León Rodrigo García/©ICEX
Translation: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Tapas, wine Th St James
Tapas, wine Th St James
Tapas, wine Th St James
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