Magazine article The Spectator

Spain's Secret Kingdoms

Magazine article The Spectator

Spain's Secret Kingdoms

Article excerpt

One of the joys of visiting Leon and Burgos, two of the principal cities of Spain, is that you are highly unlikely to meet another foreign tourist. It was midsummer, less than a day's drive from the north coast (now known as the Costa Verde) and the glorious mountain scenery of the Picos de Europa, yet the only non-Spanish voices we heard were those not of tourists but of rucksacked pilgrims, passing through on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

As mediaeval seats of the kings of Leon and Castile, both these cities have magnificent cathedrals. Leon's, known as the House of Light, is so filled with stained glass that you stop and gaze in wonderment as you enter by the west door. The glass not only depicts religious figures and subjects: there are some strikingly coloured patterns such as you might find in a modern interior designer's catalogue of curtain fabrics.

It may be because this is the finest Gothic edifice in Spain that Gaudí built here a neoGothic house, for him unusually conventional in style and one of only three of his works outside Catalonia. Above the front door is a statue of St George with what appears to be a grinning dragon.

The cathedral in Burgos is even larger, with an awesome number of sculptures and carvings, and a star-vaulted dome which Philip II declared must have been built by angels. Beneath it is the tomb of El Cid; a mighty statue of the national hero on his horse stands by the river. General Franco liked to see himself as a 20th-century Cid, and one can imagine how he enjoyed worshipping in the great cathedral when he was formally declared Nationalist head of state in Burgos in 1936.

Old loyalties die hard in this part of Spain: when we crossed a remote pass into Asturias and stopped at a church in the mediaeval village of Cabezón de Liébana, there was a list, inscribed on the façade of the building, of Nationalist victims of the civil war who had died 'por Dios y por la Patria'. Until Franco's death, the name of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish fascist party, was also to be seen on the wall of every church. I hadn't seen it for years but it is still there, above the names of Nationalist dead, at this church in the Cordillera Cantábrica. …

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