A SPANISH PARADOR, LEON'S HOTEL SAN MARCOS WAS A WELCOME RESPITE ON THE SILVER ROUTE
Having travelled due north along the 800 km. Silver Route from Seville, the thought of a bed for the night in the Hotel San Marcos, one of Spain's finest paradors, was attractive indeed.
It was in 1926 that the idea of paradors became a reality. A flash of inspiration on the part of King Alfonso XIII led to the restoration of many of Spain’s crumbling castles, convents, palaces and monasteries.
Rescued from death by slow disintegration, these architectural treasures now form a chain of spectacular hostelries across the entire length and breadth of Spain and the beauty of the concept is that each parador is within a comfortable day’s drive of its neighbor.
Hostal San Marcos has served as hotel, convent and prison
The San Marcos through the ages and in recent times has played host to Kings and Presidents. On Spain’s Silver Route and on the medieval Pilgrim Road it is an integral part of the history of Castille y Leon. Its varied past shows service as a convent, later a University and then as a hospital for pilgrims. In darker times it was used as a prison by the Spanish Inquisition.
There is no denying that the San Marcos, whether convent, prison, or parador, is one of Spain’s national treasures. Its meticulously restored 300 foot sandstone façade is carved in the elaborate Plateresque style patterned on the intricate work of the silversmiths of long ago. Its commanding presence gives it the appearance of a royal palace. A massive carved tableau of St. James the Moor Killer adorns the grand portico. To counteract its drama, ranged along the roof edge are gargoyles, like mischievous creatures from the underworld. They come into their own after a heavy rainfall when water channeled from the roof through pipes exiting from their gaping mouths, projects a soaking deluge onto unsuspecting visitors below.
A Spanish parador with religious connections
The parador, with floors of gleaming marble, is furnished with antique Castilian chairs and massive wooden tables, period paintings, tapestries, brass and copper artwork, iron lanterns and candelabra.
On our way to dinner we passed a central cloister in which huge stone statues gaze sightlessly from arches upon an ever-changing parade of humanity. It was dark and quiet in the cloister where sculpted bushes and parterred gardens filled with a dense tangle of ivy added an air of mystery.
Seating myself on a wooden bench I closed my eyes momentarily to fully appreciate the rare ambience of this historic place. Its silence stirred my imagination. I could almost hear the soft murmur of prayer at the passing of imaginary monks. And from the Gothic church, also part of the hotel, my illusion included voices soaring in a holy chant.
Sampling Spanish cuisine
We dined in the Restaurante Rey Don Sancho that evening. The room was long and narrow with high arched windows and a black and white checkered floor. I chose a typical Leon meal – Espeton de Lechazo a la parrilla (Grilled lamb in brochette served with figs and thinly sliced peppers) and between us we drank a bottle of Palacio de los Guzmanes, a dry red wine named after one of Leon’s noble families.
To complete my Leon gastronomic experience I indulged in a serving of San Marcos Cake, the ‘house dessert’. Even now the memory of that two inch feathery cushion of cake laden with cream and a lemon topping sprinkled with cinnamon sets up a longing in my taste buds.
After dinner we strolled on the paved hotel patio that covers an entire city block. Clipped yews in symmetrical rows, like soldiers in formation and on guard, extended from the street to the hotel entrance. Huge flowerbeds, box-edged in the manner of parterre and filled with marigolds, provided brilliant color and an unforgettable fragrance.
Our suite for the night was elegant and simple. I felt like a Spanish Infanta (princess) reclining in the plump luxurious confines of a canopied bed draped with heavy green brocade. A Persian type rug in subtle shades of pink and green ensured that my bare toes would not encounter anything less than deep luxury when I stepped from the bed. Out on the balcony close to midnight, it was cool and quiet. The formal knot garden of trimmed box hedge gleamed pale in the moonlight.
Pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostelo
Before sunrise the next morning I ventured out onto the piazza to photograph passing pilgrims, and I was in luck. Walking the 740 km Pilgrim Road to Santiago de Compostelo, each carried a rustic carved staff. A scallop shell strategically placed on clothing declared them pilgrims. On reaching their destination they would in the time honored way, prostrate themselves in the cathedral and worship at the shrine of St. James.
As the modern day pilgrims moved away, I settled for a moment beside a life size bronze sculpture of an old time pilgrim seated at the foot of a cross on the piazza. With shoes placed neatly beside him head thrown back, eyes closed, I could sense the exhaustion emanating from his weary frame.
Leon's unique attractions
There is much to see in Leon. There are still remnants of the ancient city wall built by the Romans. The Basilica of San Isidoro with its marvelous painted frescos is considered to be one of Europe’s finest monuments. And for those who crave a more lively ambience, the bars and cafes in the Barrio Humedo – the Old Quarter – will not disappoint.
Gaudi, Spain’s most controversial architect is also represented here. Seated in front of the Casa de Botines, one of his more conventional architectural designs, is a bronze sculpture of the man himself. With a pencil raised as he sketches, he is the backdrop for many a tourist photograph.
Ranking in importance with the Basilica of San Isadoro, is the Leon Cathedral whose stained glass windows rival those in Chatres, France.
To savor the beauty, and history of this 2000 year old Roman city and its palatial Hostel San Marcos one should spend at least a couple of days.
Posted by Anne Gordon on Friday, 22nd October, 2010