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 neo-Gothic 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.
We were now in mountainous country, admiring the snow-covered tops of the Picos de Europa which rise to about 8,000 feet. Large birds of prey were circling above us, and one day we saw a pair of griffon vultures enjoying the thermals in the national park beyond Covadonga. (Tourist coaches climb the hill to this so-called birthplace of Spain, where a Visigoth king inflicted the Moors’ first defeat. There is little to see except for a grotesque 19th-century basilica.)
Rather more interesting is the wealth of wildflowers to be seen throughout the Picos. We were too late for the orchids, but at various times saw astrantia, irises and anemones growing in hay meadows, crane’s-bill, vetch, saxifrage, yellow rattle and so many others unknown to us. If only a botanist could have materialised at my side. Some of the rarest plants and birds can be seen above the parador at Fuente De, where a cable car takes you up the mountain.
Paradors are plentiful in northern Spain — some are converted monasteries or castles, others are modern with glorious mountain views, like the one at Cervera de Pisuerga, north-west of Burgos. And for those of us of a certain age (one of a couple needs to be over 60), discounts of 30 per cent are offered by all paradors under their ‘Golden Days’ scheme, for a double room and an exceptionally good buffet breakfast.
Around Cervera we came across several charming little Romanesque churches, often set on a hill outside small villages. Most memorable was the hermitage of Santa Eulalia at Barrio de Santa Maria, from which something like 30 storks’ nests were visible, and most of them occupied. The 12th-century church has a slightly disconcerting fresco over the nave which depicts devil figures throwing humans into a cauldron — and stoking the fire with very modern-looking bellows.
In the delightfully unspoilt town of Aguilar de Campoo the Romanesque church was closed, but the monastery of Santa Maria la Real revealed its beautiful Gothic cloister and intricately carved capitals. On the way out of town we inhaled the seductive smell of vanilla from the local biscuit factory.