Monday 8 August 2011


Picos to Leon
Down from Sotos, via some ups, vaguely looking for somewhere to stop for a brief coffee, but not seeing anywhere. The lake of Riano looked from the map like it ought to be a place - we pass the dam that has flooded this valley, and then spend a long time driving along the lakeshore - but the town of Riano appears devoid of interest and the lake itself too: it looks dry, weirdly, in that the surrounding hills are, and the lake itself is maybe 20 m down its steep basin, so dipping toes in the water isn't an option.

Coming in to Leon itself is confusing, and I nearly get annoyed at M for leading us obviously the wrong way, but somehow going in by the backstreets is the correct, or at least a working, option: and here we are.


(version two of my wise words. Version one, incomplete, died in a reboot - I knew I shouldn't have just left it in a browser window unsaved but did anyway. Hopefully I can recapture the spontenaity of the original).

From the mountains, to the burning plains. We'd booked ahead to the Parador San Marcos, and arrived about 6. The Parador was far above our usual level of luxury - they are a "chain" of state-run hotels (can you imagine state-run hotels in England? In Spain the state is different; they are housed in historic buildings, somewhat like a Landmark Trust only with grander buildings). So the prices are high, but not insanely so, and the buildings rumoured to be good, and this one at least is 5-star; we'd booked ahead with some trepidation. Within half an hour of arriving, though, we'd decided to stay an extra night, the builing was so astonishingly wonderful.

It is a former fortress/convent/barracks/hostel/hospital on the Compostella route, belonging to the order of St James, once rich and powerful, having (I may have the history a touch wonky here) evolved from something of a travellers protection/police into a virtual government for the regions. The front facade is carved stone, particularly fine in slanting morning or evening light, with medallions of various famous personages now forgotten - or maybe if you're Spanish you know them all. Pedro, Carlos, you get the idea. All gracefully carved, now gently fading, so some miss noses or ears or more. To the L is the river, with a wide embankment shaded by trees and with benches and (here) bwols-type runs; an old stone bridge; and a weir; and upstream a wider-than-elsewhere willowly stream. To the R the building has the large Church and then shades off into the former hospital, I think, now administrative. In front is a spacious plaza with little bubbly fountains very pleasant on hot feet; and behind, over the car-park, is the very moderd building of the Junta of Castille y Leon (cue graffiti: "Leon Solo" and Castille y Leon on the signs; but other than graffiti, no signs, though I'm not sure what else I could have seen). Our rooms are in the annex, which extends seamlessly back from the main building; it is neutral on the outside, but that is OK, as you don't have to see the outside. According to which side of the corridor you're assigned you get a view over the car park or (us, luck) over the garden, formally planted to little hedges. But the way the building is made - to avoid the sun, curtained, inward - you don't really look out anyway.

Inside, adjoining and connected to the church, is a spacious cloister, and this is glorious. It works best on a hot day; and the day of our arrival, and the next, were clear-blue cloudless-sky hot days such that moving out of the shade was not fun. And I realised something that should not have taken me so long: that it is not just being in the shade that matters, because being in the shade of a parasol in the middle of a hot square (whilst better than being in full sun) is still very hot, due to the thermal radiation from all the hot surfaces around you (as well as some reflected sunlight). Whereas in the cloister all the surfaces are cool, and only a small amount of sky is visible and little sunlight gets in, so it is delightfully cool. We wandered the lower cloister, admiring the various carvings, and the four large statues (removed from the Catedral during restoration ~150 years ago), and the views through the arches, and the little garden. Only the next day, after breakfast (which is half-upstairs) did we realise you can get into the upper cloister, which has 2-for-1 arches over the lower. And there, marvellously, you can just sit on the thoughtfully provided benches and seats and read or play cards or amuse yourself as you please (and I'm still not sure if only hotel guests may do this, or the public too; but very few seem to have realised they could). If you sit on the closest-to-the-river side, you can look out through the arches at the church roof, and the brick tower (looking to my eye like something from a Mexican film, but I suppose it is really the other way around).

We booked ourselves in for dinner, partly to spare ourselves a walk through the streets and partly to see what it could produce. The answer was, as I expected, a fine meal not to our tastes. And this was probably more a flaw in our tastes rather than the food, and interesting contrast to our appreciation of the building, which was enthusiastic. So D, for example, had selected as starter a "juicy rice" dish, fully expecting it to be a paella. But it was a very full and meaty soup or broth, somewhat fishy, with rice in it, deeply tasty. D far preferred the simple coarsely done paella he'd had on his 10 euro menu in Cangas. At this remove, I've largely forgotten my meal - except for the asparagus, which was OK, but probably not as good as that which M cooks from Waitrose stuff.

The 5-star virtues shone out at the breakfast buffet, though, when the choice was near-infinite: toast; melon, orange, papaya slices; orange, kiwi, melon juices; breads, cakes, croissants, etc; fruit; chestnuts in syrup; yoghurt (from the yoghurt machine!); sausages, tortilla, eggs, etc; and so on and so forth in such variety that I struggled to sample what I'd like. There was a silly bug in the coffee machine UI, though: you could, via "menu", select a wide variety of languages. But from there it was hard to exit the menu: you had to flip though to 7, "exit" and leave via that - totally non-intuitive. Which meant that by the end of breakfast, most of the coffee-machines had become non-usable to ordinary folk. Which didn't really matter, as you could just order coffee anyway.

I'd got up fairly early - 6:30 - to go for a decent run, as this was a perfect place for it; running alongside river embankments is good. I ran over the bridge and then L, downstream, which I thought was E, but which turned out to be probably SE; the sun wasn't up at this point but the sky was paling. A footpath / cycleway runs along the river, and I followed this for perhaps 4 km, only seeing one other runner who I hoped to catch but who turned out to be Fast. Somewhere I swapped banks and passed by some folk, probably tourists (because of the rucksacs rather than carrier bags) sleeping out rough, still buried asleep in their s'bags; then the river path ran out and I turned L, NE away from the main river along a side stream, along cycle track then road then track, and (lacking GPS) kept going for 50 minutes. I negotiated this with myself, calculating that I could count this as 20 km including the return, which took the same. As I ran the sun came up, but due to hills and the surrounding stuff, it didn't rise in any satisfyingly spectacular way. The terrain I ended up in was New Build land, rather soulless, with the characteristic patches of empty land. Coming back I flt good and picked up the pace, so the return was exactly the same time as the outward. A little sit in the plaza to cool in the early sun before returning for a shower. B'fast with M - children not really awake and definitely not Up - a look at the outside - and dig out DE for their breakfast, and a sit in the cloisters.

Not early
Catedral - not open
Street cleaner/waterer
Didn't even go round back of C
Inside, space
Basillica - OK but
Kids bored - too much kulture
Pushed the walk-in-hot-sun envelope too much
Next days run
Last sit

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