León, Our Favorite Hospitalero, and a Brilliant Cathedral

In Burgos two nights ago, a man shouted out in his sleep, twice. I see him on the podium in Santiago.

The Santa María de Carbajal Albergue

Carrie in León

In León, the Santa María de Carbajal hostel is a donativo, a donation-based hostel, and it’s connected to a convent. (The nuns appeared to have been warned of my coming, for they were not in evidence). Since the original Convento de San Marcos, founded in 1152, separated men’s and women’s dormitories, the men in León have been separated from the women. This is because, according to a presumably ancient document referred to in my guidebook, “it is a dishonest thing to have women and men in a single dormitory”, and the “quality of people who come to the hospice are not of high caliber.”

Among dozens of men in our all-male dorm the first night in León, only one snored. One. In the co-ed dorms we’ve slept in during the last two weeks, we always had at least a half-dozen. Based on last night’s statistically valid scientific sample, I have provisionally concluded

Leon Street Scene

that snoring is evolutionarily adaptive. Snoring must be something men do only to attract the preferred sex. (The snorer in León’s all-male dorm, it must be concluded, was gay). Further study will be required to discover why the preferred sex is actually attracted by the schnarcher. I leave this to future Nobel laureates.

The hostel did not provide pillows, so, having heard that the windows would be left open at night, I slept in my clothes and kept a few more on hand, and packed everything else – including my camera case and FiveFingers – into a makeshift pillow.

The award for best hospitalero on the Camino will be hard to wrest from the gentle hands of Thomas Schlitt-Krebs, of Heidelberg, Germany. Thomas seemed to be everywhere, at all times, speaking at least English and Spanish in addition to German. (For all I know he spoke French, too). I saw him pouring coffee for people, and even mixing in their milk. He led pilgrims to their bunks. He gave out taxi numbers. He gave advice on what to see and do. We talked about the biophysics of running and walking. And always he had that brilliant smile, and an infectious lovingkindness.

And he went an extra mile for Mom. After we decided to stay an extra night at the

Guys Waiting for a Bus in Leon

albergue, he led Mom past a room not yet filled up and put her in the same room as the night before – which she and Carrie had had to themselves. For this he got grief from a French hospitalera, who insisted on the rules: people must fill up space in the proper order, so Mom should be slotted into the dorm room that still had vacancies. But Thomas was firm, and told Mom that he had told the hospitalera he would take the matter up with the sisters if he had to. “I prayed for you last night,” he told Mom the next morning.

He asked her if the Camino was, for her, a religious pilgrimage. She said it was not. She explained that her father, a Lutheran, had been disowned by his family for marrying my Oma, a Catholic, and that she, Mom, had had some unhappy experiences in her Catholic school. “I have a lot of issues with that church,” she said.

He nodded. “I understand completely. You must believe in something, though, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“Yes,” she said. “I do. I felt the Camino wasn’t even my decision, but that it called me.” She doesn’t put what guides her (I deleted the misleading “what she believes”) into words, and she seems to have arrived at the same place I have, which is that the explanation is far less important than the attitudes and behavior that result.


It’s tempting to think León is named for a lion, but in fact it comes from the Roman 7th Le/gi/on, which founded a camp on this site in the year 70 CE, just as the first Jewish War was getting underway in Israel. The Romans wanted to protect the Galician gold mines from the grubby hands of the indigenous population. The Romans worked tirelessly from here for 350 years in their attempt to conquer the barbarians of northwest Spain. It was for naught, of course, because the Roman Empire would fall near the end of that time, and León then saw a succession of Visigothic, Muslim, and Christian rulers.

After we had arrived at the albergue, I found Mom holding court with an audience of four

Mom in Leon

of five German men. One of them, their priest, was taking notes. “Good God, man!” I wanted to cry. “She sees you taking notes, none of us will ever eat or sleep again!” He had run for his notebook when Mom told him of her original rules for Carrie: get up as early as five, no time for fussing with hair or make-up, and no complaining or whining. (Carrie is, so far, the youngest person we have seen on the Camino, and by at least four years. She has complained less than any of us).

The priest asked Carrie what was the most beautiful stage on the Camino and what was the hardest. “The Pyrenees, for both,” she said. Did she regret coming? “No!” She would later tell another person, in response to his question, that the trip was “Wonderful!”

The German priest said that, for him, León was more beautiful than Burgos. It is a charming city. Its many pedestrian streets are a riot of color: shops, café-bars, painted two-story buildings and their shutters, pots of flowers in windows. We ran into a Mercado Medieval,

Leon Mercado Medieval

a sort of street fair with a medieval theme, and perhaps a hundred different hawkers of crafts and food dressed in medieval garb. Burros gave children a ride around a park. Eight birds of prey sat on display, and a local Boreal Lynx prowled, or tried to, on its ten-foot leash.

The cathedral in León, copied at 2/3 scale from the Rheims Cathedral in France, is a more pure example of 13th century Gothic than the one in Burgos, whose 15th-century Flemish-Gothic additions complicate matters. León’s is also less elaborate, arguably less gaudy. The interior is more understated. But what distinguishes Leon’s cathedral are the exorbitant number of its stained-glass windows.

Leon Cathedral

We walked in to the transporting sounds of a single man (a monk? on tape or live?) singing Gregorian chants. We sat down and listened while craning our necks to look at the windows far above. My guidebook, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago, suggests pilgrims savor the cathedral slowly, and to

rest for an hour on the benches in front of the cathedral’s west façade and watch the afternoon sun play on the sculptured portals and the spires of the towers. When the sun strikes full on the rose window, go inside and stand for a few moments in the middle of the nave[,] breathing in the colors of the light. Watch them change intensity as they glide across the floor while the sun drops. Think of how these soaring towers of stone, this vast open internal space, and these dancing colors must have blown the mind of your average medieval pilgrim.

Was it because there was so much less gold in León’s cathedral that I didn’t think about blood as much as I had in the Burgos cathedral? Here was a space that felt more inhabited by the sacred.

A sign said pictures were not allowed, but I risked eternal damnation, or at least a longer

Leon Cathedral Retablo

stint in purgatory, and got some good shots that are now on Facebook.

From the outside, the stained-glass windows looked uniformly daubed in something like soot and dirt: they were entirely an opaque tan color, and not at all representative of what we found within. I wondered how much more brilliant the light inside the cathedral would be if the windows outside were clean. An excerpt from a novel written in 1605 provides a clue:

I went inside, but I was sure that I hadn’t, and that I was still in the plaza, as the cathedral is so glassed and transparent . . . You can drink from this church as from a glass cup.

León also boasts an 11th-century collegiate Church of San Isidoro, which one guidebook says may have the best in situ paintings in Spain, if not all of Europe.  Next door is the Pantheon of the Kings of León, named, I believe, after the rock band from Tennessee.

Thomas took me aside at breakfast this morning. Interestingly, Krebs, the latter part of his hyphenated surname, is German for “cancer”. “When there is a sickness in the family,” he said, “everyone is affected. Everyone has it, in a way. I know this. So there may be times when you need to say, ‘Mom, I must go my own way for a bit, I must be for myself now.’”

We thanked him profusely when we left. “Well,” he said modestly, “special circumstances call for special measures.”


With Julio and Marie Anne gone, we found ourselves meeting and talking to more people than before. A French student and a wily Basque offered me some wine. (The Basque had earlier played Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” from his cell phone while readying himself for the shower. I started to sing it, he joined in, and we were fast friends thereafter). I gave my map to a departing older Irishman who told us jokes about Ireland’s weather, like its “four winters per year”.

So as to have a meal that involved neither jamón nor queso, we went, with a Danish medical student and an actor from Chicago, to an Indian restaurant. The waiter was also the cook, so we were there for a long time. The actor said he’d heard of an American doctor’s advice to a patient not to take anti-depressants but to go on the Camino instead. He himself took this advice, and said his depression of the last eighteen months has disappeared during his long walks. We talked to a beautiful young Scottish woman, an art student, who was at a loss to explain why she spoke with an English accent or to provide a convincing rationale for not being twenty years older. There were four Seattleites.

And last night, about thirty of us pilgrims followed a nun, sixtyish and diminutive, to the sisters’ modest little chapel, which boasted a brilliant-gold retablo that would have dominated any church in the U.S.  Before we entered, she said something to the effect that we were not tourists, but seekers of God. She led us through a singing of some verse, in Spanish. “Muy bueno,” she said. And then she paused for a beat, and added, “Mas o menos”. More or less. We all burst out laughing. Then we entered the church, and there they were, arrayed in the choir, a baker’s dozen of nuns, and after that I understood nothing. Except her loud claps at an unfortunate young woman whose cell phone rang four or five times.

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