Postcards from León
“Adiós! Adiós!” The little boy’s mother waved and laughed as he remained powerless, legs dangling, in the arms of a waiter. Just moments before, the bearded giant had swiftly picked him up, starting down the slope with a mischievous grin. “I’ll take him away!” he chuckled, “I’ll take him away!”
My mother and I witnessed the scene from the shade of a terraza, over a plate of stuffed piquillo peppers, as rays of sunlight spilled between the umbrellas on the Plaza de San Martín. This humble, understated square was the nerve centre of León’s “wet quarter”, the Barrio Húmedo, so named because of the sheer number of bars and clubs packed into its confines. Over the next two days, we would stroll from plaza to plaza, through the warren of twisting, narrow streets, bursting with life at every turn.
León derives its name not from the lion in its coat of arms, but from its military origins. Founded in Roman times, the early settlement became a permanent base for the Seventh Legion (Legio Septima Gemina) in 74 AD. Sections of surviving Roman wall still demarcate the boundaries of the old city, which eventually grew to importance as the seat of an independent kingdom. Successor state to the Kingdom of Asturias, León ruled over a large expanse of Iberia at its zenith in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its final king, Alfonso IX, was far ahead of his time – in 1188 he summoned the Cortes of León, the first democratic parliament in European history, and in 1218 he recognised the University of Salamanca as a “General School for the Kingdom”, now the third-oldest institute of higher learning in the Western World.
Around the Barrio Húmedo, I found myself drawn to the marks of graffiti scrawled in simple black lettering. PAÍS LLÏONÉS – Leonese Country. LEÓN IS NOT CASTILE. The words were reflective of simmering rivalry and regionalism, a product of political decentralisation in the post-Francoist era. Perhaps more significantly, some of the words were written in Leonese, a branch of closely related languages spoken across north-central Spain and in the Portuguese borderlands. Recent years have seen the quiet re-emergence of this forgotten minority tongue, now taught in a handful of local schools throughout the city. Today Leonese is classified by UNESCO as a seriously endangered language, whose native speakers number only between 20,000-50,000.
But that was not always so. Leonese reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries as both a literary language and one of administration, before being gradually replaced by Castilian Spanish. Its slow decline in the following centuries gathered pace under the rule of Franco, who outlawed Catalan, Basque and other minority languages. Some experts believe that Leonese may die out within the next two generations, but if the cause is championed as strongly as in neighbouring Asturias, it may stand a fighting chance.