The intoxicating smell of grilled meat and the plumes of smoke indicate that I’m close. I’ve just arrived in León, the revolutionary capital of Nicaragua, and my first mission after a long bus ride is to find food.
Behind the cathedral I can spot the little chairs and tables of the fritangas. Fritangas are small, casual outdoor food stands that fill the main square just before sunset in most Nicaraguan towns. There’s no menu, it’s point and choose, and the main staple food is rice and beans. And succulent grilled meat!
Walking around the town, it is immediately clear that León will not reveal its beauty like Granada: it doesn’t overwhelm you with its colonial charm. In León, you have to scratch the surface.
I start of at the beautiful UNAN university building whose patio houses an exhibition on Ruben Darío, Nicaragua’s most famous poet and, together with Sandino, the national hero of the country.
It’s only a short walk to the Cathedral. The Cathedral is León’s masterpiece of colonial charm. She looks majestically over the Parque Central and is a sort of pantheon of Nicaraguan culture: the tomb of Rubén Darío is on one side of the altar and nearby lie the tombs of lesser-known poets. On a clear day, it is absolutely worth climbing up to the roof. It offers breath-taking views over Nicaragua’s volcano-chain and the Iglesia Dulce Nombre de Jesús el Calvario!
In León there is no way escaping its revolutionary past. During the 1979 revolution the Sandinistas took over León in violent street protests and student break-outs, against the Somoza government. From there on the revolution spread over the rest of Nicaragua. Throughout the city centre, relics of the turbulent 80’s remain: colourful murals depict the violent street scenes, the eternal flame still burns at the Mausoleum of Heroes and Martyrs and silhouettes of Sandino keep his memory alive. But if you really want to learn what happened here, you should visit the “Museo de la Revolución” It is staffed by (Sandinista) veterans who are happy to explain the story behind the pictures. Narrated from their point of view of course…
I take a rest at the local market. Fruit stalls sell an exotic range of watermelon, pineapple, papaya and an intriguing thing called “raspados”. Raspados are ice shavings shaped into a ball and flavoured with different syrups. It tastes better than it sounds and it’s very refreshing in the heat of the day!
Back on my feet, I continue my tour along some of León’s beautifully decorated, colonial churches. There’s no lack of them, but the well-worn yellow baroque façade of the “Iglesia de La Recoleccion” is my absolute favourite.
I really like León, it is a bit “rough and ready” and might not be as polished and charming as Granada, but it has more buzz, more going on, more spirit!
I finish my stay with a glass of “flor de caña” rhum in one of León’s many bars. I wish I could stay a bit longer…
Have you been to León? Looking forward to reading your impressions in the comments!