How Leon got Central America's largest cathedral

LEÓN NicaraguaHow the largest cathedral in Central America came to be built in this sun-scorched corner of Nicaragua is open to debate.

Some believe that the local clergy presented the ruling Spaniards with more modest plans and that these, once approved, were secretly altered to produce something much more magnificent. Others, including my guide, Jose Antonio Andino, think the cathedrals construction, which began in 1747, was the result of a Spanish screw-up.

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The Spaniards were sailing to the New World with two sets of plans, for cathedrals in León and Lima, says Jose Antonio. There was a mix-up and the plans that were meant for Peru were used here instead.

Whatever its origins, the cathedral, with its baroque and neoclassical façade stretching a full city block, is one of the reasons curious travellers step off the typical tourist path in Nicaragua (centred in Granada) and on to the narrow streets of this colonial city.

León is in the lowlands of northwest Nicaragua, an area dotted with volcanoes that rumble and spew with surprising regularity (a fact that does not deter visitors from hiking up and sand-boarding down their active slopes). But more than these geological upheavals, León is known for its political drama. The city has been a hotbed of liberal thought in Central America since colonial times. It played a major role in the fall of the American-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and the rise of the leftist Sandinistas who replaced him.

With Jose Antonio as my guide, I explore León on foot, poking around the bustling public market, visiting the university, the countrys first, founded in 1812, and passing colonial homes designed in the old Spanish style, with white adobe walls and red-tiled roofs. Of the many churches we see, the two that impress me most are the mustard-coloured Iglesia de la Recolección, dating from 1786 and built of carved stone in striking baroque style, and the Iglesia de la Merced, also baroque, constructed by monks in 1762. The small park in front of it is now where skateboarders practice their tricks.

But it is the cathedral that proves to be the highlight of my time in León. There is much to see inside this massive structure, including a statue of a black Christ with hack wounds from a pirates sword, paintings of the 14 stations of the cross by Nicaraguan artist Antonio Sarria that are among the masterpieces of Spanish colonial religious art, and a weeping marble lion that guards the tomb of Rubén Darío, a 19th-century poet esteemed in Latin America and a native of León.

From the poets sanctuary a set of narrow stairs leads to the cathedrals domed roof. The lichen-stained cupolas and buttresses present a peaceful scene today, but during a siege of the city in 1824, cannons were placed here and, during the 1979 overthrow of Somoza, guerrilla fighters hunkered down here, high above the street fighting.

Now tranquility reigns and the views from this vantage point, of the surrounding city and the volcanoes that stretch to the horizon, are exquisite.

For more information, visit the Instituto Nicaragüense de Turismo website at visitanicaragua.com.

Ann Britton Campbell is a member of the Meridian Writers Group. Go to culturelocker.com for more stories.

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