León, the ancient capital of Castile and León, sits on the banks of the Bernesga River in the high plains of Old Castile; today it's a wealthy and conservative provincial capital and prestigious university town. The wide avenues of western León are lined with boutiques, and the twisting alleys of the half-timber old town hide the bars, bookstores, and chocolaterías most popular with students.

Historians say that the city was not named for the proud lion that has been its emblem for centuries; rather, they assert that the name is a corruption of the Roman word legio (legion), from the fact that the city was founded as a permanent camp for the Roman legions in AD 70. The capital of Christian Spain was moved here from Oviedo in 914 as the Reconquest spread south, ushering in the city's richest era.

As you wander the old town, you can still see fragments of the 6-foot-thick ramparts that were once part of the Roman walls. Look down and you might notice small brass scallop shells set into the street. The scallop is the symbol of St. James; the town government installed them to mark the path for modern-day pilgrims heading north to Santiago de Compostela.

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