Lleida and La Seu Vella

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November 9th 2010
Published: March 17th 2011
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Lleida is the capital of the province by the same name and has probably been my most visited location during my time here - mainly because I have passed through everytime I have gone anywhere in Spain. I have become intimately aquainted with the train station and spent too much time shivering on platforms and wandering around trying to pass the usual hour-long wait between trains.
Lleida was once a chief city of an Iberian tribe, the Ilergetes and defended aginst the Romans. Eventually, under Roman rule, the city was incorporated into the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis. During the Great Civil War the Battle of Llerda took place within the city, as in June of 49BCE the Spanish army of Pompey the Great, led by his legates Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, held out against a seige by the forces of Julius Ceasar until by 30th July, Caesar had completely surrounded their army and on 2nd August, the 5 legions of the Pompeian army in Ilerda surrendered to Caesar.
Lleida came under Moorish rule until being reconquered in by the Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona in 1149. During the Reapers' War, Lleida was occupied by the French and rebel forces the conquered in 1644 by the Spanish under D. Felipe da Silva. Lleida served as a key defense point for Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. It was bombed in 1937, infamously in November that year when the German Condor Legion, fighting with the Nationalists, bombed a school, Liceu Escolar de Lleida killing 48 children and several teachers, and bringing the death toll up to 300 in the city on that day. The city was bombed and held at seige again in 1938 when it was taken by Franco's forces.
The main tourist draw in the city is the La Seu Vella, an impressive cathedral seated on the hill overlooking the city. The site was previously home to a Palaeo-Christian and Visigothic cathedral, which later, after the Islamic conquest of Spain, was rebuilt in 832 to be used as a mosque. In 1149, after the city's conquest by the Christian Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona and Ermengol VI of Urgell (1149), the structure was reconsecrated as "Santa Maria Antiqua", and entrusted to the Augustinians.
In 1193, however, the Lleida cathedral council ordered the construction of a new building and architect Pere de Coma undertook the design of the new cathedral. The first stone was laid in 1203 by King Peter II of Aragon and Count Ermengol VII of Urgell. Construction continued throughout the reign of James I of Aragon. The cathedral was consecrated to the Virgin Mary on 31 October 1278, although the cloisters were not completed until the 14th century, at which time work on the belltower was begun. Construction finally ended in 1431.
In 1707 King Philip V of Spain had the building converted into a military barracks, although his original intention was to have it detroyed after it had been used for defense during the Spanish War of Succession. The building was declared a national monument in 1918, and restoration works were started in 1950.
I have actually already visited La Seu Vella three times. The first time the cathedral was wrapped in a thundercloud and the principal's daughter was dutifully taking me on a sightseeing tour, though obviously history is not her thing and she could tell me little as we hurried a cicuit around the outside walls and then moved on quickly to school-related shopping and lunch.
Following visits allowed me greater exploration but it was this latest time that finally enables me to fully appreciate the magnificent building. We meandered down the protruding walkway, presumably originally used for defense and enjoyed the views across the city. We had perhaps the most picturesque view of Lleida as the sun was highlighting the river and the grassy banks and trees, framed by the buildings on each side.
We walked back towards the building entering through the stone gate and wandering around the outside of the church. La Seu Vella is a peaceful place and affords magnificant views across the city from every direction. Despite being the main tourist draw of the area, the area itself seems to be slightly off the tourist trail and therefore relatively quiet and free of people. I suppose even I would think twice about a three hour journey from Barcelona just to see another church!
We enjoyed the peace and quiet and followed the path around slowly, walking up to he front of the cathedral and for the first time finding the building actually open! We stopped first to enjoy the view again from our higher vantage point and to admire the beautiful carvings around the chathedral door and catch glimpses into the cloisters.
We finally entered and saw the cloisters from the interior. The cloisters are unusually placed at the front of the church and are notable for their impressive size and the open gallery overlooking the city.
We ducked into the small doorway to one side of the cloisters and began to ascend the steps - all 238 of them! It was quite the workout and when we thought we'd reached the top we found ourselves on a narrow ledge beside the bells leading to another small doorway and an even narrower set of steps spiraling even further upwards. We eventually emerged at the very top, buffetted by the strong winds. The view was worth the climb and the anticipated aches and pains of tomorrow.
After admiring the views from the highest point we began our descent and returned to admiring the cloisters. We entered the church, unfortunately mourning the passing of the camera battery as we did so. The interior is vast and while detailed carvings nestle at the base of the interior arches the overall appearance is austre, and elegant in its barreness. We saw a few statues and carvings collected from other parts of the church and viewed the fading hues of the painted Chapel of St Thomas, which dates from the 13th century.
Eventually we left the quiet granduer of La Seu Vella and hurried ourselves back to the train station and homeward bound.

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