View from the bell tower of the Church of the Ascension, in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon is a beautifully restored historic town, once the capital of Nicaragua. It was so hot that I found myself persevering to stay focused on why I had come here to learn about the city. My physical and mental state reminded me of only one other place: of being at the site of ancient Troy while my guide sat, and my daughter and I stood, under a small olive tree and he told me about Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in 113 degree heat, and oh did I seem distracted!

Leon was built in 1610, after the old city was ruined by a nearby volcano. My guide Patricio and I walked the clean narrow streets, passing though a tiny new plaza honoring national poets and heroes, to the central market beautifully restored from a grand historic block of buildings. The market was well maintained, and the produce was fresh and clean.

We went to the Church of Ascension, which is still the center of daily services and activities. It is also the tallest building in the region. Patricio and I went around the block-sized grand edifice and found a side door to the basement, and there a woman was selling tickets to go to the roof of the building. We walked around the block to the opposite side of the building where a man sat by a tiny door. We gave him our tickets and he opened the door where a walled-in, narrow stone staircase went up in front of us, going three levels to the bell tower.

There we were, alone on the bell tower, and able to look out on Leon below us. An attendant soon appeared and told us the history of the Basilica. It took 113 years to complete it. In the 1700s, a French pirate burned it for the gold. The local people built 7 tunnels to connect underground to the other churches in the plaza, since there were 16 Roman Catholic churches in Leon.

View from the roof of the Church of the Ascension, in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

View from the roof of the Church of the Ascension, in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The attendant asked us if we would like to go out onto the roof, and we agreed and removed our shoes as requested. The roof was whitewashed to a pristine white. There were 36 medium-sized domes on the roof, and we had to carefully walk around them to focus on the spectacular view of Leon and 11 volcanoes in the distance. It was a beautiful clear sky and we had visibility for many miles.

We left the basilica and walked across the central plaza to a shell of a large granite building, surely grand at one time, but now in disrepair. There were no signs for public entry but Patricio, my faithful guide across Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, said we could go inside. It was the Museum of The Revolution. This turned out to be quite an experience! A few men were sitting on a bench placed on the bare ground of what would have been beautiful inner gardens. As we walked up the wide interior granite steps, a man sat at a small table facing us. Patricio asked if we could look around.

The man had no tickets and no change, but he still charged us a fee. We stood by the desk and in a few minutes, a man took us to a large empty room with 10 – 12 framed newspaper photos, which were not matted or labeled, but just leaning against the walls of the room. The man began by pointing out one newspaper photo from the 1920s of Augusto Sandino, a great hero of the people of Central America. He had worked for the United Fruit Company and traveled to several countries including Mexico. There he met the revolutionaries, Chi Guevara, and the Castro brothers from Cuba. Sandino was in power 20 years and assassinated by General Somoza (supported by the US) later killed by Ernesto Lopez. General Somoza’s son became President and fighting continued until 1979—the last revolution. The US was involved in this revolution, with William Samson being the US and Marines’ involvement.

Learning about the Revolution in Nicaragua from a former guerrilla fighter. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Our man took us to another room with very high ceilings—at one time this was a grand place, but not even wallpaper or paint or a stick of furniture remains. Again, leaning against the walls were a few framed newspaper photos. As the man was talking about one of the photos, the man from the rickety table came in and told the man he had spent enough time with us—now it was time to go. The man ignored him and continued to tell Patricio and me about the revolutionary history of Nicaragua. The last photo he showed us was of him and four other men, including Daniel Ortega.

They were the Sandinista guerrilla fighters of the revolution, and I was now talking with one of them. The photo was from the 1970s, when they were all young men; he was 19. Now he is in his 50’s and Ortega is President of Nicaragua. Leon was the first place to start the revolution, and it is still a place where liberals and poets gather today. The former Sandinista guerrilla fighter shook my hand, and Patricio took a photo of us together. It was a different museum experience—one that I will remember.

In the plaza, I passed a large bell that is rung only on Independence Day in September of each year. It was mid-day and over 100 degrees. I stopped at El Cabararo, then San Francisco Church (the oldest church in Leon), and then back to the former nunnery, to my air-conditioned room for a short reprieve before exploring further. Early mornings and evenings are best for outside adventures in this heat!

(posted October 31, 2017)