Viva la revolución: Politics, poetry, painting and passion in León

A colorful street in Leon. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 October 2018
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Viva la revolución: Politics, poetry, painting and passion in León

  • León offers a wealth of diverse exhibition spaces that are noteworthy
  • León is inarguably at its most compelling after dark

DALLAS: I’m standing in a dimly lit room with a wiry, grey-haired gentleman. He is gesticulating wildly, a manic energy in his eyes as he shouts at me in Spanish. Flies buzz around the damp air. Every so often, my intense interlocutor waves an outstretched limb in the direction of some torn black-and-white photographs, sticky taped to the peeling paintwork, which appear to have been printed off the Internet sometime in the 1990s. I just parted with $2 for this experience. Needless to say, I don’t speak Spanish.

“Come,” he says finally in English — a perplexing acknowledgement that my revolutionary comrade has understood my linguistic predicament for the duration of his 15-minute tirade — and leads me up a dusty staircase to the building’s roof. “It’s safe,” he adds, as we clamber onto the single buckling sheet of corrugated iron that constitutes the roof of the Museo de la Revolucion. The person-sized rips and tears, slashing open a visual trail all the way to the tiled floor below, prompt me to wonder otherwise.

The view however is, as he predicted, “magnifico.” Below, the intoxicatingly grungy city of León, Nicaragua, unfolds — a canvas of intense activity furrowing the multi-hued, faded fringes of this once-glistening colonial outpost, weathered and wrinkled by its own storied past.

León served as the logistical and spiritual center of the liberal Sandinista movement which deposed the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, as this edgy, grassroots museum — and its seasoned staff of former revolutionaries — no doubt attest (to Spanish speakers, at least).

(Shutterstock)

But even without the surreal museum welcome, this is living history, still fresh and felt. Following the US-backed Contra War of the 1980s and an embezzlement scandal which toppled the rightwing PLC party, the Sandinista’s socialist FSLN have been in power since 2006 and the city maintains a wiry political edge to this day, as evidenced by a recent wave of anti-government protests.

Even the most oblivious holidaymaker couldn’t fail to clock the loud graffiti, political sloganeering and locals arguing at café tables into the wee hours. The contrast with the cleaner, droller, and much more touristic colonial twin and Conservative stronghold Granada is palpable. Both cities have their charms, but I’m clearly leaning toward the individualism and restless, visceral energy of León.

Whether you’re a museum person or not, León offers a wealth of diverse exhibition spaces noteworthy and novel enough to constitute compulsory viewing. The Ortiz-Gurdián Foundation Art Museum, one of Central America’s greatest galleries, offers a stunning snapshot of modern and contemporary art from Nicaragua and beyond. Spread across two sprawling, restored colonial buildings punctuated with wide, airy courtyards which offer welcome relief from the midday heat, even the uninitiated will find solace in this diverse collection of colored canvases.

Also obligatory is the Museum of Folklore and Legends, an eclectic exhibit too kooky to be true. Dedicated to the region’s mythology, a series of themed rooms presents life-sized papier-mâché dolls playing out scenes from local legends and Leónese folklore, including the mockery of “original colonist” La Gigantona, housed hauntingly inside La XXI — a former jail used to torture pre-liberation Sandinistas.

(Shutterstock)

Meanwhile, literature fans should not miss the Museo Rubén Darío, the former home of the celebrated poet known as the father of the Spanish-American “modernismo” movement, eerily preserved with period furniture, personal possessions and spread out over a traditional courtyard home.

After the sightseeing is done, stay out in the open: León is inarguably at its most compelling after dark, when the streets electrify and the fierce intellectualism and independence of Leónese locals overpowers the passing dumbfounded backpackers. Festivities spew onto the streets spiraling northwest from Parque Central and its UNESCO-recognized Our Lady of Grace Cathedral. Cafes sit at every corner, debate is lively and music is infectious — the sound of impassioned voices rising ever-louder as dusk darkens and Latino grooves intensify — until finally, even the most potent politicos get up, abandoning argument and succumbing to the beat of this fascinating city.


Saudi Arabia’s “City of Springs” moves step closer to UNESCO recognition

The village is home to dwellings made of polished stone, some four stories high, and a famous mosque. (SPA)
Updated 22 January 2019
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Saudi Arabia’s “City of Springs” moves step closer to UNESCO recognition

  • Village of Zee Ain included on a tentative list within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

JEDDAH: While preserving and restoring national heritage sites is no easy task for any country, ensuring these treasures stand out on the world stage is a whole different ballgame. 
Thankfully, the efforts made by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) have paid off for one village in the Kingdom’s famous Al-Baha region.
The village of Zee Ain, Arabic for “city of springs,” was included on a tentative list within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after King Salman approved its nomination in 2015.
The SCTH has since put forth a multimillion dollar comprehensive restoration plan for the village to make it tourist friendly and shed light on its famous, locally made products.
What makes the village of Zee Ain stand out is its strategic location atop a mountain offering impressive panoramic views of the region’s farms.
The village is home to dwellings made of polished stone, some four stories high, and a famous mosque. The area, which is said to be more than 400 years old, was given its name from the permanent water source that flows into the area from nearby valleys.
The SCTH development plan, which has been underway for several years, consists of two stages. The first is restoring several structures to create an open-air museum overlooking the waterfalls, as well as revamping an existing museum.
The second is constructing a village garden and a visitors’ center, which will eventually include an exhibition of locally made products.

Hidden gem
The peak on which the village is built, which is also set against an impressive backdrop of mountain ranges, is renowned for fruit and spices, including banana, lemon, pepper and basil.
Tourists can also get a glimpse of the historic forts built around the village. Legend has it that the springs were dug inadvertently in search of a cane belonging to well-known local.
The development plan also includes carrying out research studies aimed at shedding light on the city’s unique architecture and the raw material with which doors and windows are made.
Zee Ain was home to many tribal battles before the establishment of the Kingdom. The area is also renowned for a battle in which two famous tribes defeated the Ottomans. As such, it is known among locals as the “site of Turks’ graves.”
Locals in Zee Ain have jumped on board the quest to get their hidden gem on the map. More recently, locals have introduced banana festivals in an attempt to attract farmers and tourists.
Its existence in a region already brimming with natural wonders, including Raghdan Forest, as well as traditional markets selling distinct handicraft, has no doubt boded well for the city of springs, which may one day rival the likes of France’s Mont Saint Michel and Italy’s Amalfi Coast thanks to the distinct vantage point it offers and the geophysical beauty with which it is surrounded.