The tables have been cleared from the bar's dining room; tape marks a wide white circle on the floor. Around it are men; frowning, silent, inscrutable. Outside, on the streets of León, the weird splendour of Easter week is in full Baroque flow. Floats depicting the agonies of the Passion totter past, borne stoically by members of religious confraternities and accompanied by masked, hooded penitentes, atoning for sins many will repeat this very night. Litres of limonada (fruit and wine punch) are stuck away; as a relic from an intolerant past, drinking it is still known as matar judíos (to kill Jews). Christ's anguished face looks down from the crucifix as he progresses down narrow lanes to the hypnotic, off-key wail of bugles.
Inside, a different cross is the focus: the one marked in black felt pen on the back of the two coins in play. Cara ó cruz, head or cross, is the bet; this is chapas and legal only in Easter week. Forget images of carefree Iberia; this is intense, bare-bones gambling. In the absence of bookies, or races, many wait all year for a bet.
My friend Manuel is with me, taut with anticipation but realistic. "Jugar, perder, pagar y callar," he says ("Play, lose, pay and shut up") as bets are matched and coins are thrown into the air. Manuel throws, having bet on crosses. One of each. That means throw again. Two heads; he loses, sips his beer and lights a cigarette. I win, three times running. I'm all for walking with the cash, but Manuel nudges me, the devil in his eyes. "Jugamos"; it is plea and order. Double or nothing. I throw. It's agonising. The coins fall split four times. They spin for what seems like hours, before the fat wad of notes goes to a village man and we walk away.
I grumble, but Manuel is happy; his favourite gambling stories are losses, and I suspect he prefers it. You should see it later, he says; after midnight, when it's €100 a throw.
We stop for a limonada. But we have forgotten that we left home with just what we were prepared to gamble and can't muster 10 cents between us. The barman is understanding. Tomorrow, when I win, I'll shout the whole bar, says Manuel. He would, too.
Andy Symington's Castilla y León Footprint Focus Guide (£8.99), available from footprinttravelguides.comReuse content