Have you ever visited an ancient building and found it hard to believe that it was really built in a time before concrete, cranes and similarly beefy construction equipment? That’s exactly what happened to us at the stunning monastery of San Juan de la Peña in Aragón, where we spent a morning marvelling at the goregeous mediaeval buildings that seem to cling to the red overhang of a sandstone cliff.
This 10th century romanesque monastery, 23km south of Jaca, impresses even the most well-travelled visitor with its excellent state of preservation and, above all, its unique location, seemingly hewn from the mountain itself. This is, in some ways, Spain’s answer to the hanging monastery of China.
The origin of San Juan de la Peña is somewhere in that murky part of Spanish history that saw the conquest of the Spanish peninsula by Muslim invaders from the South. According to historians, a small band of Christians took refuge from the Moorish warriors in one of the many caves that dot the rugged landscape in this part of Aragón. Many years later, a local hunter stumbled across a tiny chapel in one of these caves dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The discovery had such a great impact on him that he abandoned his old life for that of a hermit and, together with his brother, constructed the place of worship that over the years would grow into the monastery as we see it today. Another legend that has grown around the monastery (which, in all fairness, looks like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie), is that this was supposedly the home of the Holy Grail between the 11th and 14th centuries.
The principle points of interest for the visitor are the panoramic church, the paintings of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, the pillar capitals, gothic chapel and the Pantheon of Nobles, which in later years was to become the resting place of many of the kings of Navarra and Aragón.
Many visitors also choose to take a look at the nearby Pre-Romanic churches of San Caprasio and Santa Maria in the village of Santa Cruz de la Serós, and with the imposing 12th Century Castle of Loarre.
For nature lovers, we recommend a visit to the nearby valleys of Hecho and Ansó, less than 50km from San Juan de la Peña and in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in one of Spain’s most impressive areas of natural beauty.
Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña
- Admission: €7
- Opening Hours: 1000 to 1400h and 1530 to 1900h. We recommend checking the monastery’s website before visiting as opening times vary according to the season.
- Website: http://www.monasteriosanjuan.com/
Foto de artículo: Flickr / Canduela
Foto de portada: Flickr / Fernando López