Day: July 27, 2007

Retreats With Peace of Mind

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SINCE the Middle Ages, monasteries in Europe have opened their doors to pilgrims and travelers. Today, monastic hospitality is also extended to tourists, who are attracted by the low price tag, the secluded medieval ambiance and the unspoiled locations.Spain has several dozen monasteries and nunneries that accept guests, many in sites of great natural beauty.

Most such religious establishments in Spain are geared toward modern travelers, but some monasteries and nunneries open their doors to either men or women only and limit guests to those who genuinely seek solitude and retreat. None require participation in religious activities although punctuality for meals and respect for the monastic way of life are requested.

Recently I decided to visit two of these — a monastery that takes both men and women as guests and a nunnery that takes women only, each for a weekend. Both institutions are on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrims’ route that crosses northern Spain from east to west to the tomb of Saint James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela.

The Benedictine monastery of Valvanera, nestled in the mountains of the Rioja wine region, offers good hiking and bird watching. Medieval towns with a wealth of historical sites are only a short drive from the monastery through picturesque countryside of rolling hills and vineyards.

The Cistercian nunnery, San Miguel de las Duenas, is at the edge of a small town of the same name in northern Leon, also near a cluster of medieval sites. I chose these two mainly for their nearness to historic and scenic sites, although the monastery had been highly recommended by Spanish friends as an unbeatable weekend retreat. The nunnery, near a mysterious 10th-century castle, seemed like an adventure to share with my 8-year-old daughter, Andrea.

From Madrid, I set out for Valvanera with my husband, Jose, and youngest child, David, 5, on a weekend in late January. It was about a four-hour drive on the new four-lane N1 highway and toll road to Logrono. At 3,200 feet above sea level, the 15th-century Gothic monastery loomed above us, set into the steep slope of Mount Mori in the Distercio mountains. We followed a winding road alongside a rushing mountain river toward the abbey, half-way up the narrow lushly wooded mountain valley.

As we approached the brownstone abbey complex at dusk, a few hooded monks, in the black Benedictine habit, were returning to the cloister. An enormous keyring jangled in the hand of one who locked one of the thick wooden outside doors of the abbey, built in the 17th century at a right angle to the church. It seemed incongruous to be driving through a Gothic stone archway into a small parking area. However, a cubbyhole tavern in the three-foot-thick wall of the abbey hostel reminded us we were in 20th century Spain. The tavern serves local Rioja wine, other beverages and snacks for those who fail to adhere to the strict monastic mealtime schedule, we later learned.

Walking through the driveway, one sees a lookout perch with a view of the narrow wooded valley below. The rushing of the rapids, the occasional clanging of a distant cowbell, and the cacophony of birds settling down created an overwhelming sense of solitude. The forest on the opposite mountainside seemed a little over a stone’s throw across the valley. The dozen monks in residence own their own livestock and cultivate vegetables and fruit trees on narrow terraced ledges for a few hundred feet below the lookout and parking area. Every inch of land is cultivated to make the abbey almost self-sufficient using seasonal homegrown produce. About 200 feet to the left of the lookout station and under a small cliff is a small chapel where the monks are buried.


Brother Martin, the “innkeeper monk,” was waiting to welcome us. Stout and jovial, he is the life force of the monastery for guests. He showed us around parts of the abbey open to the public, which included the 15th-century church, a large vaulted-ceiling living room and the hostel.

According to legend, the abbey church dates back to the fourth century, but most of the present structure is 15th century, constructed over an 11th-century Romanesque sanctuary. The church itself, made with local brownstone, looks like a miniature cathedral, compressed to a two- or three-story building. Colorful modern abstract leaded glass windows have replaced the originals and, during winter months, masses are held in a heated modern chapel to the left of the main altar.

“It’s too cold in here for services,” Brother Martin apologized. Unfortunately, it was also too cold for Gregorian chants, which the monks sing inside the cloistered part of the abbey during winter instead of in the church’s choir of carved walnut chairs. Men, however, can ask permission to sit in on the chants.

Valvanera is best known for its 11th-century Romanesque wood sculpture of the Virgin of Valvanera, patron saint of the Rioja. A granite stairway to the right of the altar leads to a back chamber where one can see it at close range. The polychromed Virgin is seated with the Christ child twisted in an anatomically impossible position with his feet and legs pointing backward. “That is because He turned His head to avoid seeing the looting of Napoleon’s troops,” Brother Martin explained with a mischievous smile, referring to Napoleon’s conquest of the area in 1809. Centered behind the Virgin’s chamber lies the sacristy where antique ornaments are kept, which can be arranged to be seen with a monk.

In the church library, which you must also arrange to visit accompanied by a monk, ask to see an exquisitely illuminated codex dating from the 10th century, which is part of a collection of 29 leather-bound codices and songbooks. Monastic records show that Queen Isabella stayed at the abbey in 1482 to venerate the Virgin of Valvanera.The library room itself was not particularly interesting and the lighting was poor.

A 17th-century Renaissance brownstone abbey, rather ordinary, where the monks live, flanks the church and is closed to visitors. Joined to the abbey at a right angle, another two-story 17th-century building, remodeled somewhat shabbily in the 1950’s, has 30 guest rooms that have recently been retiled. Shuttered windows through two-foot-thick walls overlook the valley and abbey on the south side. During the day, sunlight floods the rooms. On the north side, windows look into the steep and rocky mountainside a few feet away.

ALL rooms have private baths with plenty of scalding hot water, and central heating, which is turned down at night, but you can ask for extra blankets. The austere 10 foot-by-16 foot rooms are furnished with beds that must date from the 1950’s restoration. (Anyone with back problems would do better with the mattress on the floor.) Double and single rooms have a desk with a gooseneck lamp and a comfortable armchair. Rooms for three and four people do without the desk and armchair. A religious painting decorates the bare white walls.

The only telephone is a cabin next to Brother Martin’s office in the hallway, but he is rarely there, meaning you may not be able to make phone calls whenever you wish to, andthere is no television or radio reception in these mountains.

Bells rang at 8:30 sharp for dinner and guests sat at assigned tables in a simple dining room. The tables had pink and white tablecloths and a blue-jean-clad hired waitress helped Brother Martin serve a frugal dinner of fresh winter garden vegetables, an omelet and freshly baked bread while he chatted with with each of the guests. Each table gets a bottle of excellent local wine that stays until the next meal and is replaced as needed.

After dinner we were all invited to the majestic vaulted living room for a nightcap of the monks’ own herbal liqueur, Licor del Monasterio de Valverna, which they also sell. Seated on hard wooden benches and chairs, we all huddled around a dwindling fire in one of the two huge stone chimneys.

Brother Martin appeared and pointed to four of the men, including my husband. “You, you, you and you. Follow me,” he ordered. Dutifully, they followed him through the No Entrance door, through the dark cloister, down dank narrow stairways, down to the distillery, past the herbs drying and finally out to a porticoed courtyard where they loaded up with firewood, and Brother Martin picked up two bottles of liqueur.

The fire was soon blazing as we sipped the medicinal-flavored spirits in the sit-around-the-campfire atmosphere. “This is Valvanera,” Brother Martin beamed as he poured us all another shot.

The next morning, after a buffet breakfast of cheese, toast, honey from the abbey beehives, with coffee, tea or instant hot chocolate (cold cuts were also available), we set out for a hike through the mountains. Several dirt roads, as well as steep goat paths and trails, lead to the rapids below or up to snow-covered Mount Mori.

Within an hour the abbey gleamed far below us in brilliant sunshine and the silence of the crisp mountain air was broken only by a wild birds, the mournful lowing of a lost cow and my impatient 5-year-old, ahead of us, yelling “Come on!” The lush vegetation had changed to hardier scrubby trees and brush.

Exhausted by our hike, we returned to the abbey to find the parking lot full of local bicyclists who had arrived for lunch. Sunlight poured through the enormous arched windows of the living room, where some guests were relaxing, and at lunch the dining room was almost full. The weekend menu is more varied, with hearty meat and bean stews and regional specialities such as salt cod with sweet red peppers, boiled potatoes with thistle stalks and borage, or salt cod with chickpeas and chards.

I found the buildings slightly underheated. Wool sweaters and socks are a must to feel comfortable. When I groused about the chill, Brother Martin said jokingly: “If you are looking for all the conveniences, go to a hotel.”

A few weeks later in February, I took my 8-year-old daughter on a weekend visit to the nunnery of San Miguel de las Duenas in Leon in northern Spain on the final stretch of the Santiago Trail. The convent is a huge complex, way out of proportion to the surrounding small town, despite the fact that there are now less than a dozen cloistered Cistercian nuns in residence. It dates to the 10th century, but only a Romanesque doorway to the Chapter Room survives from that period. The church, which is open to the public for services, is an unremarkable 17th-century building; the convent’s 18th-century exterior is austerely neo-classic with small barred windows. There are two simple belfries with resident storks that had returned unusually early.

We arrived at sunset and the granite buildings gave off a glow. Old-fashioned street lights illuminated the tidy grounds of the convent. Children played in a schoolyard.

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