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.

The dimly lighted stone entrance hall seemed vaguely ominous. We entered through a heavy creaky wooden door and pressed a buzzer next to an old revolving wooden window, or torno, formerly the only communication the nuns had with the outside world.


SISTER ASUNCION, the innkeeper nun, eventually appeared and unlocked several doors to show us up a flight of granite steps and down a highly polished wood floor hallway to our room. It was grim. No windows, no desk, no bath, although there was a sink and mirror, and no heat. Other rooms, however, did have at least a window.

Religious motifs decorated the rooms, hallway, visiting and dining room, the only areas we were allowed to enter. I found the convent slightly claustrophobic; my daughter thought it was spooky with the creaking floors and doors and dim lighting.

The only other guest was a visiting nun who shared the lone dinner table with us. Heavy iron bars divided the small dining room to separate the cloistered nuns from us. Ignorant of convent life, my daughter asked why they were “in jail,” which elicited giggles.

Although cloistered and behind bars, the nuns in contact with guests were friendly, and my daughter enjoyed being the absolute center of attention with a captive audience.Tasty home-cooked meals such as fresh fish with potatoes and winter vegetables with fresh bread and wine were served through a small window in the bars. We set and cleared our own table.

The entrance door was bolted shut at 8:30, which didn’t matter much with my daughter’s early bedtime. But after dinner, there was really no place to go except the room, which was freezing. I asked for extra blankets and was thoughtfully provided with a small electric heater as well. Weak is the flesh, I thought.

Breakfast was at 7:30 A.M.. with fresh bread, cheese and honey, all from the nunnery. I was offered instant coffee and Andrea instant hot chocolate. After the rather gloomy atmosphere, I felt relieved to get out in the winter sunshine to do some local tourism. First on our list was a visit to the 10th-century Castle of the Templars in Ponferrada, about five miles away, with its 12 towers situated to represent the zodiac. Andrea had fun exploring the numerous dungeons, hidden rooms, towers and passageways.

We spent the rest of the day in Villafranca del Bierzo, a nearby medieval village that was, and is, a favorite pilgrim stopover just before crossing the low mountains into Galicia, the last leg of the Santiago Trail. Past curfew, we drove back to Madrid that evening instead of returning to the convent.


Spain’s General Office of Tourism (50 Maria de Molina, 28071 Madrid; telephone 441-4014 or 441-6011, fax 441-4232) publishes a listing of some 75 monasteries, abbeys and convents that take guests, although some restrict guests to those seeking spiritual retreat or religious study. The following list is a representative sampling of institutions that open their doors to tourists and students.

Few travel agencies in Spain deal in monasteries. However, there is one agency in Galicia, the northwestern corner of Spain, that will place individuals or groups in monasteries in the area (Viajes Atlantico, San Martin Pinano, 15702 Santiago, Galicia; [ 981 ] 57-28-67.) Castille-La Mancha

Monasterio de San Juan Bautista, 19196 Valfermoso de Las Monjas, Guadalajara; (911) 28-50-02. Open all year except Dec. 20 to Jan. 8. Winter, weekends only. Men and women. $35 a person, room and board. Twenty-nine rooms, singles, doubles, triples, with and without private bath. Reservationsa week in advance; weekends are usually filled by groups. The 12th-century building, a convent for Benedictine nuns, is isolated in a valley half a mile from a small town and about 18 miles from other towns. Currently remodeling to reopen in the spring. Car needed. Castille and Leon


Abadia de Santo Domingo de Silos, 09610 Santo Domingo de Silos, Burgos; (947) 38-07-68. Usually open all year except for Christmas. Currently, the monastery is closed for renovations to reopen in the spring. Men only. $20 a person room and board. Twenty rooms, singles with private bath. Reservations three months in advance. three-day minimum stay, 10-day maximum. The 18th-century hostel is part of the 12th-century Benedictine monastery in a rural town near Aranda de Duero and Burgos. Gregorian chants of national fame. Car needed. Gregorian chants of national fame.

Monasterio La Santa Cruz, c/o Doctores del Mejo y Calderon, 24320 Sahagun, Leon; (987) 78-00-78. Open all year. Men and women. $19 a person for a room, $28, room and board. Twenty-four rooms, singles and doubles with private baths. Breakfast $3, lunch $10, dinner $8 Summer reservations six months in advance, winter, one or two days. One month maximum stay. The 16th-century Bendictine monastery is on the Santiago Trail in a small village in the countryside. Larger cities are easily accessible by bus or train.

Monasterio de Santa Maria de La Vid, 09491 La Vid de Aranda, Burgos; (947) 53-80-67. Open all year except Dec. 23 to Jan. 8. Men and women. $25 room and board. One hundred rooms with private baths. Reserve a few days in advance. Various parts of the Augustinian monastery were built in the 12th, 14th, 17th and 18th centuries. On the Santiago Trail, in the countryside close to small towns and city. Car needed.

Santuario de Nuestra Senora de La Pena de Francia, 37264 El Cabaco, Salamanca; (923) 21-50-00. Open June through September. Men and women. $25 to $30 a person room and board. Sixty rooms, singles, doubles and triples with sinks but no private baths. Reservations a month in advance. The building is a 15th- and 18th-century Dominican monastery on top of a mountain great for hiking. Nearest town is seven and a half miles away. Car needed. Catalonia

Monasterio Montserrat, 08199 Barcelona; (93) 835-02-51. Open all year. Men and women. $22 a person room and board. Forty-one rooms with shared bathrooms. Usually full on weekends so call in advance. Hostel within Benedictine monastery. In the mountains. Car needed. Estremadura

Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Hospederia del Real Monasterio, 1 Plaza de Juan Carlos, 10140 Guadalupe, Caceres; (927) 36-70-00. Open all year except Jan. 15 through Feb. 15. Men and women. $60 double rooms only, $70 with board. Forty rooms with private baths. Reservations one to two months in advance. A 14th-century Franciscan monastery in a small town in the countryside. Car needed. Galicia

Santuario de Los Milagros, 32701 Banos de Molgas, Orense; (988) 46-31-76 (monastery), (988) 46-31-27 (hostel). Open all year. Men and women. $36 a person, room, $88 room and board for double. One hundred singles and doubles with private baths. Reservations should be made a few months in advance. Although it is within a 17th-century Paulist monastery the hostel is managed by a retired couple. About 18 miles from Orense, the provincial capital. Car needed.

Monasterio de San Julian y Santa Basilia, 27628 Samos, Lugo; (982) 54-60-46. Open all year except Dec. 15 to Jan. 15. Men only. $15 room and board. Singles, some doubles, shared baths. Reservations three months in advance for summer. Fifteen-day maximum stay. Sixteenth- and 17th-century Benedictine monastery in the mountains near a small town, 25 miles from capital. On the Santiago Trail. Guests dining with the monks. Car needed.

Convento Residencia San Francisco, Ctra. de Muros de San Pedro 15291 Louro, La Coruna; (981) 82-61-46. Open all year. Men and women. $25 a person with private bath; $45 for double with board. Reservations a week in advance. A 17th-century Franciscan convent in the mountains near beach, four miles from Muros. Car needed.

Monasterio de El Paular, 28741 Rascafria, Madrid; (91) 869-14-25 or (91) 869-31-41. Open all year. Men only. $20 a person room and board. Singles, shared bath. Reservations for examination times and summer. Three days minimum stay, 10 days maximum. Sixteenth- to 18th-century Benedictine monastery at foot of mountains in rural valley next to river a little over a mile from nearest town. Popular with students. Guests dine with monks. Car needed. Valencia

Convento Santo Espiritu del Monte, 46149 Gilet, Valencia; (96) 262-00-11. Open all year except December. Men and women. $23 a person, room and board; $40 a double, room and board. Private or shared baths. Reservations a few months in advance. Fourteenth-century Franciscan building isolated in the mountains. Good place for walks and hikes. Car needed.



Getting There

The best way to get to Valvanera in the Rioja region or San Miguel de las Duenas in the Leon region and see the surrounding area is by car. Valvanera is about four hours north of Madrid on the new four-lane N1 highway to Burgos and toll highway to Logrono. If you want a scenic route, turn off the N1 before Burgos at the Santo Domingo de la Calzada exit. This will take you through a mountain pass on an undivided highway. San Miguel de las Duenas is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Madrid. The town is about five miles before Ponferrada on the N6 highway, which is four-lane for more than half the way.

The country code for telephoning Spain is 34. There are several local codes below. When dialing from the United States, use the second and third numbers of the code, dropping the 9. When dialing from within Spain, but outside the local area, use all three digits. Locally, use only the main number. When to Go

Some monasteries are not open all year and most close for the Christmas holidays, so be sure to check. Most require reservations, which for July and August need to be made months in advance.

The best time to visit the monasteries is in the spring and fall. Even then, weekends tend to be booked long in advance so weekdays are preferable. VALVANERA Monasterio de Valvanera, 26322 Anguiano, La Rioja; (941) 37-70-44. Open all year except Dec. 22 to Jan. 17. Men and women. A double room is $45; a double with meals is $90. Thirty rooms. Reservations should be made a few months in advance for summer, several weeks ahead for weekends at other times. Around Valvanera

Within a half-hour’s drive are medieval towns with 11th- and 12th-century churches and abbeys, and balconied red clay and stone houses on narrow winding streets. Or you can take an enological tour of Rioja’s famed wine cellars.

For art and history enthusiasts, a visit to the San Millan de la Cogolla monasteries, nine miles away at Berceo, is rewarding. It is believed to be here in the lower, Yuso, monastery in the 10th century that a monk wrote the first words of vernacular Spanish, translating a passage of Latin.

The upper, Suso, monastery, a short climb up a hill above Berceo, commemorates the place where San Millan died. A Visigoth convent around the tomb was enlarged in the 10th century with a chapel now containing a recumbent 11th-century sculpture of the saint.

The medieval cathedral at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, with its fine Spanish Romanesque sanctuary, is some 25 miles from Valvanera, and can be seen either on the way from or to Madrid. A live rooster and hen are kept in a Gothic stone chicken coop inside the cathedral, in memory of a miracle wrought by the founding saint, who is said to have made a roasted chicken crow to prove the innocence of a falsely accused German pilgrim. Where to Eat

The monastery food is good, but almost every town in the vicinity seems to have at least two pleasant restaurants or taverns with the special of the day, including wine, for about $30 for two. Ask a waiter or the maitre d’hotel for a recommendation on wine cellars to visit and chances are they will send you to their own.

Local specialties include a red kidney bean stew with sausage, called caparron, served with hot peppers, sweet red peppers with garlic, borage, and thistle stalks (cardos) served in a cream sauce with sausage or in a mixed vegetable dish. Other local favorites include lamb chops roasted on grapevine cuttings and a salt cod dish with sweet red peppers. For dessert, try cuajada, a curded milk with honey and nuts.

El Mono, 43 Calle Mayor, Najera, La Rioja; telephone (941) 36-20- 28. Decor of foot-wide wooden beams and brick walls. Special of the day for two, with wine, $30.

Restaurante San Lorenzo, Berceo, La Rioja. On the edge of town, the dining room with large picture windows overhangs a cliff with a view of the San Millan monasteries. Special of the day for two, with wine, $22.

Meson Peregrino, 11 Avenida Calahorra, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, La Rioja. Although the building is modern, the interior is rustic and pleasant. Special of the day for two, with wine, $26.

Los Caballeros, 58 Calle Mayor, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, La Rioja. Close to the cathedral, it offers a meal for two with wine for $24. SAN MIGUEL Monasterio Cistercienses de San Miguel de las Duenas, 20 Plaza de San Bernardo, 24398 San Miguel de las Duenas, Leon; (987) 46-70-46. Open all year. Women only. Suggested donation of $12 to $15 a person for room and board. Five rooms. Call in advance; July and August are the busiest months. Around San Miguel

The town itself does not offer much, but Ponferrada, five miles away, and Villafranca del Bierzo, nine miles from Ponferrada on the Coruna Highway, are well worth day trips. On the last leg of the Santiago Trail before entering Galicia, the area is saturated with national monuments and picturesque mountain towns.

The mysterious Castle of the Knights of the Templar in Ponferrada wasbuilt in 1178 to protect pilgrims. Scholars have been puzzled by the exaggerated dimensions of the rambling castle, far from the battlefronts with the Moors.

Local lore, citing obscure medieval references, says the Templars guarded and protected in Ponferrada the two most legendary and mystical objects of Western history: the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant.

Like many Spanish monuments, this one offers absolutely no safety precautions and every unprotected wall is a hazard for small children. A climb up the narrow stone stairway brings you to the top of the tallest tower with an unguarded eight-story drop and a breathtaking view.

Villafranca del Bierzo, a picturesque medieval town, is designated a Historical and Artistic Enclave. It is worth visiting the simple 12th-century Iglesia de Santiago, where pilgrims too sick or feeble to continue would receive the same spiritual benefits as those arriving at the cathedral in Santiago by going under the Romanesque Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness). What to Eat

Typical dishes include botillo, a smoked sausage stuffed with meat and pork bones, fried mountain trout stuffed with cured ham, roast suckling goats and lamb, and olla berciana, a hearty stew made of vegetables, beans, potatoes and meats. Galician dishes such as octopus with garlic are also popular.

Restaurante Virgen de la Pena, Congosto, 24398 Ponferrada, Leon; (978) 46-70-20. About three miles from San Miguel de las Duenas, the restaurant and hotel are nestled high up on a mountain, with an impressive view of the Bierzo valley. Swimming pool and tennis court. Menu of the day for twois $18.

National Parador of Villafranca del Bierzo, Avenida de Calvo Sotelo, 24500 Villafranca del Bierzo, Leon; (987) 54-01-75, fax (987) 54-00-10. One of the national chain of inns, the special of the day for two with regional specialties is $75. A child’s menu is available for $15.

in The New York Times


2 thoughts on “Retreats With Peace of Mind

    Melody Little said:
    February 4, 2008 at 12:45 am

    This was so interesting. I am looking for a retreat right now. I would love to be able to go somewhere to think. I do not speak Spanish yet but I hope to learn the language immenantly. I have an 11 year old daughter.

    Trish Clark said:
    August 13, 2011 at 8:47 am

    There is a series of guidebooks to convent and monastery accommodation in Europe called Good Night and God Bless. The website is

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