Travel 2013. Day 17 Sos and Leyre Monastery.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, a who's who of those travelling, and our itinerary.
We were up early and so was the sun. Javier and Farnès, the owners of our hotel/B and B, El Sueño de Virila, had prepared a delicious buffet breakfast in a room off the foyer. From our table by a window, we enjoyed a lovely view of the countryside. The stone walls of the room glowed softly in the light, and the thickness of the window ledges made us realise how robustly built the house was.
There was no one else staying at the hotel, so we were able to chat at leisure with Javier and Farnès. I was particularly curious about the name of their home/ hotel, El Sueño de Virila: Virila’s Sleep/Dream. Farnès explained: Virila was an abbot at the nearby Monastery of Leyre who had difficulty in understanding the concept of eternity. Mulling it over one day in the forest near the monastery, he came to a fountain where he took rest. At that moment, he heard a nightingale singing and he was so enchanted by it that he remained there listening and fell asleep. After his nap, he returned to the monastery but he hardly recognised it because it had grown in size. Not only that, the monk who answered his knock did not recognise him, and hadn’t even heard of the abbot Virila. A search of the monastery’s records revealed the existence of an abbot Virila 300 years earlier. He had disappeared one day, and presumably died in the mountains. There are two endings: 1, only the appearance of a nightingale with the abbot’s ring convinced the monks that the man before them was not a prankster, but the abbot miraculously returned, and 2, Virila and the monks were gathered in the chapterhouse when the roof opened and a voice addressed Virila, saying: "if 300 years passed so quickly listening to a nightingale, imagine how time will pass with the Lord.” Was there a historical abbot Virila? Yes, the records show the existence of abbot Virila in 928. The tale is poetic, and in fact originally appears in the lyrical songs of King Alfonso X’s collections of Cantigas in the 13th century. For Javier and Farnès, who had worked 15 years restoring the decayed and empty building they had bought, their home was a “return to life” after a long “sleep.”
After listening to the tale, we had to visit the Monastery of Leyre (about 28 kilometres/ 17 miles north of Sos) but first we decided to see the 12th-century church of San Esteban (St. Stephen) in Sos.
Inside you can see the 8th-century font where Ferdinand the Catholic was baptised, but the most interesting part is 11th-century crypt beneath the church, dedicated to la Virgen del Perdón (Our Lady of Forgiveness). To get to it, you descend a claustrophobically narrow spiral stone staircase (a reminder that people were much smaller in those days!). It’s worth the effort, however, because there are some beautiful 14th-century frescoes in the apses depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The history of the abbey –or to give it its full name, San Salvador de Leyre-- goes back a long way. The earliest documented reference is 842, and during the 9th and 10th centuries it was one of the most important monasteries in Christian Spain with a well-stocked library. It served too as the pantheon (burial place) for the kings of Navarra. At the end of the 10th century, the monastery was destroyed in raids by Muslim armies under the famous vizier, al-Mansur.
The church at Leyre is very tall for a Romanesque building, and the chancel area has an unusually high nave and two side aisles which come together at the easternmost end in three tall apses. The main body of the church has only a nave and no side aisles and is even higher. Its original wooden roof was replaced in the 16th century by a gracefully ribbed Gothic vaulting.
After listening to the monks, we went down to the 11th-century crypt. It was the first part of the complex to be built and is directly beneath the chancel area. Its function was structural: to make the foundation level and to support the Romanesque structure above. There is no evidence that it was ever used as a crypt. At one time it guarded the Monastery’s treasure; the monks also used it for storage of food. After disentailment, shepherds found refuge in it, as did pilgrims to Santiago.
On our way into the church, we had hurried through the main, western entrance. Not so on our way out.
By the time we left the church, we were ready for a meal and decided to eat at the monastery. Our expectations were not high in such an isolated spot, but the meal turned out to be excellent. We would definitely recommend eating here. The dining room was pleasantly light and modern, and not busy when we were there. The kitchen specialises in local foods, and we enjoyed lamb shanks, veal and local trout, with wine from the region (Navarra). You can also stay at the monastery at a very modest cost. Web site: http://www.monasteriodeleyre.com/ Click top right for English.