Travel 2013. Day 17 Sos and Leyre Monastery

Fri. May 3. 2013. Day 17 Sos del Rey Catolico and Monasterio de Leyre. 
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 chapter house 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.”

A picturesque corner.

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.

We took our time walking to San Esteban and lost our way a couple of times, sometimes letting a picturesque corner determine our route.

Gradually we found our way to San Esteban, which stands near the top of the village and next to the castle. To get to the church, we passed through a vaulted passageway and on to a terrace where there is a terrific view of the countryside.
View from the terrace of San Esteban.

San Esteban is a Romanesque church with later Gothic modifications. It has an impressive 12th-century Romanesque doorway covered by a large Gothic portal added in the 16th century. Unfortunately, the carved figures have been eroded by weather and although you can make out human and animal forms you really need a guide to explain who or what they represent.

Sos. San Esteban portal.

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 trip to the Monastery of Leyre took only about 40 minutes. The monastery is located dramatically in a valley at the foot of the steep slope and enormous rock face of the Sierra de Leyre mountain range. Lapping its borders on the other side is a large man-made lake (the Yesa reservoir).

Monastery of Leyre.
Another view of the Monastery. The reservoir can be made out to the left.

It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day: it was sunny, and there were spring flowers and budding trees. The abbey looked serene in this idyllic location, a solidly built temple with an air of permanence about it. And yet, in the 19th century (1836) the monastery suffered the same as numerous other abbeys, monasteries, and convents in Spain: its lands were disentailed (i.e. sold off). It wasn’t until 1954 that the monastery was restored, and a Benedictine community reinstated.

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 present building was begun almost immediately after and was consecrated in 1057. By this time, the Monastery of Leyre had come under the influence of the Benedictine order of Cluny (France), and Leyre became a centre of French influence. The Benedictines played a fundamental role in spreading Romanesque architecture along the north (they were active in promoting the pilgrimage to Santiago), in imitation of the mother house in France.

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.

Leyre. Looking towards chancel.
Bendictine monks at the altar.

It’s a beautifully elegant church and aesthetically pleasing in its clean lines and simplicity. A real bonus for us was to hear the small community of Benedictine brothers intoning a Gregorian chant around a simple altar in the chancel area. There were very few visitors, and in the silence the chant echoed hauntingly through the church.

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.

Our immediate impression was of immense power. It bespoke strength, wherever we looked. Huge stones (what it must have taken to cut them!) worked into muscular, rounded arches which came right down to knee level and rested on large capitals –many with simple geometric decoration— atop short sturdy pillars. This place will easily last for another 1000 years.

Leyre crypt.
Leyre crypt.

On our way into the church, we had hurried through the main, western entrance. Not so on our way out.

The doorway is an excellent example of a Romanesque portal, and in a much better state of preservation than Sos’s. Known as the Porta Speciosa (“beautiful door”), and dating from about 1150, its sculptured figures are still mostly clear and expressive. There are the usual figures, Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints as well as animals, fish, demons and representations of different vices.  E.g. avarice is a man clutching a large money bag, gluttony is depicted by a man drinking from two bottles at the same time, and lechery a woman squatting and playing with her hair. For the illiterate of those days, these sculptures functioned as texts which the faithful could “read” as they entered the church. The religious figures inspired reverence; the grotesque ones invoked the fear and horror of hell.

Leyre. Western portal.

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:  Click top right for English.

After lunch, it was time for a walk. There are lots of easy walks and hiking trails available. John, Leslie, Andrew and Alex (JLAA) opted to climb the forested area above the monastery where the views are spectacular.

Monastery from the hill. Yesa reservoir in the background.
High in the hills above Leyre with a view of the reservoir.

Margaret and I contented ourselves with meandering in the vicinity of the abbey. Time passed quickly under the sun (shades of Virila?), and it only seemed minutes when we heard JLAA call out from a spot above us. They had had an exhilarating walk, even running into goats, possibly wild.

Goats do roam!

Back in Sos, we confirmed Javier and Farnès’s view that the Monasterio de Leyre was worth visiting.  Don’t miss it if you are anywhere near!