Travel 2013 Day 18. San Juan de la Peña and Alquézar

Sat. May 4. 2013 Day 18 Sos del Rey Católico to Alquézar.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, a who’s who of those travelling, and our itinerary.  

After a wonderful stay at El Sueño de Virila in Sos del Rey Católico, we headed for the mountain village of Alquézar about 200 kilometres/120 miles west. We had two calls to make en route, first to the Old Monastery of San Juan de la Peña and, second, lunch in Huesca with an old friend, Heather.

The road to San Juan took us back past the Monastery of Leyre (see Travel 17). The road, the N 240, is picturesque, a long stretch of it alongside the huge Yesa reservoir. 

The dam itself is very high and a lot of land has been drowned and many villages abandoned along the route. Between the eastern end of the dam and Puente la Reina de Jaca, a broad fertile valley –cut intermittently by erosion– stretched alongside the River Aragón.  As we travelled, green and yellow spring crops contrasted brightly with the grey terraces left by the erosion.

The Aragón valley east of Puente la Reina de Jaca. Pyrenees in the background.
Along the Aragón, a variety of trees and gorse bushes added their colour. Forested hills cut off the far side of the valley, and beyond the hills we could see the snow-topped, distant Pyrenees outlined against the sky.

About 10 kilometres/6 miles east of Puente la Reina de J. we turned right on to a small road.  The way was fairly straight as far as the pretty village of Santa Cruz de la Serós, but then climbed around several hairpin bends for the next 6 kilometres/4 miles.

Between Sta. Cruz de la Seros and San Juan de Peña.

The views of rugged terrain and the Pyrenees, often glimpsed through oaks and evergreens, are spectacular.  Look up (not if you are driving!) and you will see towering above you the massive ridge of the Sierra de la Peña.

This is wild countryside, and suddenly you come across the Old Monastery around a corner, tucked under an immense overhanging orange rock alongside the road.

San Juan de la Peña

There is no room to park here, so you have to continue uphill several kilometres to the New Monastery, constructed originally when fire destroyed the Old Monastery in 1675. The New Monastery was sacked by the French in 1809 and abandoned in 1835 following countrywide disentailment of monasteries and convents. It was in a ruined state when the Government of Aragón funded its renovation in the mid 1900s.

From the New Monastery, you can take a shuttle bus down to the old building, something we would have done but for the queues waiting for the bus (it was a Saturday, a popular day with visitors from nearby towns). We were anxious to be on time for lunch, so we contented ourselves with returning downhill and stopping briefly opposite the Old Monastery.

From here we had an excellent view of the main church and could just make out the beautiful Romanesque arches running along one side of the cloisters.

San Juan de la Peña with cloister arches just visible in the middle. Photo by José Porras.

The Old Monastery of San Juan de la Peña is to Aragón what the Monasterio de Leyre is to Navarra: a founding block of identity and Aragón’s historical spiritual centre. It houses a pantheon of Aragonese royalty and has the distinction of holding the first mass (in 1071) in the peninsula using the Roman liturgy in place of the Visigothic one. The change of liturgy was urged by Pope Alexander II (1061-73) and supported by the Benedictine Order of Cluny in France. Its adoption in the Christian north was facilitated by marriages between French princesses and kings of Aragón and Navarra. With royal encouragement, the monks of Cluny became very active in establishing monasteries and hospices along the rest of the north of the Iberian Peninsula as part of popularising the growing cult of Santiago.

There already was a religious community in San Juan de la Peña before the Cluniacs (i.e. Benedictine monks) arrived in 1071. As early as the 9th century a small Mozarabic church, called the Iglesia baja (Lower church) was established here. The Iglesia alta (Upper church), the building most visible from the road, dates from the late 11th century and consecrated in 1094 and administered by the Benedictines.

Enriched by kings and nobility, San Juan de la Peña’s fame spread far. Tradition has it that the monastery was entrusted with one of Christianity’s most sacred relics, the Holy Grail, when the peninsula was invaded by Moors in 711. The Holy Grail –the chalice/ cup Jesus is said to have used at the Last Supper— was taken to Zaragoza in 1399 and from there passed to the cathedral of Valencia in 1437, where it can be seen today in the Capilla del Santo Cáliz (Chapel of the Holy Grail).

To get to Huesca, we drove back to Puente la Reina de Jaca, and from there took the A 132 south. We had arranged with Heather to meet at Dommo, a restaurant on the outskirts of Huesca. Dommo was a new restaurant and did not register with “Olivia,” our GPS, and we had no idea where to head to when we got there. We were also a little late, so we stopped at a police station, and fortunately one of the officers was able to direct us: “Just down this road. About 300 metres.” We were lucky. Huesca is a town of over 50,000, and we could have spent ages wandering around.

Heather was already there, and after greetings and hugs (we hadn’t seen her for 5 years), we went to our table. The time passed quickly, with many memories shared. The meal was excellent, and the speciality of the day, turbot, was beautifully prepared and presented.

It was late afternoon when we left Huesca.  We took the N 420 east and after about 40 kilometres/ 24 miles turned left/north on to the A 1229; 20 kilometres/ 12 miles on this picturesque road and we were in Alquézar.

Our immediate impression was not entirely favourable.  We had expected a quiet mountain village similar to Sos del Rey Católico, but found instead a crowded place with people overflowing from outdoor cafes on to the road into the village.

To reach the hotel parking lot we had to negotiate a steep incline and then pass through a narrow entrance (not designed for our van!) at the same time that other vehicles were trying to get in or out. John eventually managed to manoevre our van into a narrow space left by a departing guest before the driver behind us could nip into it. (We later discovered public parking further uphill.)

The hotel, Villa de Alquézar, suffered in comparison with El Sueño de Virila. The reception was downstairs from the parking level, and our rooms upstairs. They were rather small with basic furnishing but we had balconies and excellent views over the old town and across to the 16th-century colegiata (collegiate church, i.e. church with canons but no bishop) and the remains of its adjoining 9th-century Moorish castle.

The colegiata and castle from our balcony.

Once we had settled in and refreshed, we wandered down to the main street, and our initial impression of Alquézar changed. It was still busy with weekend tourists, but now we had time to admire the beautifully warm, gold-coloured stone and brick buildings and notice the village’s dramatic location.

Alquézar. Main street in the early morning.
The colegiata dominates the village, which curves in terraces following the contours of the terrain.

The village hugged a tightly curved ridge which sloped down in terraces of olive and almond trees into a canyon. Dominating the old village at one end was the colegiata, standing high atop a spur, the other end –the road we had come in— disappeared around a wooded corner.

After our walk, we returned to our hotel and relaxed on our decks. The golden colour of the houses was even more pronounced in the setting sun, the air was still, and after a busy day we were ready for sleep.

Photo of San Juan de la Peña with cloisters by José Porras: