Route of the Monasteries, Birthplace of Castilian Spanish

The monasteries located in and around the Najerilla River valley (La Rioja) are prime examples of this type of religious building for their beauty, diversity of artistic styles and historic importance. These institutions, which emerged in the Middle Ages, were of vital importance to the birth and development of Castilian Spanish and in the transmission of knowledge in more benighted ages. In addition, the majority of these monasteries are located in natural areas of great ecological value and beauty, and are worth an unhurried visit.

Fourteen kilometers from Anguiano, in the foothills of the San Lorenzo mountains and surrounded by a landscape of oak, birch and pine woods, we find the Benedictine monastery of Valvanera. Within its walls it holds an image of the patron saint of La Rioja, the Virgin of Valvanera, and for this reason is a meeting point for pilgrimages concerning the Virgin Mary. The original monastery was built in the 9th century, though today the building is completely restored. Worth a long visit are the 15th c. church and the library, which has many valuable books, including a notable 10th c. illustrated codex.

In San Millán de la Cogolla we find the two sister monasteries of Suso (the one above) and Yuso (the one below). These are the most well known of La Rioja’s monasteries, and in 1997 UNESCO included them on its list of World Heritage Sites. The first and more primitive of the two, Suso, was built in the 6th century, although it underwent reforms and expansion up until the 11th century. The monastery was originally a group of caves that served as a refuge for hermits, to which was later added a church with two naves separated by three horseshoe arches. In the cloister gallery, the tombs of the seven princes of Lara and the three queens of Navarra are noteworthy. In its scriptorium, the first words of Castilian Spanish that are still conserved were written down in the so-called glosas emilianenses. This is a 10th codex in which an anonymous scribe noted the vernacular meaning of certain Latin words in the margins or between the lines. Gonzalo de Berceo also wrote part of his master work here in the 13th century.

Descending the valley we find the second of the two monasteries, Yuso, which was built in 1053 during the reign of García Sánchez of Navarra. Its most interesting feature is its Gothic cloister, 16th c. church--which has three naves with transept and an oval lantern tower—the sacristy, and the “hall of kings”. The museum, which houses important works of art (relics, chests and other pieces), is also notable, as is the library, which has an important collection of incunabula and parchments and a facsimile of the glosas emilianenses.

Like the monastery of Yuso, Santa María la Real de Nájera was also built on the order of King García in the mid 11th century, using a portion of the spoils gained after conquering the city of Calahorra. It was rebuilt in the 15th century, which explains the dominance of Gothic and Renaissance designs. Of note are its 17th century prism tower and the cylindrical buttresses that give it the appearance of a fortress. Inside, the choir stalls are a magnificent example of Isabelline architecture. The Gothic “Knight’s cloister” built in the first quarter of the 16th century, owes its name to the numerous members of the nobility that are buried there. Here we find the sarcophagus of Garcilaso de la Vega, killed in 1367 in the battle of Nájera, as well as the mausoleum of Diego López de Haro. Finally, the pantheon holds the remains of many of the kings and queens of Navarra. The Romanesque tomb of the lady Blanca is the most beautiful.

Also in Nájera we find the Monastery of Santa Elena. Well worth a look inside its church are the altarpiece and the choir stalls.

The next milestone along the road is Santa María del Salvador in Cañas, birthplace of Santo Domingo de Silos, one of the most interesting examples of Cistercian architecture in Spain. It was built on the order of the Lady Urraca López de Haro in the 13th century. The monastery’s luminous 12th century church contains three sections, a transept and three apses. In the chapter house, there is a great column in the shape of a palm tree whose branches spread out over the four sections of the transept, supporting the vault. The large windows are decorated with floral motifs.

If you are not in a hurry during your visit to La Rioja, worthwhile stops include the monasteries of San José (Calahorra), Santa María de la Estrella (San Asensio), La Piedad (Casalarreina), La Anunciación (Santo Domingo de la Calzada) and Vico (Arnedo).

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