Lying on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage the monastery complex of San Juan de la
Peña (St. John of the Crag) is one of the most famous in Aragon. The complex, set
among a landscape of woodland and cliffs, consists of two sites - a lower, older
monastery built under an overhanging cliff and a newer abbey and museum.
Legend tells of a noble that while out hunting gave chase to a stag. The stag ran
over a cliff and the noble’s horse unable to stop in time followed over the edge.
Uttering a prayer to John the Baptist, instead of being dashed to death on the rocks
below, the noble found himself safely landed beside a cave. Inside he found the remains
of a hermit and decided to set up a monastery at the spot to thank the Saint for
his escape from death.
Evocatively nestled under looming cliffs the buildings of the old monastery use a
mixture of stonework and natural rock to form their walls.
The Mozarabic chapel - the oldest part of the complex - dates back to 920. A pantheon
contains the tombs of early Kings of Aragon, but the real highlight is the 12th century
Romanesque cloister. Arches on two sides of the cloister remain intact with exquisitely
carved capitals on each column depicting a scene from the bible.
After a fire in 1675 ravaged the old building, a new monastery was constructed higher
up, above the cliffs. The monastery was abandoned in 1835 with only the church and
its grand Baroque facade surviving. Recently, extensive archaeological work has been
undertaken on the 17th century building and in 2007 a museum was opened interpreting
daily life in San Juan de la Peña. Cleverly designed the museum has a glass floor
allowing you to look down onto the archaeological site.
The Holy Grail
Another legend attached to San Juan de la Peña is that of the Holy Grail. The story
relates that the Grail was given to a Spanish soldier in Rome during the third century
who promptly took it back to his home in Huesca. During the Moorish invasion the
Grail found it’s way to San Juan for safe keeping. In 1399 the Aragonese King Martino
V took it to his palace in Zaragoza - when the monks asked for it back he tricked
them with a replica. When the King of Valencia acceded to the Aragonese throne he
took the Grail back to Valencia Cathedral where it has remained until today. The
replica Grail at San Juan was destroyed by the fire of 1675 but a replica of the
replica is on display in the old monastery. Historians have tested the Grail in Valencia
and have discovered that underneath additions in the 9th, 15th and 16th centuries
lies a Roman agate cup.
Wildlife and walking
The monastery lies within a 264 hectare protected area of woodland and from it’s
cliffs you get magnificent views across the central Pyrenees. There are several shorter
hikes in the area passing through both San Juan and the nearby village of Santa Cruz
- itself the site of a 16th century convent, two churches and another popular stop
on the Camino de Santiago. These are popular routes on our Lakes and Valleys guided
The cliffs are the occasional home to a pair of Lammergeier - this huge vulture has
a wingspan of over two and a half metres. Other birds of prey breeding in the area
include the Egyptian vulture, golden eagle, booted eagles as well as numerous red
kite and griffon vultures.
Your Hike Pyrenees holiday
The walk on the cliffs above San Juan de la Peña is a popular trip on our Lakes &
Valleys and Independent walking holidays. Walks can be easily combined with a trip
to the monastery.