San Juan de la Peña
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 walking holidays.
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 San Juan de la Pena website is very informative and has an English language option.