The beautiful scenery around the Monastery of Leyre explains how, throughout history, it has been a refuge for monarchs and bishops, an icon of Navarre and the scene of official celebrations. Hugging the mountainside, the monastery was built on the side of the range of the same name in a sheltered place that is also an excellent viewpoint over near and far mountain peaks and the greenish and bluish tones of the Yesa reservoir
Its origins go back to the early Middle Ages
, although it was set on fire by the Muslims in the 10th century and King Sancho García ordered its reconstruction in 1020. Its solid walls bear witness to a plethora of stories, such as the two Christian sisters who were decapitated because they would not embrace the Muslim faith. Their remains are kept in an ivory chest that is now on display in the Museum of Navarre. Or the legend of San Virila,
the abbot of the monastery who remained in a state of ecstasy for 300 years after he heard a bird sing near the monastery at a place where the spring of San Virila is located.
Leyre did not manage to escape the Desamortización (confiscation of church property) by Mendizábal and was left empty from 1836 to 1954, the year in which the Benedictine monks from Santo Domingo de Silos (Burgos) occupied it again. You can talk to them during your visit to the monastery.
The visit will reveal a breathtaking 11th-century crypt
, the oldest part of the monastery that has been conserved. The cramped space, in which there are tons and tons of stone, has low shafts and robust capitals is a clear example of the sobriety of the most ancient Romanesque architecture
Its austerity contrasts with the decoration of the façades of the abbey church, particularly the Porta Speciosa
, another of the monastery's great treasures. It dates from the 12th century and is decorated with motifs from the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago de Compostela. Look for the devil catching an ill-fated soul or the angel that announces the Day of Judgement and you will see that it is an authentic Bible in stone.
Other elements of great interest are the 12th-century southern façade, the front of the abbey church (11th), the underground crypt and the chapel of the Santísimo (1501-1536), which contains an altarpiece and sculptures by Juan de Berroeta (17th century).
Inside the church, which was initially Romanesque, is the great nave (11th century). Look upward to the Gothic vault, one of the most beautiful in Navarre. Behind a Gothic grille is the tomb of the first Monarchs of Navarre
and next to it stands the "Christ of Leyre", an enormous 16th-century carving.
In Leyre, praise of God and prayer take the form of Gregorian chants
. If you can, listen to the monks in their songs of praise at 7.30 a.m. (Sundays and Public Holidays at 8:00), the convent mass at 09.00 (Sundays and Public Holidays at 12.00), vespers at 19.00 and the full mass at 21:00.
If you would like to enjoy the tranquillity of the place, there is a hostel
with 33 rooms next to the monastery. The monastery also has 10 single rooms inside its walls, although this accommodation is reserved for men and meals are taken with the monks in the refectory.
You may have heard of the liqueur
of Leyre, a sweet-tasting digestif made from 35 different plants that the monks collect from around the monastery. It is an original souvenir that you can buy in the monastery shop together with CDs of Gregorian chants, coated almonds, truffles, cheese, paté and honey.
On leaving the monastery you will appreciate the natural beauty of the surroundings, and there are several walks that start from here. The first, just 250 metres long, leads to the Fountain of the Virgins
, where there is a picnic area. The second, a narrow trail with an uneven surface, takes 30 minutes and goes to the Fuente de San Virila
. Fitter visitors can climb up to the peak of Mount Escalar
(1,302 m.), from where there is a spectacular view over the Yesa reservoir and the Pyrenees
For lovers of parapenting, the peak of Arangoiti is a popular jumping off point. Other nearby places worth a visit are the castle of Javier