In the harsh landscape of dry, central Spain, the last thing one expects to find is a forest overflowing with waterfalls and dotted with damp caves. But that is just what visitors find at the Monasterio de Piedra, a medieval monastery with a verdant park. This part of Spain is not known for its scenic beauty-dusty towns and depressed-looking plateaus are the major attractions for miles around. But, thanks to the River Piedra, which runs through the park and divides into a myriad of streams, waterfalls and pools, this hidden corner of Aragón is one of the region’s most picturesque.
About halfway between Barcelona and Madrid, and not far off the N-II highway, the Monasterio de Piedra and its park make for a soothing stop and the perfect place to stretch a bit for those making the joyless six-hour drive between the two cities.
Exit the highway at Calatayud, a small town with a pretty historic centre, and head down the winding roads leading to the Monasterio de Piedra. Calatayud is classic Aragón; both its land and its people are dry and stoic. But, as the road curves out of town, the surroundings change drastically. The scrubby shrubs are replaced with tall pine trees, the soil becomes richer and darker, and the place is altogether softer and more welcoming.
The Monasterio de Piedra is also welcoming, and not just because of the many signs for visitors (it is obvious that this place is accustomed to tourists). The entrance opens onto a shady patio, and the monastery, itself, is sheltered by leafy trees. It is built on the site (and with some of the stones) of a Moorish castle, and was originally a Cistercian order, founded in 1194. No monks have lived here since the 1830s, when they were ordered out by a government decree. The monastery is now privately owned.
The Monasterio de Piedra is certainly worth a visit-the combination of Gothic and Mudéjar (Moorish-inspired) styles is impressive, and details like the soot-stained roof of the kitchen give clues about the monks’ daily lives. The old church is one of the most interesting parts of the monastery; it’s now roofless and in ruins thanks to 19th-century looters, but its former Romanesque glory still shows through in patches. These days, it is a popular place for weddings, and on Saturdays you can see it set up with flowers beside the ruined altar and the clear blue sky taking the place of a once-ornate ceiling.
The monastery’s former wine cellar is now a museum about local wines. The truth is that the exhibits have little to do with the monastery’s history (though they do explain how monks here made and stored wine), but, nevertheless, it’s an interesting overview of the wine from the region. Upstairs, and having even less to do with the monastic life, is a display of historic carriages. Don’t bother dallying long here, and head straight on to the park.
Truly an anomaly of nature, the park here at the Monasterio de Piedra is an oasis in a desert-like region. The Piedra River flows into the top of the park and then splits into various streams running downhill, creating pools and waterfalls that eventually come back together to form the Cola de Caballo (‘Horsetail’) waterfall, a booming torrent of water fifty metres high.
The sheer force of the falls are enough to awe onlookers. From a distance, the waterfall is loud and magnificent, its spray creating rainbows that sit among the tree branches. Even more impressive is the view from behind the falls.
In 1859, curious farmers spotted a cave behind the falls, but although they could swim to the base of the waterfall, they couldn’t make the 12-metre climb up a sheer rock wall to access the cave itself. After numerous failed attempts, another farmer had the bright idea to dig down into the cave from the ground above. Soon after, a staircase was dug into the rock wall of the cave, preparing the way for curious visitors to explore the interior.
Starting down the steep rock steps, it’s hard to tell just where they go; the base of the steps is lost in a dark, misty haze. Claustrophobics beware: though fascinating, this is a tight space. The trip down is a spectacle in itself; the red-clay walls on either side of the staircase form a snug tunnel, and occasional windows in the rock show the river below. The views are amazing, but nothing prepares for the cave (called the Iris cave) that awaits below.
Through the years, constantly dripping water has created stalactites that cling to the roof of the cave. Bumpy rock formations line the interior, and the Cola de Caballo creates a wall of light and water on one side. Its spray makes the interior misty. Add that to the glistening water droplets falling from the ceiling, and the effect is both spooky and awe-inspiring at the same time. Some compare the cave’s interior to a Gothic cathedral, though it seems more like a storybook palace, with winding staircases going who-knows-where, hidden nooks, and the water droplets like diamonds decorating it all.
The spell of the magical cave drifts throughout the rest of the park. Nothing else is quite so spectacular, but the whole area takes on the feel of an enchanted forest. Neat paths wind around happily waddling ducks at the ‘Lake of the Ducks’ and delicate trees bend over ‘Mirror Lake’. At ‘The Fords’, water gurgles down a series of small rapids, and at ‘Rapids Fall’, water seems to spurt right out of the ground as it tumbles down a steep, grassy hillside.
Be warned: a quick pit stop at the Monasterio de Piedra can turn into a day-long affair. The monastery’s history and the spell of its park are captivating and make for a rejuvenating stop. They might even give you enough energy to get back on the highway and make it all the way to Madrid.
Getting to Monasterio de Piedra:
From the NII, take the C202 southwest for 28 km (17 miles). There is also a bus from Zaragoza.
The visit to Monasterio de Piedra:
Nine euros will get you into both the park and the monastery, which you’re required to visit in guided groups. The tour includes most of the Monasterio de Piedra’s interior as well as a small museum about local wine. Visitors to the park are on their own, but the path is well-marked and there are maps available. The park is open from 9am-6pm (later in summer), and the monastery is open from 10.15am, when the first guided visit is given, until the last visit at 6.45pm. Winter is an excellent time to visit the park, as there is more water rushing through than in scorched summer months. To really get the feel of monastic life, stay in the monastery’s hotel, Hotel Monasterio de Piedra, where rooms are converted monks’ cells. (976 849 011). There’s also a restaurant on the property, Conventual, serving typical Aragonés dishes.
Info:Tel. 976 849 011 , www.monasteriopiedra.com