Hotel del monasterio de Leyre in Navarre

warm September night at the hotel del monasterio de Leyre in Navarre The approach to the monastery is dramatic. One leaves the brand spanking new A21 motorway ‘de los Pirineos’ eastbound from Pamplona and is immediately conscious of the huge eyebrow of mountain cliffs stretching in each direction. One winds on a narrow, tarmacked but average road northwards towards the mountains for four or five kilometres. One rounds the last bend in the road, and there is the most glorious 11th century early Gothic abbey church, surrounded by monastery buildings; to which the modern hotel, in sympathetic style (because it used to be part of the monastery itself), is attached.
As one arrives, one realizes that the pace of life has slowed to the monastic rhythm of matins, lauds, mass, vespers and compline. The people around, monastic or servants of the monastery, look one in the eye and treat one as one of God’s creatures, rather than a punter to be relieved of as much money as possible.
The hotel rooms are pleasant but offer no more than cleanliness and reasonable comfort to a traveller. However, there is a bar and a good restaurant. One does a spot of sight-seeing of the monastery, the crypt of the first chapel, the viewpoint, the exterior of the church. Then one showers and changes in order to hear vespers.
The west porch entrance to the church is 11th century and decorated over the top of the door with Christ and the apostles, various other devices and then a frieze of grotesque and other heads and designs around the arch. One enters and takes a place. A servant or a monk hands out orders of service in Latin
with a Spanish translation. The monks file in and then, after a few moments of silent prayer, the fifteen monks start the service in Gregorian chant.

After a few moments of this most haunting, almost transcendental, sound, one’s eyes prick with tears of, of, of… what? It’s a sort of home-coming, a feeling that this, somehow, is how the world should be; calm, ordered, musical, beautiful, God-fearing. Clearly Pope Gregory, or those working for him, had musical genius to be able to conjure up so quickly a feeling of Christian-ness. The monk who sings the solo bidding in each part of the Psalms gets it just right: perfect pitch all the time, but with a slight quaver (of feeling unworthy? of tiredness after a long day in the fields? of pleading for God to listen?) and at a measured pace.

And one reflects that services have been held here every day (barring odd interregna) for fully a thousand years. Here the mainly French monks established a monastic colony close to the front line with Islam, for Jaca and Huesca, sites of early victories in the Reconquista, are along the same line of mountains. They found a secluded, well-watered, fertile spot in the shelter of mountains to the north, thus assuring a benign microclimate, and here they have been ever since, largely self-sufficient with a surplus to market.

And one reflects that the first generations of kings of Navarre chose to be buried in the church, for the Leyre monastery was much favoured by the early dynasties of the Reino de Navarra with settlements of land.

And for a fleeting moment, the whole majestic weight of a millennium of European civilization and history seems to rest on one’s shoulders and one knows that one is but a tiny, tiny part of something very great. And then the service ends, and the monks file out to the cloister.

And after the service, one exits through the same west door into rays of the glorious evening sun, close to the horizon but still bright. It stirs an evening breeze in the pine forest that starts just over the precipice outside the west door and runs for miles, treating one’s senses to a strong, warm scent of pine and the rushing sound of gentle wind in a pine forest.

And one returns at a slow pace to the hotel courtyard for a sherry and then into the restaurant for a leisurely dinner.


Paul Hampton