Winter Camino – Day 8

Day 8  –  Nájera  to  Santo Domingo   (23 km)

During the 11th and 12th centuries Nájera was the capital of Navarre and a major town on the Camino de Santiago – the buildings here bear testimony to this. Monasterio Santa Maria de la Real with its royal pantheon housing the burial sites of many kings, queens and knights of this kingdom is impressively stark from the outside, but when I arrived late that afternoon, the doors were already closed and I did not wait for them to open the next day. Perhaps in hindsight I should have taken the time to make the historic connection to royalty of this region, but I missed this chance, just as I had missed the tombs in Santa Maria la Blanca near Carrión de los Condes. Only the noble burial chambers in Leon are now in my memory.

I wandered through the old city in dusk, but this soon changed to darkness, and for a short while I attended evening mass in one of the many churches before crashing onto my banana-shaped and rather thin mattress with a squeaking wire base below.

The next day I decided to take a detour and visit the Cistercian Abbey of Santa María. The landscape was not spectacular and the clouds almost touched the ground. The atmosphere was a little depressing and walking on the tar road did not lift the spirit, although there was hardly any traffic to disturb my peace.

The convent, founded in 1170 by Cistercian nuns, was definitely worth the visit and the detour. It has survived 840 years of danger, turmoil and changing fortunes. As is common in Spain, all descriptions are in Spanish and when searching the internet for the abbey’s history, I was unable to find explanations in English, so I offer my own version of the convent’s origin and history:

During the 11th and 12th centuries Nájera was the capital of the kingdom of Navarre and the proximity to the king’s court was probably the reason why Catholic bishops and their clergy settled in Santo Domingo de Calzada, a little over twenty kilometre west of Nájera.

The native peasants and pilgrims passing through in those days were not the only ones relying on monasteries and convents. Nobles and other families of note, including in this case those from Nájera, were also dependent on their services. In noble circles it was common practice that first-born sons inherited and managed family estates while the younger males, especially if not suited for military tasks, were frequently persuaded or forced to join monastic orders.

There were also other reasons for the use of convents: At times nobles might have felt obliged to make arrangements for their female family members. Convents offered solutions when suitable marriages could not be found for daughters and these institutions often became their new homes.

Convents were also convenient in accommodating widows; some might still have been young when their husbands perished on the battlefield. Perhaps they were also practical for mentally challenged females, a problem often caused by interbreeding, not unusual in those days.  Even obstinate young girls might have been shunted into convents if they became too difficult to handle. Having some members of their families housed in these institutions had no doubt also brought the added advantage that the nobles could keep their eyes on rapidly expanding religious organisations and to make sure that abbots or mothers superior were promoted from their own ranks.

Santo Domingo, the next town of note after Nájera, developed into an important religious centre with its own monasteries and a grand cathedral. Related infrastructure and commerce with its merchant class followed and today we can still admire a number of grand townhouses from that era.

Members of the clergy in Santo Domingo de la Calzada were not always as celibate as they had vowed to be and when the consequences of an inappropriate liaison resulted in a daughter, using the services of the convent close by provided a practical solution.


Does this nun have an eye on the bishop?

And why is the bishop tagging onto a row of busy nuns?

I believe in this way noble and priestly needs as described contributed to the founding of the convent Santa María, which is situated just off the beaten path near Cañas ‒ halfway between Nájera and Santo Domingo.

The convent probably started unpretentiously but grew over time to a particularly rich establishment. Financial support and property donations from privileged families, maybe even from members of the clergy, helped to ensure that this convent was respected and revered and worthy of its illustrious members.

In the 14th century a magnificent abbey was built over the foundations of the original Romanesque church and the new Gothic building is a masterpiece. It is the main attraction of the complex and the reason for my detour. The apse with the main altar was uncharacteristically constructed on the west side of the church, followed by the choir, the nave and at the far end a second apse facing east. There are no aisles and separating columns on both sides and the side walls rise up to the vaulted ceiling, creating a long, narrow and high hall. In Christian churches altars are usually positioned at the eastern end. The reason for this is that Jesus Christ, who lived in the east, would on his return arrive from the east; the congregation would thus face the direction he would be coming from. In this church, however, only the priest, holding mass in front of the congregation, faced east.

Eastern apsis of the church at the convent in Cañas

The Gothic windows of the cathedral, the main reason for my visit, provide a most astonishing sight and are the source of strikingly bright light, even on this gray day. The eastern apse, the one opposite the altar, has two rows of windows and no entrance doors, as is normally the case. One row of windows is above ground level and another, reaching right up into the gothic rib-vault ceiling, is directly over the first row. The upper windows continue along the walls of the nave as far as the crossing.

Veins within the alabaster ‘window panes’ are clearly visible

The masonry framing of the windows is of typically gothic design, and the openings have been glazed with thin and opaque alabaster sheets. Irregular veins with their natural discoloration, just as the marble had grown and formed over millions of years in what became a quarry, are clearly visible. The crystal formation of the alabaster disperses light in all directions and this explains why the church was so brightly illuminated.

Cistercian abbey of Santa María ‒ Cloister in winter

The sarcophagi and burial slabs of past Mothers Superior are richly decorated and the sarcophagus of the founder Doña Urraca Lopes de Haro is a rare masterpiece. This convinced me that the abbey was established for the benefit of noble ladies.

The whole complex with its central cloister suggests affluence and dignity, although today the most part of it is a museum. An exhibit that caught my attention was a list of names of Mothers Superior in charge of the convent over the past 840 years.

Times have changed and so have family requirements and dedication to monasteries. Photos of nuns in residence reaching back to the 1950s demonstrate the reality of the ever-diminishing numbers of novices entering nunneries. The most recent picture showed about 20 nuns compared to more than 150 nuns in earlier photos.

It was past four in the afternoon when I finally reached the albergue in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The name freely translates into ‘Santo Domingo of the Causeway’ or ‘on the path’. On my arrival Noelia stepped out to check her laundry next door. She informed me that Eric had continued walking an extra seven kilometres to the next albergue in Grañón, and that we were not likely to meet him again. This left Noelia and me as the last members of the group of seven that started the walk in Roncesvalles. Dominique had left us after Torres del Rio. She had arranged to meet her partner in Burgos and had taken the bus for some stages to get there in time.

The albergue in Santo Domingo is adjacent to a still functioning monastery and our sleeping quarters and the elaborate staircase leading to them were previously part of the same complex. There is still an interleading gate in the wall now separating the two dwellings, which allowed us to have a glimpse into the monk’s quarters with its tastefully furnished passages.

Sleeping quarters in Santo Domingo de Calzada

I was quite fond of our sleeping quarters. The dormitory was directly under the roof which, like other roof structures we had previously encountered, was supported by old wooden beams and columns. However, this roof is unusually flat and the support structure appears rather light in construction. > > For a change all beds were low and they had comfortable mattresses, which was a rare luxury – no double bunks.

The 12th century cathedral in Santo Domingo, like most old cathedrals and churches, has been extensively modified over the centuries and somehow the interior did not inspire me as others had. I consequently spent more time talking to a pair of fowls – a white hen and a cock. They are housed in an artificially lit, but reasonably sized cage, recessed into a wall at the end of the nave about three meters above floor level, where they scratched in the sand for food ‒ and entertainment. They took little notice of me.

Chicken coop

In general chickens are not part of cathedral requisites, but there was a reason for this unusual exhibit and I copy the relevant story from my guidebook:

 “The chicken coop relates back to the story of the Miracle of the Cock and Hen, otherwise known as The Hanging Pilgrim.  Embellished over the years it has become one of the more endearing stories along the Way of St. James.

The legend has it that a pilgrim couple and their son stopped at an inn here on their way to Santiago. The pretty innkeeper’s daughter had her eye on the handsome lad, but the devout young fellow thwarted her advances. Incensed by his refusal she hid a silver goblet in his backpack and reported him for stealing it. The innocent lad was caught and condemned to hang.

The parents continued on their way, oblivious of what had happened [not very diligent parents, I should say] and on their return from Santiago they found him still hanging on the gallows. However, thanks to the intervention of Santo Domingo, miraculously and in spite of everything he was alive.

They rushed to the judge’s house and found him just about to tuck into a fine dinner. Upon hearing the news, he retorted that their son was no more alive than the cock and hen he was about to eat, whereupon the fowls stood up on the dish and cackled and crowed loudly.

The miracle was not lost on the diner who rushed back to the gallows and cut down the lad, who was given a full pardon.”

We are left to speculate on the fate of the foxy maiden.

Santo Domingo, after whom the town of Santo Domingo de Calzada is named, was born in the village of Viloria de la Rioja which we would reach the next day. He was a deeply religious person from the 11th century, but it seems that the privilege of becoming a monk in his days was mostly reserved for nobles and those with influence. As Santo Domingo came from humble stock and was not literate, the church authorities initially refused to accept him as a monk, although this had been his life’s ambition. As a result he dedicated himself to make the pilgrims’ lot around this part of the Camino more comfortable by building roads, bridges, hospitals and hostels.

It appears that Santo Domingo’s work as a layperson was ultimately of greater benefit to his fellow men and pilgrims than would have been the case had he been cooped up in a monastery. Without the influence and control of other friars, he was free to act as needs presented themselves. In spite of his initial rejection he received sainthood at a later stage, after the church had recognized his values. Santo Domingo was probably one of those remarkable, humble folk with great awareness and courage, a truly conscious member of humanity.

That evening in Santo Domingo I found a cosy bar that served menu del dia at the same time as Barcelona played soccer against Seville. The patrons of the bar followed the game on the television screen with passion and the owner wanted me to sit by myself in a separate, rather sterile and dimly lit dining room. It took a fair amount of gesticulation and persistence to hold on to the table I had managed to reserve on entering the bar, and which was situated almost directly under the television screen.

He finally and rather reluctantly relented, and while having my dinner I had a wall of excited men breathing down my neck. Instead of sitting in solitude, I now had company and at the same time enjoyed the game with these lively spectators.

Posted in Chapter, Winter Walk permalink

About Dieter Daehnke

Born in 1941 in Gdansk, Poland. In March 1945 the family fled the Russian army. Met my wife Uta in Hamburg and as she is South African, I followed her home. We live in Cape Town, have 3 children, and 2 wonderful grandchildren. I established an Engineering company and since its sale, I enjoy walking Caminos. I have recently completed my book 'Journey of a Stickman'.

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