Today’s 24-kilometre walk would lead us to three unique religious experiences.
We left Nájera at first light on another beautiful blue-sky day, the sun rising over our shoulders, casting its long shadows towards our destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. We soon arrived at the 500-person hamlet of Azofra and made the proper decision to wander off the Camino path to the Cistercian Abbey of Santa María de Cañas. It would add a few kilometres to our day’s walk but John Brierley’s guidebook, the bible of all English-speaking pilgrims, suggested it was a well-spent journey.
The route to Cañas is not a wonderful experience. It is almost entirely on the shoulders of mercifully minor roads. But this is farming country. Traffic consisted of tractors, huge grape harvesting machines, relieved by the occasional, silent senior wobbling past us on his antique bicycle.
Slowly the abbey at Cañas reveals itself over the fields of ripe grapes, a massive structure dating back to 1170. Rumour has it that Saint Francis of Assisi followed our route on his way to Santiago and stayed at the abbey. It is a hard building to comprehend as the route winds its way along the austere Gothic exterior, arriving at an almost invisible point of entry. Once inside, the true beauty and power of this structure becomes apparent. Delicate stone columns and arches reach up to the roof of the 13th century church. Walls are punched with large gothic windows, infilled with translucent alabaster panels that bathe the interior with a milky light. In the adjoining chapter room is the 13th century stone tomb of Urraca López de Haro, abbess and daughter of the abbey’s founder. The tomb is wrapped in a superb sculptural frieze illustrating abbey life, all softly illuminated by the alabaster windows above,.
It is a powerful space, almost modern in its minimalism. And quiet. We are the only pilgrims who have ventured here. We have this place to ourselves.
We remain completely off-camino as we continue our detour along the shoulder of unmarked roads to Cirueña, where we rejoin the pilgrim path to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
There is an important cathedral in Santo Domingo, offering a walking tour of early architectural styles stretching from its origins in 1098 to the 16th century. A few hours spent here is worthwhile. But what brings this cathedral to life is the music of a youth choir, voices echoing through the forest of stone columns.
The day’s third religious experience is one of earthly delights. Over the years, Spain has established an exceptional network of Paradores, historic buildings converted to luxurious hotels. Santo Domingo is the first community on the Camino Francés to offer a Parador experience. In fact, there are now two here. Fortunate for us since we arrived without reservations and the main Parador across from the cathedral is full.
We head to the newer one, Parador de Santo Domingo Bernardo de Fresneda, inside the sensitively renovated Convento de San Fransisco from the 16th century. It is not an inexpensive treat (from 85 Euros) but it is a wonderful way to repose, for at least one night, in a historic place intimately connected with the Camino. After a long day on the Camino, bathing in the alabaster-filtered light of a Cistercian abbey and enjoying sonorous voices resonating between the stone arches of Santo Domingo’s cathedral, there is no better way to end… with a great meal in this grandly-scaled monastery.