From Madrid we headed east, en route back to Barcelona from where will soon catch a ferry over to Italy. But before then, there was more of rural Spain that we wanted to explore. This country has such vast wilderness areas and it is easy to spend a day out walking and not pass another living soul. We found a campsite (Lago Resort) in a beautiful location alongside a striking turquoise reservoir and walking distance from the village of Nuevalos, somewhere between Madrid and Zaragoza and made it our home for a couple of days.
On the drive over we had passed through mile after mile of stunning but barren landscapes of orange rock and treeless valleys, so it was lovely to be near the relative lush green of the lakeshore, amongst the pine trees.
The first evening, we took a stroll in to the local village, on the shores of the reservoir, where we found a handful of shops and restaurants and a small play park full of children with adults sitting around the edge chatting and enjoying the late sunshine. This part of Spain feels a bit like time has forgotten it, as though it probably hasn’t changed much in years.
Monasterio de Piedra
Near to Nuevalos is the Monasterio de Piedra (Stone Monastery), which is an old Cistercian monastery in extensive grounds criss-crossed with dozens of streams and waterfalls. It is an idyllic place and you can tour the monastery itself as well as take a walk around the grounds.
In 1194 Alonso II, the King of Aragon, donated an old Moorish castle next to the Piedra river and the land around it to thirteen Cistercian monks to build a monastery and establish Christian faith in the area. The castle had been a Muslim defensive stronghold until 1120 when control of the area had been taken over by Catholics. The establishment of a monastery was seen as a means of reinforcing Catholicism’s presence and identity in the region.
The monks used stone from the Moorish castle itself and from its surrounding wall to build their monastery and it took them 23 years to do so. Cistercian monks lived there until 1835 when the building was taken over by the Spanish government as part of its disentailment policy where land and property were taken from the Catholic Church and from religious orders like the Cistercians and was then sold to pay off government debts and increase national wealth.
After this, in 1840, the monastery and grounds were bought by Pablo Muntadas Campeny, a wealthy Catalonian merchant, who carried on running the farm and keeping livestock there. Years later, it was his son who would shape the park into what exists today: he built paths and walkways through the grounds, planted trees and shrubs and explored the caves. In 1860 he discovered the huge Iris cavern and it was shortly after this that the park was opened to the public.
Part of the monastery has been turned into a hotel but the rest of it is open to the public. We learned about the Cistercian life of manual labour and self-sufficiency, silence during mealtimes, periods of fasting and drinking a cup of chocolate in the mid-afternoon. Really? Drinking chocolate? This I was NOT expecting.
The First Chocolate Made in Europe
In fact, the monastery does have a rather interesting and surprising claim to fame: it was apparently in its very kitchens that chocolate was first made in Europe. There is a small Chocolate Museum and some old chocolate-making equipment in one of its rooms, but unfortunately all of the information was in Spanish and so we didn’t really understand at the time what it was all about. Naturally I was curious and so on our return to the campsite I used the power of the internet to find out and what I learnt was very interesting. Here’s the short(ish) version…
It starts with a Cistercian monk – Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar – who went off to preach in the ‘New World’. After a period living as a captive of the indigenous Mayan people after his ship was shipwrecked, he was freed by the conquistador, Hernan Cortes, who came across him (and a fellow Spaniard) during one of his explorations of southern Mexico. Fray Jeronimo had learned the Mayan language during his years of captivity and he subsequently travelled with Cortes and translated for him. Although Columbus is thought to have been the first European to come across cocoa beans in the ‘New World’, it wasn’t until Cortes explored the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico and subsequently conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that its value came to be recognised. In the Aztec world, chocolate was known as the “food of the gods” and Cortes found that as well as gold and other riches, the city had huge stores of cacao beans and they were used like currency.
Fray Jeronimo never returned to Spain, but he sent some cocoa beans and the chocolate recipe to the abbot of the Monasterio de Piedra. The recipe was for the Aztec drink “xocolatl”, which they made from cocoa beans flavoured with herbs, vanilla, pepper and other spices like chilli. It was a thick, dark and frothy liquid that they drank hot or cold.
The story goes that the monks followed the recipe but they found the taste too bitter and so they added sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to it, so forming the type of sweet chocolate drink that people still enjoy today with their churros in Spain. The monasteries of the Cistercian order passed the recipes between themselves and apparently they used the high-energy drink to sustain themselves during religious fasts. The drink also became popular amongst the Spanish nobility and by the 16th century many people in Spain enjoyed chocolate as a hot, restorative drink. However, it is widely thought that the Spanish actually tried to keep the delicious beverage a secret, restricting its production to remote monasteries like this one, and it wasn’t until almost a century later that knowledge of it spread to other parts of Europe. It’s amazing what you learn from the most unexpected of places!
The Park and the Waterfalls
However, the main attraction here is the extensive natural park surrounding the monastery. Here, a 5km walking route takes you up and down steps within the Piedra river canyon, through tunnels and across bridges to give you unbelievable views of a staggering number of waterfalls. Not all of what you see is entirely natural: the course of the river and some of the features within the canyon have been landscaped and sculpted over the years, but all of them are stunningly beautiful. It was busier than we are used to on our walks, but then this is one of the top tourist attractions in the area. Even so, the park is a peaceful and dramatic natural oasis and we spent a relaxed few hours exploring its treasures.
The river is divided into three as it passes through the park and it proceeds to fall and tumble over waterfalls, gush down channels and flow through ponds on its journey. The tallest and most spectacular waterfall is the ‘Cola de Caballeria’ or ‘Horsetail’ which is over 50 metres high. Having had only a glimpse of it from higher up, you then descend via a series of narrow tunnels through the rock, emerging into a huge natural cave behind the waterfall itself. This is quite an exhilarating experience as the sound is deafening and you can feel the thundering force of the water through your body as well as the spray on your face.
In places the falls are close enough to put your hand in the icy water and everywhere the sound of the water is quite intoxicating: at times thundering, sometimes gushing, others trickling but always moving.
In general this part of Aragon is very dry and barren, but the park is an oasis of lush vegetation and mossy caves. The walk is fairly demanding, climbing up and down the canyon as it does, but there are plenty of benches where you can relax and listen to the water. There are also two playgrounds for children and kiosks where you can buy food and drink, including draft beer (this is Spain after all). There are toilets both at the monastery and within the park.
The monastery is located only a few kilometres from the main A-2 motorway and is easy to find. Parking is free, but tickets for the monastery and park are €15.50 for adults and €11 for children.
Back at the campsite, we discovered that the number of residents had swelled slightly and our pitch in a quiet area of the site was now in the midst of lots of Spanish families there to enjoy the sunshine and outdoors just as we were. They often arrive en masse and pitch up together for a big party that lasts until well into the night. We are used to this now and no longer find it unusual that families start to cook dinner around 9:30pm or that the children are still up and running about until midnight or beyond.
We also had another visitor to our pitch – a very tame parakeet who let us feed it nuts and seeds from our hands. The following morning we could hear the tip tapping on the roof as it strutted up and down hoping for more. At one point it even looked through the caravan skylight at us!
Our next stop will be Zaragoza, Spain’s fifth largest city.