Despite our best intentions, we were the last of the ten or so pilgrims staying in Jaca's well-appointed albergue to get up, do ablutions and hit the Aragones road. We should just give up trying and accept we're not early-morning pilgrims. Even the odd snore and the notorious 5am risers can't stir us into crack-of-dawn action.
We walked around the corner to Jaca's rather fasionable Calle Mayor and joined two or three fellow late starters for coffee at a bar. (By the way for those not in the know, a 'bar' in Spain is more like a coffee shop and snack place than a drinking hole). We were three sips down when the girl behind the counter slipped complementary croissants in front of us, fresh from the oven. As the saying goes, 'the Camino provides'. Even small luxuries like free fresh pastries.
We followed a small, scenic farm road out of Jaca, with no pilgrims around. I was being sneaky - it's an alternative I found on the GPS to the main route, and a good, leisurely way to start the day's walking. Our destination is Santa Cruz de la Seros and the nearby monasteries of San Juan de la Pena, a leisurely 15km walk away. The first part of the way is boring – highway walking – but after the Santa Cruz turnoff it's a pretty, winding road leading up into the mountain.We reached our hotel in Santa Cruz just before one in the afternoon. Our room has a view to die for onto the village church, and we cooled our feet for a while on the balcony.
Being puritanical pilgrims we turned our noses up at taking a bus or taxi from the hotel to the monasteries, and opted to walk the very steep footpath to the Saint Juan de la Pena monasteries. Before we left, the bar guy at the hotel glibly assured us it was an 'easy forty minute walk' to the Monastery. Yea, right.
An hour and a half later we were still huffing and puffing up the path, and then almost took a wrong turn that would have taken us to the old, and not the new monastery where entrance tickets are sold.
The tough climb was well worth it, and then some. The exhibition at the new monastery is high-tech and high-design, geared to teach visitors about monastic life in the middle ages. In one huge section we walked on a glass floor below which full-sized, white plaster models of monks circa thirteenth-century were going through their daily routines. Obviously serious money (UNESCO, I think) was spent here, generally to good effect. Life's too short for boring museums, and our time here was entertaining and fun. We would have like a few more English descriptions, but maybe we missed a handout somewhere.
Then it was a short, steep downhill walk along the main access road to the old monastery. The atmosphere and vibe here couldn't be more different from where we had just been; this was an austere, authentic relic of an age-old monastery that has acquired almost mythical status in local lore. Swathed in legend, fact and myth, abandoned leftovers of the monastery cling to the mountainside, an impressive reminder of religious will-power and inspiration. Back in it's heyday the monastery, if one reads between the lines, was a religious powerhouse well connected to kings and aristocracy of the day. I need to read up more on this: The handouts only hint at what was going on here nine hundred years of so ago.
We were more or less kicked out at closing time, so much were we enjoying sniffing around the hidden corners of the monastery. From what I could see, even though what is on display makes it worth a pilgrim visit many times over, I have the idea that, for whatever reason, a lot more exists which is not being shown to the public. Perhaps secrets embarrassing to present powers? I don't know. Intriguing...