One of the joys about living in the region of Valencia, Spain, is discovering Valencia’s Historical Sites, beyond the normal tourist route. Around every corner, ancient history seems to meet the present through the remaining remnants of historical architecture. Our day visit to the Monastery of Santa Maria de la Valldigna, was one of these treasured discoveries for us. Quiet and serene, it seemed to be there waiting just for us to visit it at that moment in time. We had rode our bikes there from the tiny, unknown beach town of Xeraco where we were living at the time. For months we had heard about the monastery from the locals and seen the name on road signs. Finally the day came that we visited. And we’re so glad that we did.
Visiting Valencia's Historical Sites Is Also About the Journey
Like any destination, it’s so nice when the journey there is also a wonderful part of the experience. By car, it’s only about 45 minutes south from the city of Valencia. You drive through the famous area of Albufera, known for where the famous Valencian rice for paella is made. This flat, marsh land spreads out around in the square fields of rice and it’s a great place to spot Kestrels and other birds like herons and gulls flying through the air. From the highway, you take the exit for Tavernes de Valldigna, turning inland and going in the direction away from the Mediterranean Sea which is along your left at that point. This little town is cozily situated between two rising hills of rock on either side, one much higher than the other and with impressive sheer cliffs that show off the strata of earth that has over time protruded from underground in plate-tectonic form. You pass through the town and continue on further back into the valley, curving slightly to the left and following signs for the even smaller town of Simat de la Valldigna and the monastery.
Take note, that another great option is the tram that goes from Valencia south to Gandia. Just make sure to take Line C1 and get off at Tavernes de Valldigna. From there, you’ll have to hike or you can take a bike on the tram and ride from there.
If you’re not going by car, going by bike is marvelous, like we did. We of course went from our house in the nearby town of Xeraco, the part of Xeraco that is on the beach, but you could easily park in Tavernes de Valldigna and ride from there. It was a good distance for us to cycle, particularly because Amalia only had a cruiser-style bicycle. At one point, we got a little confused with the directions and almost turned around for home. But then we found the way and thankfully continued on. Hint-hint, you do NOT take the main road through town.
From our house, we road the quiet, small roads through the various orange groves that seem to be everywhere in this area. There were some small creeks that we crossed over on bridges, getting to admire the tall reeds that grow in these areas and the ducks and birds. Once we reached Tavernes de la Valldigna, and found the correct way, we continued to enjoy a road that was well-paved, yet not busy. Lined on either side by orange groves, this road skirts along the town rather than going through it, and hugs where the lower crest of the hill range begins to slope upward, just to the east of the small valley. With the town on our right hand side and the pine tree wooded rocky slope of the rising range on our left hand side, we rode on in search of the monastery.
This was in the Spring season, so the weather was gloriously sunny and warm and the orange blossoms were in full, fragrant bloom. Flowers were blooming and every orange tree was decorated with the bright white of its blossoms and even the splash of inner yellow from the pollen-centers. With the backdrop of dark, rich green leaves, the orange groves seemed like a Mediterranean version of Christmas trees, living on beyond the season.
Then, what we heard all along the ride, was remarkable. The constant humming of bees buzzing! They were in full harvest mode and entranced by the natural beauty and fragrance as well. In countless numbers, they hovered and swarmed around the blossoms, all throughout the bushes. Every now and then, we encountered them crossing our path, and while we came close to each other, never had a full-on collision.
When we got to the village of Simat de la Valldigna, we entered in through what seemed like a side road. The village is small, so we quickly found the main road that passes through the center, where there are trees and small buildings lined up, quaint and well-kept. It was not hard to find signs for the monastery and we soon came to the entrance, which is a street over from the main road and across from a wide pedestrian area between two sets of buildings. Here there were several cafes on either side, although none were really open when we arrived. It was just about late lunch time and everything was closed and quiet.
Even the monastery was quiet and very empty. But it was open and, to our delight, it was free to enter. We cannot remember now, but that may have been because it was a Sunday. Having arrived at our destination, we already felt like we had discovered so much from the gorgeous bike ride to get here. Now the experience of our destination was just beginning. And what an impressive destination it was.
An Entrance That Makes Quite the Impression
We were greeted with the tall, solid barrier of cut square stones fitted together, forming the protective front wall of the monastery. The entrance was set a little further back in the wall and the arch came to a point. Above that was a battlement that you could look up and just imagine warrior monks looking down from, perhaps throwing rocks or pouring hot oil in defense. Or maybe just to see who was asking entrance and to open the gate to them. We also do not know if there were actually warrior monks here, but looking up at this entrance, it seemed like a grand story. Stepping inside, it is a small antechamber of sorts before there is another identical pointed arch that leads into the garden and inner-grounds of the complex.
Entering into the inner-grounds, we felt like we were transported back in time and a quiet, peaceful feeling covered everything. Whatever the monks spent time doing there, seems to have been good for such a wonderful, serene energy to still pervade this place. The first thing that caught our gaze was the picturesque fountain, overflowing with water, it sang an enchanting sound of cascading water that could be heard, it seems magically, from anywhere in the garden. The sunlight reflected off its splashing drops, emphasizing its mesmerizing presence in the middle of a triangular pathway, directed towards the entrance. A walkway runs down the middle of it, bordered by rose bushes growing around it in organized rows. Their colorful rosebuds accented the scene with deep, velvety reds, vibrant yellows, even pristine whites and soft, silky pinks. Intermingled with these like the best of friends, are various types of herb bushes. Rosemary is the most prevalent, along with other richly green herbs like mint. Rubbing these, it was easy to release their scent even more into the air and take it with us on our fingertips. Blending with the sweet perfume of roses, we had gone from the sensational smells of the orange blossoms to this intoxicating and exotic combination of flowers and herbs. Yet moving even further into the complex, we would find that the orange blossoms were still a part of the experience. They also grew here, well-tended and in plots set aside by low stone walls.
The entire complex of the monastery seemed to us to be in four different areas. There’s the entrance (the Port al Nuevo) with its wall and to the right the wall quickly enlarges into a full-on church. This building is noticeably designed in the shape of a cross, extending into four wings that rise a little lower than the main center, which towers a floor higher and is topped with a dome roof of the traditional shiny, cobalt-blue tiles that are iconic here in the Valencia Community. One of the four wings is part of the wall itself and ends where the impressive parapets can be seen just over the main entrance. It’s looks like different puzzle pieces or legos, perfectly fit together. Back to the left of entering the gardens, is a long narrow building called La Almazara, which was built in the XVIII century to house the oil mill, barn and stables. Today it houses the information center and an exhibit hall that is used for local events and community gatherings.
The second and most prominent area is the garden, with the before mentioned fountain called the Fuente Tritones, and the main cathedral beyond it. Slightly to the right and further behind, are ruins of the Claustro del Silence (the Cloister of Silence) and behind that the Sala Capitular, which we think is where the rooms of the monks were located. The other buildings and areas are the Palacio del Abad, the Locutorio, El Refectorio (the Refectory), the Plaza Sur (or South Plaza), the Puerta de la Xara, and the Almacen Arqueológico (a space for archeological exhibitions).
All around and throughout these distinct areas, were groups of citrus trees, dense with their dark-green shiny, waxy leaves and their fruit looking like bright, decorative bulbs. There were not just oranges though. There were also the tinier Mandarins (or in Spanish, Mandarinas), and even the sunny yellow lemons and subtle green limes. Below a lot of these grew beds of gorgeous flowers. Like an eccentric carpet, they spread out in a sea of all varieties of green leaves, carrying the bright, colored faces of royal purple or pure white, each fully open and crowning their dark centers. Others were smaller, yet more complex, their yellow pollen centers bursting into petals that bled white into dark pink. As a seemingly final touch, are the evergreen fir trees, trimmed meticulously in the shape of cones. They stand tall, silent and solid, as though guarding the garden and its colorful inhabitants.
We found the cathedral to be impressive, yet simple, with large, square stones tiled together for its floor and overhead the beautiful joining of carved stone arches. Their twists and turns were etched into the hard mineral and yet seemed to flow and rise so lightly, proof of the talented craftsmanship of its creators. We do remember there being marble, yet what stood out most was the primary use of stone. Touches of color were added by the paintings and reliefs, especially in the very apex of the steeple itself, directly above where the pulpit would have been. High up in apexes of the ceiling and arches, were carvings of stone shields that had various family coats of arms. Many of them still had the family names visible, yet a few were faded and hard to read. On our way out from the cathedral, we also appreciated the doorway and the etched marble reliefs adorning either side of this entrance. Even the threshold is still the original stones, worn smooth and shiny from so many centuries of people crossing it. These thresholds are also found in many other places throughout the monastery.
Unearthing the Ancient History of the Monastery
The monastery’s history goes all the way back to 1298, when it was founded by James II of Aragon. According to a royal order, the monastery and the entire valley of Valldigna, were given to monks of Santa Creus from the Tarragona Province. They were considered part of what was called the Cistercian order. For hundreds of years it was inhabited by monks, until 1835 when the revolt of Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendizábal took place in the Valldigna Valley. The monastery was forced to be abandoned by the monks and most of its goods and works of art were sold, plundered or destroyed.
The monastery remained in ruins until only recent years, when in 1991 the Generalitat Valenciana (Valencian Government) acquired it, and in 1999 began its restoration. Today, it is officially declared by the Valencian Community “the spiritual, historical and cultural temple of the ancient Kingdom of Valencia. It is as well a symbol of the grandeur of the Valencian people”… “the Generalitat Valenciana will recover, restore and preserve the monastery (…) a law from the Valencian Parliament will determine the destiny and usage of the monastery as a meeting point of all Valencians, and as a research center for the recovery of the Valencian Community history”. What intriguing history that reveals so much more than most of us know about this particular region of Spain, and Spanish History in general.
Today, in areas restored and those still in ruins, one can see the distinct three different stages of construction that the monastery saw throughout its evolution. First was the Gothic architectural style of the XIV century. Then in 1936, there was serious damage caused by a major earthquake, and it underwent a renovation and expansion in the Baroque style of the XVII and XVIII centuries. This second style is especially seen in the current temple and the chapel of the Mare de Déu de Gràcia. However, after the Confiscation took place in 1835, the monastery became a private manor and entire portions of it were sold off. For example, the Gothic arches of its upper cloister of the Palacio del Abad are used in a mansion called Canto del Pico, located in Torrelodones (Madrid).
The areas that have been re-created and restored are part of the restoration project that is ongoing. In one area, what was once a well stands in the center of a what seems like a small inner-courtyard, exposed to the sky and romantically surrounded by the charming columns, stone arches and walls. These ruins of the monastery have been in the process of restoration for some time, and while it seems the the process is slow-going, we saw that the efforts being made are worth while. A wonderful job is being done to preserve and share this gift of architecture which is still with us from the area’s history. Some of the buildings are also used as part of this restoration project, for community events and gatherings, and specifically for the enrichment of the Valencian People.
Throughout our entire visit of a couple hours, we only saw another few people and most of the time we felt like we had the monastery all to ourselves. It was so quiet and tranquil and the sunny, spring weather added such a dazzling touch, lending an almost otherworldly feel to being there. It was easy to imagine that we had stepped back in time.
While our time at the monastery came to an end once we walked out of its enchanting entrance, we still had the ride home to enjoy. There was something on the way back that we had not noticed before and it was particularly interesting. Not long after leaving the monastery and its town, we spotted high up on a narrow, pointed tower of rock, the ruins of a fortress. This was off to the east and just before the narrow road veered to the left to go around the end of the hill range that ended here just before the village and its valley. It was amazing how the natural formation of rock was practically separate from the rest of the hill range and its sides were sheer walls that ended in a small area on the top that didn’t look to be that big. The fortress tower we saw on the top seemed to take up the entire summit.
There was a sign at a small dirt road that we saw as we continued on our road and it seems that there could be a trail that goes up to these ruins. It was most likely a watchtower long ago. Looking at it from where we were, we felt even more aware of the energy that still reverberates through these little, quiet valleys here near the Mediterranean.
Visiting the Monastery of Santa Maria de la Valldigna was a beautiful experience, not only for its romantic, historical architecture, but also for the natural beauty of its area, the journey there, and its significant history and symbolism for the people of Valencia.