Nájera on the Camino de Santiago: a hidden jewel in La Rioja

Nájera in the 21st century.

Santia María la Real

On the Camino Francés between Logroño and Santo Domingo de la Calzada is a medium size town of about 8,500 inhabitants called Nájera.  The town is nearly 500 metres above sea-level and 26 km from Logroño and 21 km to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

The name NAJÉRA has its etymology from an Arabic word «between cliffs».

There are a number of albergues (pilgrim hostels), but one is recommended (the Municipal one) in the 30 all-weather walking maps (ISBN: 978-0-646-52975-2) at the end of the town, across the river Najerilla, in front of the appropriately named square: Plaza de Santiago (St James’ Square) and just around the corner from the Monastery, and just before climbing steeply up past the red cliffs which are dotted with caves.

Cave complex: impressive complex of caves are located on the cliffs of the mountains above Nájera.  These caves were actually man-made even before the Roman colonial period, over three thousand years ago when Celtic invasions created much instability and insecurity.

When the writer first arrived in Nájera some years ago with his wife as pilgrims and despite much research, the next day, unknowingly walked past the Monasterio de Santa María la Real (see photo) without giving it a second thought, because the next day’s focus was walking to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

The Albergue de Peregrinos de Nájera is just a few minutes away on foot to Santa María la Real and in any case, you pass by this monastery in the morning on leaving the pilgrim hostel to start climbing up the steep red sand stone cliffs and out of the town in a continuous westerly direction.

Once on top, you walk through kilometre after kilometre of vineyards.

You cannot understand Najéra’s geopolitical historical situation without first understanding why in the middle of the 11th century the Monasterio de Santa María came into existence during the reign of King García III (1035-54) of Nájera of a Northern Christian Kingdom and when battling the southern Islamic push into the northern Christian territories.
This is the story which triggered the building works.  In 1044 García III (the Navarran king of this region) was hunting an area close to the Río Najerilla (the western end of today’s town) and his falcon pursued a white dove into one of the caves.  The King went in pursuit of his falcon and into the deepest recesses of these red sandstone caves saw a light.  He went to this source of light and saw an old wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary and at its based were fresh white lilies in a vase.  For this King who was involved in this ongoing, monumental and historical struggle against the march of Islam took it to be a powerful sign and message from his Christian God.  As a result,  García ordered a chapel to be built, and later a church and a monastery which was consecrated in 1052.  Today, how much of the original building of one thousand years ago still exist?  Not much.  It was rebuilt in the 16th century.

Can a pilgrim visit the Monasterio de Santa María la Real when walking out the next day?  Theoretically yes; but in practical terms no, because the earliest opening time is 10.00 am.  It would be better to see the Monastery in the afternoon, soon after you’ve arrived and taken up residence in the Municipal albergue or elsewhere.  You do have a wonderful window of opportunity, because the closing time in winter is 5.30 pm and 7.00 pm in summer.

In the medieval period (late Middle Ages) and when pilgrimage exploded in popularity throughout all of Western and Central Europe, Nájera was a very important historical, political and geographical centre for pilgrimage and for the Northern Christian Kingdoms doing constant battle among themselves or holding the forever changing borderlands between the Muslim south and the Christian north.  By the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Nájera lost its strategic-geographical importance, but it has continued to this day to serve pilgrims.  And there is much to see and appreciate during your short 15-18 hours stay as a pilgrim.

What was Nájera like for a foreign pilgrim in the 17th century?  As a primary source we are indebted to the Italian traveler and multiple pilgrim: Domenico Laffi.  Today, we have his written testimony and in his text: A Journey to the West subtitled today: The Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Pilgrim from Bologna to Santiago de Compostela.

Here we stopped in its (olive grove) shade and then carried on towards Nájera, three leagues away.

This is one of the finest towns to be seen in this region.  It lies in a plain and has a broad river flowing through it.  It is spanned by a fine bridge connecting two parts of the town on the west side.  There is a very steep hill, all of bare rock, which overshadows the town in such a way that half of it is sheltered from rain and sun except until about mid-day.  It is really a beautiful place and well supplied with everything.  They are busy all day constructing many buildings, together with churches.  There are three squares, one on the near side of the bridge, the others across the bridge to the west.  When we rose in the morning we bought bread and wine because, particularly in Spain, you should never leave a town without them.  From here we began our journey to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, climbing the great hill which overlooks Nájera.

As a 21st century pilgrim, you arrive into Nájera from the east, needing to cross the busy and dangerous Carretera N-120, into the newer areas of the town and near to its furniture making industrial area,  you walk down first into the aptly named  Avenida de Logroño and then into the long Calle San Fernando until you get to the bridge Puente San Juan de Ortega, crossing the Río Najerilla to get to Najéra’s old quarter: charming, very Spanish with narrow streets and when turning every corner, being at once stimulated and surprised by the ever-present sights and sounds emanating from this old quarter.

One of the great delights of arriving into Nájera in the second half of July is their justly famous LUZ Y SONIDO (their sound and light show + pageantry and open air theater) adjoining the Monastery.  This spectacle is called Reino de Nájera (The Kingdom of Nájera): 200 locals dress up in 400 different period costumes to represent what Nájera was like during its heyday as the seat of power for the northern Christian Kingdoms in the Middle Ages whilst doing battle with their ideological foes and opponents of the time.  Pilgrimage during that period is also represented.  You do not need Spanish to enjoy and appreciate such a show.

Despite Nájera’s past and its proud on-going associations and traditions with pilgrims and pilgrimage, this small town nonetheless reflects modern Spain.  In the old quarter, the writer photographed a

patisserie’s display of cake figurines for celebrating a wedding: two people of the same gender: it says it all.

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