As you will have gathered from this blog, Andalucia has a cornucopia of fun and exciting things to do and places to visit. But sometimes it’s good to have a change of scene. You can easily forget that the neighbouring area of Extremadura is just 80km to the north of Seville, a short drive up the excellent Autovia de la Plata motorway (A66), built 10 years ago. This fast road follows the old Roman Ruta de la Plata, which was used to transport silver (plata) from Seville all the way up to Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain.
So a few weekends ago, as my birthday family outing, we headed up this road as far as Monesterio (km730) and then turned off, winding around pretty back roads between rolling dehesa of oak trees. We soon spotted the perfect picnic spot, sunny-shady under an oak tree, where a hiking route crossed our little country road, near a village called Cantera de Leon.
Russet-coloured cows lumbered up to the grey stone wall to greet us, and we sat down under a shady oak. After our sandwiches, we walked up the hiking path, meeting a few cyclists on the way, and saw tadpoles, foxes and eagles. The views here are incredible – as far as the eye can see, undulating tree-covered land, rural and peaceful. About one car went past every 15 minutes, if that.
Then we hopped back in the car and headed off again. My husband has an uncanny knack of guessing places I’ll like – off-the-beaten-track, historic, with added interest for children. So without any idea what sort of place we were going to visit, we went into the village, asked the way to the monastery, and climbed up even more hairpin bends, with slopes covered with pine trees on either side. Eventually we reached the top, and a sign on the entrance said “Monasterio de Tentudia.” This is the highest point in the province of Badajoz at 710m, with spectacular views.
Arriving at the parking area, the children immediately disgorged and charged off explore, while I gazed in wonder at a small but extremely solid medieval stone building on the top of this windswept hill. This is a monastery which looks very old but still very solid, built of rough granite to withstand all weathers – with its mighty walls, tiny windows and crenellated roof, it’s more like a small fort.
We took in the view, which was astonishing – 360 degrees of wooded hills and valleys, with barely a house in sight. Various information boards told us about the area’s flora and fauna, and the people who would have visited and lived in the monastery – my favourite was the morisco (muslim convert).
The origins of the monastery date from the same year when Seville was reconquered from the Moors (Islamic North African settlers) by Fernando III. In 1248, one of his most favoured commanders, Pelay Perez Correa (who has a street named after him in Triana), was fighting a battle against the Moors in Extremedura. When the sun started to go down, the conflict was not going the Christians’ way. According to the tale, Perez Correa shouted. “Santa Maria, deten tu dia!” (St Mary, hold back the day!).
Needless to say, the Virgin appeared in the clouds, the sun stopped sinking, and the soldier triumphed over his enemy. In gratitude, Perez Correa ordered that a shrine be built, called Santa Maria de Tudia, or Tentudia. The shrine was under the Order of Santiago, of which the soldier was Grand Master. You can see the Cross of St James all around the monastery.
Centuries later, after he had dispatched the last Moorish rulers from Spain, King Ferdinand of Aragon – one half of the power couple who started the Inquisition in Seville, and funded Columbus’ voyages to the New World – applied to the Pope to build a monastery here.
Inside (entrance fee: 1 euro), the monastery is austere but very beautiful, with a small cloister like the one at La Rabida monastery in Palos de la Frontera near Huelva, where Columbus stayed to plan his voyages. The church has an extraordinary medieval chapel, to the left of the main altar, with carved stone tombs, brick mudejar (Islamic-Christian) arches, and a painted tile panel of St Augustine by Niculoso Pisano, whose works can also be seen above the main altar.
Pisano is the Italian émigré who brought the Renaissance style of painting on ceramic azulejos to Seville at the end of the 15th century – with scenes and designs painted across a large area, rather than small individually painted tiles. You can see examples of Pisano tiles around the city, including the Expo 1929 panels of Spanish provinces in Plaza de España. Perez Correa’s tomb is also in this chapel, marked by geometric alicatado tiles.
To be in a Catholic place of worship where you’re wowed by its simplicity, rather than its extravagance, is a new experience for me. Usually it’s full-on baroque, gold, statues with silver crowns or haloes… This was fresh flowers in the church, tiled panels in the chapels, and the plainest figures you’ve ever seen.
You could also climb up to a balcony to get a loftier view of the whole church.
Below the monastery was a simple café/restaurant, also built of stone, and with a shady terrace, where we had a quick snack before setting off back to Seville.
Although the monastery is small, what you can see is so steeped in history, folklore and wonder that it is well worth the trip. Anyone who’s interested in the medieval period, or mudejar architecture – as I am – will be intrigued and delighted. A large expanse of grass means there’s loads of space for kids to run around, plus the café to refuel. And since it’s well off the beaten track, you won’t be fighting through the crowds to see the wondrous tiles and macabre tombs. Indeed, the sheer beauty and isolation of the setting is probably the winning factor. One of the most memorable places I’ve visited in Spain.
Monasterio de Tentudia
Carretera Calera de León-Badajoz (BA-039), Km 9, 06292 Calera de León, Badajoz (Extremadura)
Opening hours: 1 May – 31 October: 11am – 6pm. 1 November – 30 April: 10am – 5pm. Closed Mondays
Entrance fee: 1 euro