Built on both banks of the pretty Naverette River, with its red sandstone cliffs and green river banks, Nájera is a dream for the pilgrim after traversing the more exposed and rugged terrain from Logroño.
The area must also have been a hunter’s paradise, for there is a legend about one day in CE 1044 when King García III of Navarra was out hunting with his falcon. Near Nájera, his falcon suddenly flew after a partridge, and both birds disappeared in a thick growth of trees.
The king got off his horse and went to investigate, soon finding himself in front of a hidden cave from which an unusual light poured out.
When he entered the cave, he saw the falcon and the partridge sitting peacefully on either side of a vision of the Mother and Child, before whom lay lilies and a bell. (In Christian iconography, the bell represents the voice of God, as in bells ringing for the devout to come to church, to come to God.
The original cave was most likely carved out of the sandstone around the 3rd century, both for shelter and as well as a place to hide. It was then forgotten, overgrown by forest and hidden, until that fateful day with the clever falcon in the 11th century.
Again we have a female divinity found in a cave in a hillside, a continuation of the pre-Christian tradition of female divinities associated with caves and streams. In Nájera, we have both.
The miraculous discovery of Our Lady of Nájera turned this location into an important stop on the Camino. García III honored the hunting vision by constructing this church in 1056 in Mary’s honor.
Nájera is a gregarious town in a stunning setting. Its monastery, the Monasterio de Santa María la Real, is built of the same red sandstone as the cave and is built into the cavern, fusing the man-made monastery with the natural cave. To arrive there, you enter and pass first through the cloister, formed by Gothic stone archways that have been carved into a delicate latticework.
Next, beyond the cloister, is the monastery church where rest the tombs of medieval Navarrese royalty along the back wall. In the center of that back wall is the opening to the leading to the cave of King García’s vision. Today, a Romanesque sculpture from the 13th century represents Our Lady of Nájera and is surrounded by fresh white lilies, a candle, and a bell.
Much of the surviving monastery and church are from the 15th and 16th centuries. A lot of damage was done to the carvings in the cloister—a good deal of stone beheadings—during the Napoleonic invasion in 1809. Yet the place is still magical, as if that ethereal original light is
still pouring out from the red sandstone cave.
The next major stop on the Camino is Santo Domingo de la Calzada.