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Beauty and Tranquility at Monasterio de San Jerónimo in Granada

by Silke Elzner

Visiting a new city can be a very stressful experience. I know you can relate. In no time at all you are surrounded by enormous amounts of traffic. All the drivers around you seem to know their way and they don’t give a damn whether you are lost or confused or overwhelmed by the unfolding chaos.

That’s not where it ends though. Once you have found your bearings and decided that you have travelled close enough to your destination to walk the remaining couple of metres, you are stuck in a seemingly never-ending search for the ideal parking spot.

In short, a city trip can make you regret your decision the moment you arrive, even in a city as beautiful as Granada. It wasn’t any different for us when we arrived in this city the other day. We wanted to spend the day in Granada, experience the lovely old town and the serene views of the Alhambra from across the valley. Yet, getting there was a bit of the usual city trip nightmare. Our hearts were beating faster for all the wrong reasons, and we were praising our luck as soon as we had found a suitable garage not far from the city centre.

Instant Tranquility Behind Closed Doors

Orange trees in the cloisters

Yet, lo and behold, all of this initial chaos, confusion and disillusion was forgotten the minute we left the parking garage. We saw ourselves confronted by an impressive wooden gate, strangely misplaced next to the modern parking garage. It was not part of the plan, but the temptation was there instantly. Tiles with letters described what would expect us behind these doors, namely the San Jéronimo Monastery. If this didn’t sound like tranquility, then nothing else would.

Even though it was not part of our initial plan we decided spontaneously to visit this place, if only to find some peace and tranquility in the ancient cloisters of this old monastery before continuing with our city exploration.

While we paid the small entry fee inside we noticed that there was a door leading to the closed-off area of the monastery, where nuns still lived and prayed and worked, separate from the hectic modern world that surrounded us. We knew that this was rare: We were surprised to find that the monastery was still in use and yet open to the public.

The empty walkway around the cloisters

Following the geometry of the cloisters, we explored every little detail of the place. We smelled the scent of the orange trees in the garden square, felt the gentle touch of the wintry Andalusian sun on our skin. There was almost no other visitors here, just us and the timelessness of the ancient rooms with their statues of saints, little fountains and dark wooden chapter furniture.

Pavers on the sandstone floors had names of former inhabitants engraved, names of monks who once lived here before the monastery had been disbanded. Behind one of the thick wooden doors, we could hear the soft voices of the nuns, praising their God. They almost sounded like celestial beings.

The Unexpected Beauty of the Monastery Church

The golden altarpiece

The orderliness, the lack of people, the soft singing in the background, all of this calmed our nerves and gave us this wonderful gift of being transported back in time. After visiting the different parts of the medieval monastery there was one last place to see. We pushed open the heavy doors, felt the dark wood under our palms, and entered the twilight of the church.

A couple of steps in and there we stood, arrested. In front of us, after rows of pews, was the marvellous interior of the church of St Jerome, bathed in light. The effect was immediate, making our hearts skip a beat or two. Slowly, we walked on, with each step taking in more details of the elaborate golden altarpiece.

Visitors in the church

Tiny statues filled every niche, looking down on us as they were frozen in the moment of their saintly story. Every wall, the ceilings and domes, were painted with care and full of details. Angels and saints, mother Mary and baby Jesus, all coming together in soft pastel colours, framed by golden friezes, pilasters and capitals.

As we stood there, in awe, more people entered the church. For a couple of minutes we all just stood there, craning our necks, to study the stunning details of this elaborate Renaissance church.

Monasterio de San Jerónimo as a Fine Example of Devotion

Detail of the church

To be honest, I am not a religious person at all, but I do admire people who are devoted to a cause. Monks and nuns who spend all their life for this one goal, even if it meant that they had to pay the high price of living away from their families or not owning any property. It is through this kind of devotion that beautiful things can exist. It took a lot of effort to build this monastery and to decorate this church, and even more effort to transport it through troubled times to preserve it for future generations.

As I stood there, marvelling at one of the most beautiful churches I have yet seen in Spain, I realised that devotion doesn’t have to be tied to faith. You can make a commitment to another cause, helping other people or creating something special. It doesn’t have to be big and overwhelming, but it should make a difference in other people’s lives.

Nun who helped restore the monastery

We finished our visit to the monastery, passing the statue of a nun who had been instrumental in the restoration of the monastery. It’s a curious statue, true to life. A woman with a veil who was laughing openly and happily at us. Not saintly or removed but surprisingly human.

Before we left, we stocked up on Christmas pastries made by the nuns. Shaped like little fish, they had a delicate flavour of marzipan. With the sweets melting in our mouths we continued our visit to the old town of Granada, calmer than ever, and enriched by the unforgettable experience of beauty and devotion behind closed doors.

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A little snack before we leave

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