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Guadalupe: a night at the monastery

Peter remembers a stay at the Real Monasterio in 2018.

“Will sir be dining with us this evening?” asked the porter, handing me an oversized key. Usted, the formal, third person way of saying 'you' (literally 'your grace') has all but disappeared in Spain, but not at the Hospedería del Real Monasterio de Guadalupe. I confirmed for 9.30pm, and set off to find my room. The key clanked in the lock and the sound echoed around the tiled corridor.

In Spain there are plenty of monasteries and convents—some still in use, others reformed for tourism—where you can spend the night. But for the full-blown Hispanic religious experience it's hard to do better than the Hospedería.

Guadalupe isn't the sort of place you're going to stumble upon. Set among the mountainous forests of the Sierra de Villuercas in eastern Extremadura, it's remote even by the region's secluded standards. Yet coach loads of pilgrims roll up from all over the Spanish speaking world, especially around the 8th of September, el Dia de Extremadura.

They come to honour Extremadura’s patron saint, the black Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is a two foot cedar statue of the Virgin with Child, darkened with age, around which a pilgrimage industry has thrived since the Middle Ages. The story goes that in the 13th century a local farmer, Gil Cordero, discovered the statue while looking for a lost cow. It had apparently been buried hundreds of years earlier by monks fleeing the invading Moors and, it is claimed, was originally carved by St Luke. A chapel was built on the site and miracles followed, but what really shot the place to international fame was that Christopher Columbus came here having discovered America in 1492 and credited Our Lady of Guadalupe with arranging his safe return.

Sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando, the little statue—now dressed in fine robes to appear much taller, with just faces and hands visible—quickly became patron of Spain's imperial adventure and queen of the Hispanic world. Even today you can recognise the features and accents of numerous visitors from Latin America and the Philippines.

The sprawling monastery dominates the hilltop town of just 2,000 inhabitants. As the pilgrimage business boomed, riches flowed in and the Hieronymite monks kept on building. Temples, chapels, cloisters and extensions were added in Plateresque, Mudéjar, Renaissance and Baroque style—an architectural One Piece at a Time that just about hangs together.

The place is stuffed with treasures too: gold encrusted vestments and illuminated manuscripts, paintings by El Greco, Goya and Zurbarán, sculpture from Pedro de Mena and, reputedly, Michelangelo. Bear in mind that this UNESCO World Heritage site is also your bed for the night.

The main draw is of course Our Lady of Guadalupe. During feast days she is paraded through the streets in golden attire, but usually she inhabits a niche within the monastery. There are two ways to see her. There's no charge to enter the main basilica at the top of the steps leading up from the town’s Plaza Mayor. At the centre of the floor-to-ceiling altarpiece, on a dazzling golden throne, stands the tiny statue. Curiously, every half an hour or so, she disappears.

To get a closer look, I joined a group of pilgrims for the guided tour in Spanish only. Neither the group I was with nor the guide seemed to have much interest in lingering at the exhibits, exquisite as they were. We raced through the museum of liturgical robes, including a chasuble made from a cloak belonging to Isabel and Fernando; barely glanced at the putative Michelangelo; and certainly didn’t do justice to the intensely decorated sacristy, nicknamed the Spanish Sistine Chapel, where Zurbarán’s plaintive portraits of Hieronymite monks hang.

When we reached the Camarín chapel and the guide passed the baton to a habit-wearing Franciscan monk, everything slowed down. Now the build up became almost unbearable. There was a lengthy description about a set of paintings depicting the life of Mary by Luca Giordano, but no sign of the black Madonna. Ladies fanned themselves impatiently.

At last, with a gameshow flourish, the monk swiveled a gilded mechanical panel to reveal Our Lady. We were viewing the statue from a room behind the altarpiece. Pilgrims gasped, and formed a queue to approach the Virgin and kiss a silver image of her offered by the monk, who wiped it down with a cloth after each encounter. Many left the chamber overcome with emotion.

I needed dinner. Although the monastery throbs with opulence, staying here isn’t expensive. It is squarely aimed at the pilgrim and ecclesiastical market—outside of religious holidays a basic room costs around 50 euros. Dinner is substantial and affordable rather than adventurous, and the service a little institutional. I went for the set menu at 15 euros: gazpacho, slow-cooked lamb stew, chilled red wine and an orange for dessert. The setting is heaven. In summer, dinner is served in the open-air Gothic cloister.

The great thing about the Hospedería is that more or less everything is how you imagine and hope a stay at a monastery might be. There are no swipe cards or mini bar, there are whispering monks, and priests snoozing in the TV room. And when I came down for dinner, someone had printed out place cards for the tables, with a D. for men and Dña. for women. Noone has ever addressed me as Don Peter before or since.

The details: Hospedería del Real Monasterio, Plaza Juan Carlos I, s/n, tel +34 927 367 000

Photos: Peter Barron


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