The U3A Vall del Pop in Search of the Holy Grail
Press Report by Peter Sockett
On Monday 20th March 47 members of the U3A Vall del Pop left Jalon at 8am on an expedition in search of the Holy Grail, the cup supposedly used by Jesus at the last supper. We were led through the story of the Grail by David Rohl, who was supported by local guides at each of the principal sites we visited, as he put the mystery of the Grail, and its arrival in Spain into context.
The story, put together from various ancient texts (including the stories of Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach) shows the cup, which is made of agate stone, initially carried to Rome with St. Peter, when he left the Holy Land to spread the Word of God after the crucifixion of Jesus. In the 3rd century AD the cup was carried to Huesca by St. Lawrence for safe keeping, when it was feared it was at risk in Rome. It remained in a remote farmhouse outside Huesca until the invasion by the Moors again threatened its safety. It was then moved to a hermitage in the Pyrenees, beyond the reach of Moorish occupation, before being moved to the monastery of San Juan de la Peña.
The agate cup was mounted, around the 12th Century, on a stone base (purportedly the Philosopher’s Stone) with elaborate byzantine gold and pearl mountings, and it is now displayed in Valencia Cathedral, although a replica remains at the monastery of San Juan where it can be examined more closely than in Valencia.
After the Moors had been driven out of Spain the cup was moved to Huesca and Zaragoza cathedrals before being taken by the Princes of Barcelona to that city, from where it was given to Valencia Cathedral and remains on display. The Santo Caliz de Valencia, the Holy Grail, is recognised by the Vatican as a holy relic, and has recently been visited by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Whether it is truly the cup of the Last Supper is still under debate, but David set out very convincing arguments as to why this is the true Holy Grail. After five days of exploration and travelling we all returned safely to Jalon, thanks to the skills of our driver, Pepe, on the mountain roads, much wiser and with our own thoughts on the veracity of the story.
Day 1: by Peter Sockett
At the crack of dawn on a cold, but dry, Monday 20th March, 47 members of the U3A waited in the car park in Jalon, for the coach to take us on our 5-day Holy Grail exploration with David Rohl, our master story-teller, who was giving away no secrets at present. Soon we were on our way and after forty winks, catching up on our lost sleep whilst Pepe drove us northwards, we gratefully welcomed a coffee break after leaving the AP7 and turning for Aragon and the Grail adventure.
Lunch was taken in Teruel, where, in true U3A fashion, on disembarking we all scattered around the town looking for the sights, and best lunch, with most of us eventually gravitating to the central plaza, where the smallest bull in Spain sits atop one of the biggest columns. Others were to be seen shooting all sorts of ‘amazing’ photographs, of balconies, windows and towers–maybe we will see some of these in the Sangreal photo review on 26th April!! Regrettably the Cathedral tower was wrapped in the all-too-familiar scaffolding; how often now these great old cathedrals and buildings are undergoing apparently never-ending maintenance and refurbishment.
After a drive through the Spanish central plateau our next stop was in Zaragoza, where we had time to visit the Cathedral after investigating the fine architecture of the Basilica and several municipal buildings. Some of the team even managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the Gaudi museum, whilst others found better ways to get around or rest – but still David was keeping his powder dry!!
Our last stop of the day was at the Jose Labordeta Park in Zaragoza, where the largest statue in Spain of King Alfonso I of Aragon, one of the Grail Kings, stands and where David, master of the Grail history, started his detailed story. The story starts with the cup of the Last Supper being sent from Rome, with Saint Lawrence, for safe keeping at a farm house at Huesca. Here it stayed until the invasion of Spain by the Moors, when it was moved again to a remote hermitage in the Pyrenees, behind the defensive line of castles constructed in Northern Spain to stop the Moors crossing the Pyrenees and invading France. But more of these adventures tomorrow – now it’s time to stop for the night.
Our journey for the day finished in Huesca, at the Hotel Sancho Abarca where we were well looked after and spent three very restful nights. The following morning we were to start with a tour of Huesca, and its Cathedral, before moving into the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Day 2: by Brigid Redmond
After a very long and exhausting first day it was good to discover that we ONLY had to walk a few minutes to the Old Market Place to begin our guided tour of the City of Huesca known in Spanish as Hoya de Huesca. It was explained that Huesca’s name, as it’s known now, was corrupted from Iberian Balska to Roman Osca when they invaded, to the Arabian Wasqa and finally by the Christians to Huesca!! It was originally the capital of Aragon, too.
We assembled at the Tourist Office in the attractive main plaza, where we met our lovely young guide Laura. She was passionate about her work and conveyed her enthusiasm by bringing all three of our tour experiences to life! Our first stop was at the monastery of ‘San Pedro el Viejo’ the name given by the Benedictine Christian Brothers when they took it over from the Moors, as it had been built over an old Moorish mosque. Built in Gothic style, it is a remarkable, beautifully preserved example. Amongst many interesting features were the beautiful cloisters with their various gargoyles, many now wonderfully restored, all with their own stories. There is a magnificent altarpiece which stretches from ceiling to floor, of carved alabaster; incredible workmanship, and resembling intricate ivory carving. Phenomenal! It took 14 years of continuous work to complete.
Laura told us a horrific story relating to ‘La Campana de Huesca’ which tells of the perpetrators of a terrible crime in which Alfonso 1 (who had no heirs) and Ramiro II (El Monje/The Monk) lured people, in particular any nobles who disobeyed him, into supposedly helping to build a bell for the church. When they arrived in a basement room, he cut off their heads. Very gruesome. There is a famous painting of the scene in the Town Hall and it is a magnificent example of an art piece in oils, and very precious indeed.
We then went on to the Cathedral, known as St Mary of Huesca, built by James 1st of Aragon, who apparently didn’t like worshipping in a building that had been a mosque and so decided to construct a new one! The front door is exceptional and an outstanding example of Gothic sculpture workmanship. It has seven mini-arches on it, dedicated to 14 virgins, ten angels and eight prophets and is intricately carved. The original bell tower rose one third higher than the current one, but sadly it was destroyed during the Civil War.
Next we visited the Town Hall where we met the ‘Gigantes de Cabuzon’ which are used and paraded around the town during their Fiestas. Each one weighs 40 kgs and requires two people to walk/manipulate it. An interesting aspect is the net ‘window’ sewn into the skirts about waist level so the people inside can see out. There are also some mini models, about half size who are a little like the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ because they chase the children and beat them! (Not literally we hoped.)
Our last stop before lunch was the Museum, which houses some wonderful pieces of artwork, and treasures in silver and gold, as well as many artefacts and items from the Civil War, such as identity cards, weapons, dispatches sent during the conflict and an old typewriter. Laura led us down into THE basement, where Ramiro II had beheaded his nobles; groups of schoolchildren were clearly enthralled by the gruesome tale.
In the afternoon, after a very pleasant lunch in one of the many inns around, we picked up our coach and were taken to Loarre Castle, the largest Romanesque fortress in the world, built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon. The vistas are spectacular and afford a 360° panoramic view.
Throughout its history it has been first a small fortress, then a monastery and finally a nobleman’s home and it has been much extended to cater for their various needs. It is remote and was easily defended; as a result they were never attacked or suffered any casualties. Totally impregnable on a cliff face, it is hardly distinguishable from the rock face into which it is built. The Moors lived lower down on the arable plains in Borea, so up in Loarre they had to be self-sufficient. A hard posting for the soldiers here, and very, very cold. Our guide, Eduardo, told us they wore jute vests under their skin jackets, etc for warmth. We were all frozen and windswept when we left that afternoon!
Loarre castle has been used many times in TV programmes and films. Its most notable use was in the film ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Recently an extra ‘escape’ route was discovered under the fortress, very well hidden, and some 40 kms in length – leading to Jaca in the Pyrenees.
Day 3: by Delia Burke and Bill Bradley
We made an early start on our quest to find the hidden Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña. After about an hour and a half of driving through some lovely rolling, tree-clad countryside, we arrived at the foothills of the Pyrenees. Pepe, our wonderful driver, then drove us up a narrow, twisting mountain road, which has fantastic panoramic views down over the lands of Aragon. Onc we had driven as far as it was possible to take a bus, we alighted. Imagine our surprise and delight when Sandra and her helpers produced hot coffee and delicious cakes for us! Fortified, we then walked the last hundred yards – with still no sight of the hidden treasure. Suddenly, on turning a corner there it was, completely and perfectly camouflaged, covered by a huge overhang of rock; a two-level church, partially carved in the stone of the rock.
Our Spanish guide (who spoke little English) explained the history of the Monasterio which began in the 10th century and was home to between 20 and 30 Benedictine monks. Translation assistance was given by some of the group. The architecture is pre-Romanesque and in the 12th century it was designated the Pantheon of the Aragonese Kings and Nobles. Some tombstones are extant and are in different stages of preservation. A poignant one is of an Infanta, Isabella, who lived for only eight years. The Cloister (built c1190) contains a series of capitals carved with biblical scenes, a design which we had also seen in a Romanesque church in the Monasterio de San Juan in Huesca, which is a National Monument.
David shared with us his extensive knowledge of the history and legends not only of the Kings of Aragon but also of the Sangreal/Holy Grail. The cup that Jesus used at the last supper, according to legend, was brought to Rome. In the third century AD, during the reign of Emperor Valerian, there was a particularly vicious persecution of Christians and St Lawrence/Lorenzo, who was later martyred on a gridiron, smuggled out the precious cup and brought it to Spain.
It was hidden in a castle in a remote part of the Pyrenees and later brought to the Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña. There it remained hidden and protected by the monks from marauding Moors, until 1437 when it was given to the Cathedral in Valencia. On display in the Monasterio is a perfect replica of the Holy Grail. It is a beautiful object made of polished deep red agate and gold, encrusted with precious stones, the handles and base made by Byzantine goldsmiths, having been added at a later date in the Middle Ages.
After leaving the Monasterio, we descended to the tiny village of Santa Cruz de la Seros with its Romanesque Hermitage and the Parish Church which was filled with a golden light streaming in through the lovely alabaster windows. On our journey back to our hotel we stopped at Jaca for lunch and to visit the Cathedral.
This was the first Romanesque design in Aragon and was built between 1070 and the 12th century. It is a very imposing building which contains a chapel dedicated to Santa Horosia. David told us a fascinating story about her. She was very beautiful and, with her father, was on her way to marry a noble suitor, when they were attacked by a Moorish troop. Their leader Lupo (the Wolf), immediately fell in love when he saw her. He asked her to marry him instead. She refused, so he cut off her father’s head! He asked her again and she still refused, so he cut off her head!
Mention must be made of the hand-made chocolate shop opposite the Cathedral, with its window display of Easter eggs ranging in price from €2 to €72. Some ladies had to be pried away and for sure some eggs reached home. Then back to the hotel, for a pre-dinner talk by David. End of a great day filled with interesting history and legend.
Day 4: by Tom Miller
While we waited for the last of our party to arrive, David entertained us with the story of the battle of Fraga, when King Alfonso was wounded in the groin and Princess Orosia, who was on her way to marry the Prince of Pamplona, lost her head to the pirate Lupo.
We soon passed King Alfonso’s castle.
Arriving at Montserrat, around mid-day, we left our trusty driver, Pepe, to organise our luggage to be transferred to the Hotel Abat Cisneros, and we posed for the traditional group picture.
In the afternoon our group visited
the Museu de Montserrat.
In the evening we watched and listened to the Montserrat Boys Choir.
The day was rounded off with the “last supper” of our trip at Hotel Abat Cisneros.
Day 5: by Lorraine Bellami
The Vespers service in the church the previous evening was so lovely that some of us crept back in the early morning to listen to the monks’ harmonious chanting again – a rather lovely way to start the day, and nicer than battling the crowds in the breakfast room.
I think we all had upholstery burns from the coach seats…stiff backs, cramped legs, and somewhat under-slept! Some very bleary eyes and fragile tummies this morning, and a nasty, steep winding hill to motor down. Pepe took it gently (on request), and we got onto the motorway without seeing any breakfasts for the second time.
Once on the motorway after a much needed coffee stop, Peter Tomlin and I inflicted the captive audience with a quiz based on the trip so far, and a few general knowledge questions, courtesy of his partner, Anna Cameron, who couldn’t do the trip.
On Tuesday evening, David had given us an hour of information, and then another half-hour the following day, as well as a wealth of detail at the some of the places we had visited. Perhaps too much to take in, but we tried to make the questions as easy as possible. Some clearly disagreed and pulled out by question 4… Many of the answer papers had lots of gaps, but a few teams did manage most of the answers. Prizes awarded to:
Winners – Brigid and John Redmond
2nd place – Heidi and Mike
3rd place – Linda and Arthur Dennis
Well done to all those who joined in.
Lunch was ‘not included’ (no surprise there) so everyone disappeared in different directions to find something to eat before the visit to Valencia Cathedral, (with headphones provided) and meeting the Chalice at long last. Now fully re-glued after some 19th century Cardinal managed to drop it during its annual ‘pilgrimage’ round the city. It shattered. He had a heart attack and died on the spot. Divine retribution!? Somewhere in Spain there is a glue factory which provided the restorative substance. The Lazarus Glue factory perhaps? What a PR coup…
It now sits in a glass cabinet and you’d never know. The special chapel is rather fine, with a matching window above, with a chalice in the glass, just to remind you where you are and what you are seeing.
Display cabinets in a room adjacent to the Chalice chapel had a few impressive old metal-bound and beautifully illustrated books, and some letters from Pope Alexander VI – the Borgia one of some notoriety. (Cesare and Lucretia et al.) Around the whole cathedral are various side chapels, containing some gory Goya paintings and a couple of saintly relics. Desiccated arms etc. Nice after lunch. Not.
A few of the group had got to the point where this was one gilded church too many and were enjoying a seat in a pew to recuperate. Then it was time to re-board the coach and head off to Jalon where adoring wives and hubbies awaited. Pepe was given a huge cheer for his excellent and careful driving; accolades to David Rohl and Sandra for their hard work in organising the trip, which went very smoothly. Not to mention the Grail Kings who started it all in the first place.
The three things that impressed me most were the hidden La Peña rock monastery, awesome Loarre castle and the monks chanting in Montserrat.