Around 18km from Nájera (a little further from Santo Domingo), the stone village of San Millán de la Cogolla serves as gateway to the magnificent twin mountain monasteries known as Yuso and Suso. You can see these easily as a half-day diversion from the main Rioja route, while a third monastery, Valvanera, lies further south, off the LR-113, the trans-mountain road that provides a dramatic journey south and west between Nájera and Salas de los Infantes (90km; 2hr drive). This twists ever higher up the glorious, lush valley of the Rio Najerilla, hugging the sides of the huge hydroelectric Mansilla dam, before careering across the bare uplands of the Sierra de la Demanda to cross into Castilla y León. The route makes a great roundabout approach to Burgos, and you’ll emerge close to the equally magnificent monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos.
The immense lower Monasterio de Yuso dominates the valley, built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to house the relics of the crowd-pulling sixth-century saint, San Millán. It’s at the centre of some fairly big tourist business, with one wing of the monastery housing a four-star hotel, a couple of big restaurants and enough parking to accommodate the entire Spanish nation, should it choose to all come at once.
The much older Monasterio de Suso lies a few hundred metres up in the hills, hidden from public view. You’re taken up by shuttle bus to see the beautiful, haunting building, the original site of Millán’s burial before he was sanctified in 1030 and later transferred down the hill into surroundings more in keeping with a patron saint.
There’s another wonderfully sited monastery, the Monasterio de Valvanera, 35km further south of San Millán de la Cogolla (and a 5km detour off the LR113 mountain road). If anything, the location is even more dramatic than Yuso and Suso – sited 1000m above a steep-sided valley, with the tidy terraces of the Benedictine monks’ vegetable gardens below. It’s worth stopping briefly for the views – there’s a bar and restaurant and some simple accommodation here – and to experience a monastic retreat with none of the crowds of more renowned counterparts.