Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Caceres Province, Spain.

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Real Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe

Top choice in Extremadura

Guadalupe's renowned, Unesco World Heritage–listed monastery is located, according to legend, on the spot where, in the early 14th century, a shepherd received a vision of the Virgin Mary. A sumptuous church-monastery was built on the site, drawing pilgrims from across the world ever since. Now cared for by nine Franciscan monks, it remains one of Spain's most important pilgrimage sites, especially for South American and Filipino Catholics. The building is an architectural delight, crammed with historical riches.

The church received royal patronage from Alfonso XI in the first half of the 14th century and became a Hieronymite monastery in the late 14th century. The figure of the Virgin, a black Madonna made from cedar wood, was so revered in the 16th century that she was made patron of all Spain's New World territories. Columbus was particularly devoted to her and, after his fragile fleet survived a terrible tempest on his first voyage, made a pilgrimage of thanks here shortly after returning.

Hurried, obligatory but informative one-hour guided tours of the monastery (in Spanish only) leave on the hour. At the complex's centre is an exquisite late-14th-century Mudéjar cloister decorated with 17th-century paintings telling the history of the Virgin and miracles she wrought. Three museums line this gallery. The Museo de Bordados contains a lavish collection of vestments, including one robe made from a dress donated by Isabel la Católica, while the Museo de Libros Miniados displays enormous, intricately illustrated 15th- to 18th-century tomes. The Museo de Bellas Artes includes three distinctive paintings by El Greco (St Andrew, the Assumption, and St Peter), a sombre late Goya (Confession in Prison), a fine Ecce Homo by Pedro de Mena, a handful of monks by Francisco de Zurbarán and a beautiful little 16th-century ivory crucifixion attributed to Michelangelo.

In the majestic sacristía (sacristy), downstairs, hang eight superb canvases (1638–47) by Zurbarán. There are some exalted works here, none better than the Temptation of St Jerome, the stern ascetic saint seemingly at odds with the elaborate baroque decoration of this chamber. The 16th-century Relicario-Tesoro holds spooky relics of martyr saints and a rather vulgar display of treasure, including a 200,000-pearl cape for the Virgin and her diamond-and-sapphire-encrusted crown (worn only on 12 October, the official date of her coronation as patron of Hispanic lands). The camarín, a chamber behind the altarpiece, contains the much-revered image of the Virgin, which is spun around so that the faithful can kiss a fragment of her mantle; you can choose to do this when your tour ends.

Inside the church, the Virgin's image (seen from the other side) occupies the place of honour framed by flowers and lit up within the soaring retablo (altarpiece), separated from the main body of the nave by a fine plateresque reja (grille). The fantastic walnut choir at the back is an 18th-century work with an immense lectern and is sometimes visited alongside the fabulous baroque organs on the tour.

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