Monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Top choice in The Catalan Pyrenees

Who gallops through the hills around Sant Joan de les Abadesses on stormy nights, on a horse engulfed in flames and accompanied by ravenous black dogs? If you believe the legends, it's the cursed Count Arnau, whose association with the Monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses has bequeathed it a heritage of brooding fairytales alongside its centuries of spiritual activity. The monastery, founded in AD 887 by Guifré el Pilós, is notable for both its architectural treasures and the legend.

The monastery began life as a nunnery, though the nuns were expelled in 1017 – some say for licentious conduct, others claim it was by decree of the Pope. Its elegant 12th-century church contains the marvellous and somewhat unnerving Santíssim Misteri, a 13th-century polychrome woodcarving of the Descent from the Cross, composed of seven near-life-sized figures. Also remarkable is the 14th-century Gothic retablo (altarpiece) of Santa Maria la Blanca, carved in alabaster; the Gothic cloister dating from the 15th century; and a plaque commemorating the monastery's first abbess, Emma, daughter of Guifré el Pilós.

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