The Monastery of Santa Maria la Real in Gradefes

Le Tart Abbey in France was established in 1132 as the first Cistercian Convent for women, I believe. The first Cistercian Convent in Spain followed in 1151 in Tulebras. Santa Maria la Real in Gradefes was founded shortly afterwards in 1168 and the first group of nuns came from Tulebras. The Convent, in the small village of Gradefes de Rueda and close to the River Esla, is still active, but as a visitor you can only see parts of the Convent, in a guided tour although the church is open daily.

The entrance to the Convent of Santa Maria in Gradefes

The entrance to the Church

Having visited the Monastery in Sandoval we could see a lot of stone mason signs, but we were the only two people being shown round and I couldn’t stop for photographs. But I did notice marks around the door into the church: a cross, and a curious ‘bow’ which I think is the sign of a fish, the primitive sign for Christianity.

The doorway into the church

A very kind and helpful woman was our guide, taking her time to explain and respond to questions. The Convent was founded by Doña Teresa Petri in 1164 and she and her husband are buried in the church.

The tombs of the founders

The church is quiet, calm, and simply austere – very beautiful – I believe these were the aims of Cistercian architecture. It was also built with an ambulatory, the only convent in Spain with an ambulatory, a structure apparently reserved for monasteries.

The Convent of Santa Maria la Real, Gradefes (

The high altar and apse

The Ambulatory

The apse and ambulatory

The choir, taken through a glass screen

The tour takes one into the intimate cloister, with a garden in the centre, and into the extraordinary Chapter House, connected to the church via a ‘dumb waiter’ arrangement whereby the nuns could communicate with a priest via a revolving cupboard without being seen. It didn’t feel right to photograph in these areas. But a door from the cloister led to a small garden, and then the vegetable gardens and orchards outside the buildings and from here we could see the rounded apse of the church.

The apse of the church, from the gardens/orchards

We were the only visitors at this peaceful and calm site and were reluctant to just get into the car and drive away, and so we lingered in a local cafe. Do visit.

Further information
Cistercian Nuns
The Camino Vadiniense
Architectural details and explanation of the Convent – good article with photos
Interesting article, with photos
Stonemason’s signs – absolutely fascinating!