Zaragoza – By the River Piedra I Shot In the Rain

[…Monasterio de Piedra, Nuévalos – Zaragoza, Spain May 29, 2011…]

Cola de Caballo - "Horsetail" - the tallest of the waterfalls in the monastery's rainforest measures about 50 meters high.


Fans of literary genius Paulo Coelho will recognize the play on title as being inspired by his bestselling novel “By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept.” The river Piedra, as you might know, was one of the settings for this novel about love and spirituality. Being a Coelho fan myself, it was a pleasure to see the same river that his heroine Pilar came to, although unlike her, I did not come here for spiritual cleansing or deep meditation. I have seen photos of this place during my research on Zaragoza, and that triggered my desire to see it for myself.

I’ve read that it is believed that anything you give up to the river Piedra will disappear forever. Its geological location being high in calcium carbonate, makes it so that whatever the river touches turns to stone, thereby it is also known as the stone river, “piedra” meaning stone. I did not have any intentions of making wishes when I got there, but it turned out that I was forced to make one – and that is, for the rain to stop!

Yes indeed, it rains in Spain. After raving about the glorious sunshine yesterday, it was a bit of a disappointment today to have a sudden change of climate without so much of a warning. The day started out beautifully; I even got to shoot sunrise down the putrid river Ebro, which on a Sunday morning was littered with last night’s remnants of a party: liquor bottles and drunk zombies. It also turned out to be an uneventful sunrise, but the warm afterglow cast a rich red glow on the basilica and that made it all worthwhile.

The plan for today was a trip just outside of the municipality of Nuévalos, some 70 miles from Zaragoza’s center, to the Monasterio de Piedra – a natural park complex surrounded by rivers, caves and waterfalls. I don’t often get the chance to shoot sceneries like this so I was excited. A quick breakfast at the hotel and then off to the large and modern Delicias station for a 9:00 bus.

Zaragoza’s terrain is diverse, but the landscape on this side of the valley although for the most part arid, presented a smattering of green pastures and budding fruit orchards. The bus made a few stops, and then after a 30-minute break at Calatayud, we were on our way to higher ground, surrounded this time by limestone cliffs and a glimpse of the aquamarine waters of La Tranquera Dam – a reservoir fed by the river Piedra. Once in a while as we ascended into the hills, we were afforded a nice view of the quiet valley fronting the river. It felt nice to be away from the city to enjoy a more natural setting – a feeling heightened by Jack Johnson’s soothing voice on the headphones and morning light filtering through the curtained windows.

The bus arrived just around noon, but since we’re in Spain, it wasn’t quite lunch yet. So to while away time, a visit to the monastery was in order. Though filled with visitors, the monastery in general still had a feeling of melancholy; I suppose that is expected since its original inhabitants were, after all, monks. There was an abundant supply of sunshine in the cloisters, the mid-day light spilling shadows and creating cut-out arches onto the centuries-old floors. 

Lunch at the monastery’s restaurant – Reyes de Aragon, although fancy and sumptuous, could not discount the attitude of the workers there. What a pity that such tranquil place is now occupied by such inhospitable folks, who, just like the cavernous corridors of the monastery, look gloomy and burdened by time.

It was during lunch time when the rain started pouring – an entire orchestra of thunder, lighting and strong winds. I remained optimistic and determined to have a shot at the waterfalls. Luckily, it tamed down as we emerged out of lunch, and even had some time to start the trail without getting wet.

Cascada la Caprichosa

The rain started to pour again as we reached Cascada la Caprichosa, and what great timing, there was a cave nearby to take shelter from. We waited for about 10 minutes until it slowed down to a fine drizzle, and then I quickly took my camera and tripod towards the falls and started taking my shots, carefully wiping my lens between exposures. I had to make sure I made at least one clean shot, checking my LCD each time. Some of them had terrible water spots, but I did manage to capture some without. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure, but if there’s anything I’d give up for the river Piedra, it definitely wasn’t trying.

The whole experience on the trail was surprisingly enjoyable despite the conditions. It was like playing peekaboo, coming in and out of the rain as we entered caves and grottoes along the way. There were endless waterfalls that came in different sizes, and the sound of current from the streams and rivulets dampened the pitter-patter of the rain. For 700 years, monks had lived here – their personal Garden of Eden. Makes you wonder if they thought that they’re in a better place when they die.

The Monasteria de Piedra is said to bring to oneself an experience of all the senses: see the sights, listen to the rustle of the streams and falls, smell the scent of wet ground and vegetation, and feel the overwhelming beauty of this tranquil rainforest so deeply that you can almost taste it. I can’t argue with that and although it was hardly a perfect day, it was not bad for a day’s experience in a setting immortalized by great literature.

To end, here’s one to ponder on :

“We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. Every day, God gives us the sun — and also one moment in which we have the ability to change everything that makes us unhappy. Every day, we try to pretend that we haven’t perceived that moment, that it doesn’t exist — that today is the same as yesterday and will be the same as tomorrow. But if people really pay attention to their everyday lives, they will discover that magic moment.”

(By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept – Paulo Coelho)

Los Vadillos

Gruta Iris - "Iris Grotto" - one of the secluded retreats that hides behind the Cola de Caballo

The Cloister Gallery. Thirteen Cistercian monks founded the Monasteria de Piedra in 1194 in dedication to Santa María la Blanca (St. Mary the Fair). It took 23 years to build the monastery. It is now a park and hotel complex and has been declared a national monument. Monks lived here for about 700 years.

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4 responses

  1. Excellent long exposures. Love the blur of the water. Did you have to use ND filter to cut down on the brightness?

  2. YEN! amazingggggggg! i love nature and falls are fantastic when it is raining, the colours are brighter than ever!

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