Ever felt the urge to escape the hustle and bustle, to find a place so serene it feels almost heavenly? What if I told you that such a place exists, and it’s perched high above the eagles on a mountaintop? Welcome to La Peña de Francia in Salamanca, a sanctuary that’s as close to divine as it gets, right in the heart of Spain’s Sierra de Francia. If you’re searching for a unique spiritual retreat or simply a breathtaking view, you’ve come to the right place.
So, what’s the deal with this mountaintop marvel? First, I’ll briefly introduce you to Monsagro, the charming village where my journey began. It’s the perfect starting point for what’s to come. Then, we’ll ascend to the main event: La Peña de Francia. This isn’t just another monastery; it’s a spiritual haven offering panoramic views, a rich history, and a sense of peace that’s hard to find.
By the end of this post, you’ll discover:
- The mystical allure of La Peña de Francia
- How to reach this mountaintop sanctuary
- The legends and history that make it more than just a pretty view
Coming your way in this post - click to expand ->
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Arriving in La Sierra de Francia’s
Leaving Ciudad Rodrigo behind we passed through the small village of Serradilla del Arroyo before heading into the mountains. The nice manicured tarmac turned into a winding mountain road, often narrowing to a single lane with steep drops off the edge. The views were spectacular, the pointed mountain tops on the horizon beyond the tree covered valley in front . . . although I couldn’t pay too much attention for the fear of mistiming a switchback corner to an untimely death.
Suddenly from nowhere our home for the evening, Monsagro, appeared. The whole village is hidden by the mountains until you turn the final corner into it. The only sign of life was the smoke rising from the chimney pots to counter the chill on this cool Spring evening.
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The village of Monsgaro
Monsagro is one of many handsome villages scattered throughout the Sierra de Francia, a range of foothills acting as the entrance to Spain’s Sistema Central mountain range.
The most famous landmark in the region is the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia (from here on referred to simply as La Peña as I really can’t be bothered to write all that out every time). It is a Catholic Church and Sanctuary which sits atop the Peña de Francia, and is visible from many of the surrounding villages. Peña de Francia is the common term people use when referring to the monastery, although Peña actually simply means rocky hill.
We were staying in the small village of Monsagro, just 17kms away from La Peña. If you would like to know a little more about other villages in the area, check out my separate villages of the Sierra de Francia post. We are lucky Raquel’s (my other half) parents live here when they are not in Madrid so we have a place to stay. However, there are a couple of great options aside from Raquel’s mum (although I’m sure she’d be happy to look after you too!).
There are some self-catering apartments, Apartamentos Sierra de Francia, or a small hotel, Hotel Rural Valle Agadon, run by the lovely María José, complete with dining room and terrace with stunning views over the village.
In the centre of the village is a small village square, home for the many celebrations held throughout the year and a small museum that celebrates the local wildlife and the family history in the village. However, the village’s claim to fame is the use of fossils in the buildings. In fact, it has its own fossil route and downloadable app, you can find out more about this soon in my post about the villages of Sierra de Francia.
Watch the video of the walk
Visiting the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia
So after a good catch up with the family and a hearty breakfast, we were ready to head to La Peña. From Monsagro it’s about a 4-hour hike with a couple of different route options, so if you set off early you can be there in time for a mid-morning snack or lunch.
Alternatively, you can do what we did and do the 20-minute drive.
The road continued to impress as the scary drops to oblivion kept me focused. If you’re lucky you may spot some of the mountain goats and their impressive curved horns scurrying up and down the mountainside.
Mirador de los Lobos
Just before the turn to head up to La Peña, there is a great viewpoint, Mirador de los Lobos, a spot to take some lovely pictures looking up to the monastery or of the expansive views beyond.
From the outside, La Peña is nothing special to look at. No amazing architecture (if you look past the fact it’s built on a 1700m mountain) and I only felt a tinge of disappointment when I discovered that the tall tower is actually for the region’s TV signal, not a rocket ship to heaven. However, as I mentioned, it is built up high, and here’s why.
How Simon Vela founded La Peña de Francia
According to legend, the location of La Peña isn’t a random accident. There was this guy, Simon Vela, who was of great religious devotion and he found a Romanesque image of the Virgin Mary on the spot that La Peña now sits in 1434 after having a dream and being told where to find it.
What makes the Virgin of the Rock of France (its English name) special is that it is a Black Madonna. There are only about 500 of these in Europe and seem to have an almost cult-like status. In fact, the Virgin of La Peña has shrines dedicated to it in many countries including Brazil, The Philippines, India, Mexico and more.
So once Simon had the icon he built a chapel on the spot (which still exists) and the rest of La Peña built up around that.
The original Virgin was actually stolen in 1872 but then returned under the seal of confession in 1889. Sadly it had heavily deteriorated and a new one was made. However, the original is actually encased in the new version and if you look closely, apparently you can just about see the original one inside through a small hole on the left-hand side.
Once we had parked our car, it was just a short uphill stroll the church. We immediately noticed the dip in temperature, the additional 900 metres altitude from Monagro had really put a nip in the air of an otherwise cloudless, blue sky day.
I loved the church as it is very understated. There are no large gold-covered altars or jewel-encrusted icons, just a simple church with a Black Madonna. I’ll be honest, sometimes I get really angry with how much wealth the church have sitting around in the form of gold and other decorations. They are not really needed, especially when so many of the church’s followers live in poverty. Sell some of it and help them out. Sorry, rant over.
Opposite the church is a large building that has bedrooms (you can actually stay), a small Café which has tables outside for the warmer days and the obligatory gift shop.
The views from La Peña
However, the true beauty of La Peña is the site itself. The far side of the complex is where there are panoramic views of the landscape and villages for miles into the distance. A really nice touch are the helpful markers on top of the wall which told us which village we were gazing down upon from our high vantage point.
It’s rare these days to find such a site that is free to enjoy. I’d highly recommend it as a stop on any visit to the region, even if simply to stand and absorb the calm peaceful feeling and you admire the expansive views as eagles soar below you.
OK, that last bit about eagles may be overselling it, but an eagle definitely flew below our line of sight while we were there.
Highlights not to miss
The Chapel of La Blanca
Nestled in the corner of the square at La Pena de Francia Monastery, the Chapel of La Blanca stands as a testament to 16th-century architecture. It is believed to be built above the cave where Simon Vela discovered the image of the Virgin. This sacred spot offers a sense of connection and community that echoes from the past, welcoming all those who seek a sense of belonging and peace.
- Historical Importance
- Dates back to the 16th century.
- Located where Simon Vela found the image of the Virgin.
The Balcony of Santiago
Between the arcades of the square, you will discover The Balcony of Santiago. This spectacular viewpoint, once the site of a chapel built in honour of Saint Santiago, now offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. The sense of unity with nature and the divine that this location brings is sure to resonate with those craving for a sense of belonging.
- Unique Features
- A spectacular viewpoint.
- Former site of a chapel dedicated to Saint Santiago.
Viewpoint of Santo Domingo
Inaugurated in 1975, the Viewpoint of Santo Domingo is a majestic roundabout next to La Blanca’s chapel. Known for its sundial, this viewpoint is also referred to as the Sundial chapel of San Andrés and the chapel of Santo Cristo. This tranquil setting offers a sense of unity with nature and a sense of attachment to the history of the monastery.
- Noteworthy Aspects
- Home to a sundial.
- Known as the Sundial chapel of San Andrés and the chapel of Santo Cristo.
Getting to La Peña de Francia
Certainly, let’s revise that section with the specific road names and your preferred routes:
How to Get to La Peña de Francia
La Peña de Francia is around a little over 1 hours drive from Salamanca or about 45 minutes from Ciudad Rodrigo or about 20 minutes from La Alberca. There are buses that go there, but I’d imagine if you find yourself in this area you will probably be in a car, that’s a much better recommendation. There is usually plenty of parking available.
Before setting off on your journey, it’s crucial to note that the road conditions can be quite challenging in the winter months. With snowfall making the summit virtually inaccessible, checking the latest road conditions is advisable to avoid disappointment.
Option 1: The Scenic Route
For the best views and a truly immersive experience, leave Salamanca on the CL-512. This route will take you through the picturesque towns of Vecinos, Tamames, and El Cabaco. Once you reach El Cabaco, switch to the SA-203, which will lead you straight up to the monastery. This drive takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, and it’s well worth the extra time for the scenic beauty you’ll encounter.
Option 2: The Alternative Route
If you’re looking for a quicker but less scenic option, take the A62 from Salamanca to Ciudad Rodrigo.
From Cuidad Rodrigo
From Ciudad Rodrigo, you can expect a drive of around 45 minutes filled with scenic views and interesting stops. Begin by taking the SA-CV-92 to Serradilla del Arroyo. From there, switch to the SA-CV-106 to reach the charming village of Monsagro. Before making your way to the summit, via the Paso de los Lobos viewpoint that’s well worth pulling over for. Finally, continue your ascent to La Peña de Francia via the SA-203.
From La Alberca
Getting from La Alberca to La Pena de Francia is easy. Just head north on the SA-201 and join the SA-203 to head up the mountain which rises to 1732 metres.
Hiking the GR-10 Crossing of the Sierra de Francia
Starting from La Alberca
If you’re an avid hiker looking for a challenge, the GR-10 trail (click here for a PDF of the route) offers an unforgettable experience. Starting from the picturesque town of La Alberca, the trail takes you through dense pine forests to the headwaters of the Francia River. This is where the real challenge begins—a steep climb that might test your limits but rewards you with breathtaking panoramic views from the Peña de Francia viewpoints. The final stretch of the ascent involves a cobbled path known as the Via Crucis, adding a spiritual dimension to your journey.
The Descent to Monsagro
The way down to Monsagro is equally challenging but incredibly rewarding. As you descend, you’ll discover hidden corners and panoramic views that reveal the beauty of the Agadón Valley. One notable stop is the Mirador del Paso de los Lobos, offering a sweeping view of the valley and the Duero basin.
Along the way, you’ll encounter an old reconstructed coal bunker and walk through groves of oak, holly, yew, and birch. You’ll pass through an area of sheep pens and eventually reach the confluence of the Agadón and Agadón Chico rivers. Here, you’ll cross the Puente de la Yunta, a charming stone bridge built in traditional style.
Arriving at Monsagro
As you approach Monsagro, you’ll walk alongside irrigation ditches and pass traditional threshing floors and municipal buildings adorned with fossils. The trail doesn’t end here; it continues past the town, crossing the Agadón river once again. Your journey concludes at the El Vao Recreational Area, nestled within a holm oak forest. From here, a forest track will lead you to the border of the Park, marking the end of this unforgettable hiking experience.
Of course, you can also do this the other way round.
When to visit
As for when to visit, I’d recommend spring or autumn as it does get rather popular in the summer months. But remember to check the conditions before heading there because there can be late snow and the road becomes almost impassable.
Visiting La Peña de Francia is more than just a day trip; it’s an experience that lingers in your soul long after you’ve descended from its lofty heights. Whether you’re driving up from Salamanca, Ciudad Rodrigo, or La Alberca, each route offers its own unique set of vistas and challenges, making the journey as memorable as the destination itself.
For the more adventurous, the GR-10 trail provides a hiking experience that’s both physically challenging and spiritually rewarding. The trail offers a deep dive into the natural beauty and cultural richness of the Sierra de Francia, from the panoramic viewpoints at Peña de Francia to the charming stone bridges and traditional architecture in Monsagro.
But what truly sets La Peña de Francia apart is its ability to offer something for everyone—a spiritual sanctuary, a hiker’s paradise, and a photographer’s dream. The monastery, the views, and the surrounding nature all combine to create a place that’s as close to heavenly as you can get on Earth.
So, whether you’re in search of spiritual solace, breathtaking views, or a bit of adventure, La Peña de Francia has it all. It’s not just a mountain; it’s a destination that calls to the heart, and once you’ve been there, it’s a call you’ll find hard to ignore.
About the author
Matthew is a seasoned traveller and founder of The Travel Blogs, where he shares his passion for exploring the world with more than 20 years of globetrotting experience behind him and more to come! Currently living in Madrid, Spain, he loves to discover new places with his young family across Spain and Portugal while still including regular trips to far-flung destinations. Don’t forget to follow The Travel Blogs on Facebook and YouTube for even more inspiration and tips!