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Rioja article

I took a short break from my home on the Costa Blanca, Spain, to spend three days in the Rioja region of northern Spain and happened across the strangest cathedral — one inside which a hen and a rooster are housed in a gothic 15th century henhouse. Not only that, there is a macabre tale connected to these birds.

 HilaryC Rioja art

Top of Gothic chicken house

I was exploring the small medieval town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the heat of the morning when I decided to seek the coolness of the cathedral for a while. It was there I learned the legend of the innocent German pilgrim who lost his life because he failed to fall in love with the daughter of the innkeeper (poor chap!).


Santo Domingo de la Calzada is one of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. Even today you can see modern day pilgrims trudging through the town — but they are more likely to sport the latest lycra outfit on their state of the art cycle, or have ‘all the latest gear’ for walking, unlike poor Hugonell for that was the name of the poor German pilgrim.

Hilary C Rioja

Rioja region of northern Spain


Hugonell stayed at the local inn with his parents who were walking the pilgrimage trial. Unfortunately the daughter of the innkeeper immediately fell in love with him, but he did not reciprocate her feelings. I think he might have pretended to love her had he but known the consequences of not doing so.

The fuming girl hid a silver cup in his baggage and then accused him of theft! In those days thieves were hanged and so poor Hugonell met his end pretty quickly. Now the tale gets stranger. Hugonell’s parents continued their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela and months later on their return journey they decided to visit the grave of their dead son, but before they could reach the chosen gravesite they had to pass the gallows where their son had been hanged for theft. To their amazement they found their son still hanging in the gallows miraculously alive.


“Mother! Father!” an excited Hugonell cried on seeing his parents, “Santo Domingo brought me back to life. Go and tell the Mayor to take me down from these gallows.”
Quickly his parents ran to the Mayor’s house, but the incredulous Mayor who about to eat his dinner retorted, “That boy is as alive as these two roast chickens we are about to eat.”
Have you guessed what happens next? … Yes, the chickens came to life, sprouted feathers and beaks and began to crow (well that’s what the legend reports).

So here I am on this very hot morning lingering in the cathedral looking at a huge 15th century gothic henhouse built in the memory of the most famous Santo Domingo miracle. As I looked up I saw a piece of wood from the gallows and just to cheer me up there was a painting of poor Hugonell looking quite dead

HilaryC Rioja article

Full-length view of the Gothic chicken henhouse

Still he didn’t die on the gallows did he? I think once Hugonell met the birds that saved him, he must have sang a little chicken song. In fact I think this might be a re-incarnation of Hugonell. Look closely at the man singing. ☺️
Even if you have no interest in chickens, I’d recommend a day at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. It’s a great little place.

There’s much to see and it’s ideal for a glass of wine in the shade of the plane trees in the square (at least I think they’re plane trees — species of tree are not my strongpoint).

If you fancy staying overnight it’s even got a 4* Parador which occupies a former 12th century hospital. History and luxury combined.

Meet The Author...
Hilary Coombes
Who Am I?

Hi folks, just a bit about me …I was born in Devon and brought up in Bristol. After juggling family and studying for university as a mature student I taught in various schools and colleges, eventually specialising in teaching blind students which was so rewarding.

I now live between Somerset and Spain with my husband, and at last I can indulge my passion to write. My debut novel ‘The Hen Party’ was accepted by a publisher and is now available on Amazon. (I’ve been floating on air since I knew!) It's about a flamboyant 50 year old woman who is forced to confront her deeply buried feelings when one of her companions reveals a secret.

I believe we all need to be happy and healthy to enjoy life so I do my best to ensure my writing makes people smile.

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