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Montserrat is an extremely beautiful mountain retreat for Benedictine monks about an hour northwest of Barcelona. It is also one of Catalunya’s top tourist attractions, and is well equipped to handle the more than 2.5 million visitors that arrive every year. The best way to get there from the city is by train from Plaça Espanya, arriving straight at the origin of the monastery’s own scenic cable car. The cable car runs 1,350 metres, over the River Llobregat, offering a superb panoramic view of the mountain.
Monsterrat offers three main points of interest: first, the site itself, which would be worth visiting even if there were nothing else there. The second point is the Santa María Benedictine monastery, formally founded at the beginning of the 11th century. The monastery is still alive and kicking, with Benedictine monks acting as kings of the hill. The third point of interest is the shrine to a Black Madonna, Our Lady of Montserrat, or ‘La Moreneta’, as she is known among the Catalans.
In English, Montserrat means ‘serrated mountain’, an apt description of the rounded peaks that make its top look like a saw from a distance. The mountain rises to 1,235 metres. At a height of 725 metres stands the monastery. The monastery’s royal basilica has been one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Spain for hundreds of years. Architecturally speaking, the basilica falls between the Gothic and Renaissance traditions. Unlike other churches, the basilica has only one nave with chapels linked between the buttresses, and lateral rostrums in the upper part.
Numerous miracles have supposedly happened here, centred on the icon of La Moreneta (The Little Dark One). La Moreneta is a Romanesque sculpture made out of wood at the end of the 12th Century, although the legend holds it was found in a cave by shepherds, under divine guidance in 889 CE. The dark colour of Our Lady of Montserrat is attributed to the innumerable candles and lamps that have burned day and night before the image. It is a widespread Catalan habit to pray for help from the virgin during sicknesses and crisis. Even some presidents of FC Barcelona have been known to come and ask for her help before particularly important matches.
As there is still religious activity in the monastery, only the basilica is open to visitors. The rest is reserved for the 80 monks of the Benedictine community. As in all Benedictine monasteries, individuals dedicate all their life to prayer and work. Life in the monastery follows a strict rhythm, in which work and prayer both play an important part.
Prayer marks the beginning and end of the day. Apart from Eucharist being held, the monks meet to pray five times a day. They also have time for individual prayer and reading the Bible. In this way, an atmosphere of prayer is created throughout the day.
The monks do other things, too. Some study history or philosophy, some garden, some help out in the hospital. Bookworks can dig deep in their library, having around 300,000 volumes to choose from, including some of the oldest Catalan texts.
But, the most interesting duty of the Benedictine monks is to provide shelter for the pilgrims. A pilgrim is anyone who knocks on the door in need of inner contemplation and there’s no better place to pursue it. A pilgrim is treated like a guest of honour, and can share meals and prayers with the monks. So, if your spirit wants an uplift, this is a fine elevating force for the soul survey in question. Goethe, among others, sharpened his pencil in Montserrat’s peace and quiet. The mere trivial pursuers can spend their nights at Abat Cisneros, a three-star hotel on the site. A double room costs around €60 per night, including breakfast.
Another must-see is the Montserrat boys’ choir, ‘Escolania’, with its Gregorian chants and other genres of religious choral music. It’s known as the oldest conservatory in Europe. The performances can be heard free of charge in the basilica at 1pm sharp, every day of the week. Prepare for a huge crowd and forbidden camera flashes, and a bunch of faithful locals condemning both of the previous. Those whose languages are in the Western top five, will be greeted in their mother tongues. The choir master, energetic Joaquim Piqué iCalvo, and his little singing angels make hearts vibrate with heavenly joy.
The monastery museum is also open to visitors and features paintings by artists like Caravaggio, Dalí, and Picasso. Strangely, there is also an Egyptian mummy on the site. Those who want to flee the fee can just hang around in the square, feed the pigeons, and feel the comforting presence of the mountain. A string of boutique-ish shops near the monastery’s entrance give a commercial feel to the place, but they offer a good selection of souvenirs and local specialities, like honey, and crafts.
Take a funicular to the top of the mountain. From there choose from five different walks, some heading back to the monastery, all with amazing views of the Catalan countryside and the mountain itself. These routes vary from 2.7 to 7.5 kilometres and take from 20 minutes to three hours. It is a good idea to schedule a whole day for the longer hikes.
The Mount Montserrat Natural Park is unique in Catalunya for its flora and fauna. Montserrat abounds with the vegetation that is typical of Mediterranean woods. Evergreen oak covers much of the mountain, along with dense undergrowth and up to 1,250 varieties of plants. The Montserrat mountain mass is sedimentary, and its rocks are made up of a conglomeration of pebbles held in limestone. It is a mountain mass that is unique in the world due to its dimensions and some unusual and spectacular shapes. The movements of the earth, climatic changes and erosion over thousands of years have shaped amazing landscapes, with large walls and round blocks. The place looks like a gathering of stone carrots. Chemical reactions have also opened caves, chasms and caverns inside the mountain. There are a few abandoned buildings fading away too. Therefore the roof of the mountain offers plenty of hideaways, and is popular for a midday nap. It’s oh-so quiet there, so remember to turn off your mobile life, and your mobile phone. God is the auteur of Montserrat, man. And she hasn’t hurried, so why should you?
How to get there:
Line R5 from Plaça Espanya towards Manresa. Get off at Montserrat-Aeri. The cable car runs every 15 minutes. Tickets are sold in the Plaça Espanya station from a separate window, with combinations from the basic option to funicular and lunch included.
More info at: www.abadiamontserrat.net
First published in March 2006