“ 1,236 meters (4,055 feet). Mountain near Barcelona, in Catalonia, in Spain. It is the site of a Benedictine abbey, Santa María de Montserrat, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary and which is identified by some with the location of the Holy Grail in Arthurian myth. „
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On my recent holiday to Spain, I fulfilled a promise I made to myself a couple of years back whilst in Barcelona, which was to ensure one day I visited the mountain of Montserrat. We had passed by this striking mountain on the way to Barcelona and after hearing more about it I was keen to visit.
Located in the centre of Catalonia, around 30km northwest of Barcelona, the mountain of Montserrat is an impressive site with its unusual rock formation ensuring it stands out from miles around. It is approx 10km long and 5km wide, with its highest point reaching 1232 metres.
The strange configuration of the rocks led to it being known as the 'sawn mountain' with a famous poet once declaring it to be 'sawn by angels'. Indeed everyone of the 51 peaks has its own name and many of the crags are said to resemble faces and animals. There was one in particular we saw, which really looks like the head of an elephant with large ears and a trunk.
Montserrat is also the site of a Benedictine Abbey where 100 monks reside and is home to the famous Escolania (Children's Choir). The impressive Basilica houses the sculpture of the Virgin Mary (La Moreneta) commonly referred to as The Black Madonna or The Swarthy Virgin. Legend has it that the the statue has both healing and fertility powers and hundreds of visitors can be found queueing to touch the statue.
We booked a day trip to Montserrat and fortunately the skies were clear and the sun shone, providing us with stunning views of the peaks on our approach to the mountain, and also breathtaking views of the countryside once we were up on the mountain.
It is possible to drive up the mountain along the winding roads which can be somewhat nerve-wracking for the faint hearted or those who are not keen on heights, (like myself!) so I felt more comfortable in the knowledge that we would be travelling on the mountain railway up the first part of the mountain to the Abbey and Santa Maria Square.
The train ride lasts only a few minutes and I was certainly more confident travelling this way than I would have been if we had been travelling up the mountain on the coach. Unfortunately as the train left the station, I realised I was sitting on the side of the train which overlooked the mountainside and there were one or two moments when I simply could not look out of the window, such was the drop below!
As we got off the train our guide, Michael, walked with us up to Santa Maria Square, pointing out exactly what was to see and giving us some very useful tips for our visit. Then we were left alone to enjoy our day.
~~The Funicular Railway~~
The first thing I noticed after disembarking from the mountain railway was the Funicular Railway, which was opened in 1918 and is for those wishing to visit the summit of Montserrat and the chapel and flora and fauna centre which are situated there . The journey up Sant Joan Funicular is a very steep one and I literally gasped when I saw the steep track up to the top where you travel 503 metres in 7 minutes. I was not the only one to do this and our guide Michael said it was also known as the 'flipping 'eck railway' as this is what people say (or similar words!) when they first see it.
This is where I had been really silly, as I had no idea it would be so steep and I had paid an optional upgrade of 7 Euro's each to travel on it. Yet I knew as soon as I set eyes on it that there was no way I could face it and quickly realised why this part of the trip was optional!
There is also an aerial cable car which goes up and down the mountain, but it was out of service during our visit. Not that I would ever have the courage to go on it of course if it had been in operation!
As I mentioned earlier, The Basilica is where you will find the sculpture of the Virgin Mary and I noticed a queue was forming outside one of the doors leading into The Basilica. Our guide informed us that although we could access The Basilica at any time via one of the other doors, the entrance to visit the Virgin Mary would not open until 12 noon and was very popular. It was around 11am at this time and he advised us if we wished to visit to leave it until around 2pm, as it would be much quieter then and he was right.
We still stood in a small queue inside which was moving slowly, but it only took us around ten minutes to reach the sculpture, which is housed up some stairs on a throne high above the altar below.
There is also a 'promise room' which houses an interesting collection of letters, cards, casts, baby items and even crutches! All of which have been sent in from people claiming to have been healed after touching the Virgin Mary or those who have had fertility problems but then gone on to have children.
The Basilica is a really beautiful building. From its ornate facade to the interior which allows natural light to shine in, thus making it appear golden, it was quite breathtaking. I love cathedrals and churches and the Basilica is well worth visiting. The whole building is crowned by the gothic belfry with seven bells which was built in the 14th century.
During our visit there was a welcoming service and the Monks sang at 1pm. The Escolania Choir sing the "Salve" and the "Virolai" every day at 1pm alternating the "gregoriano" with the choir of Monks. The Escalonia leave the monastery in July and Christmas holidays, however they were away on tour during our visit so we only heard the Monks. The Escalonia have recorded more than 100 records and CDs and are hugely popular. I did overhear one woman complaining they were not there for her visit, as she said she had travelled from Sweden just to hear them sing.
~~The Path of Ave Maria~~
After leaving the Basilica we walked down the Path of Ave Maria which is a carved tunnel between the wall of the temple and the mountain and leads back to the portico. It is lit with different coloured candles which visitors light after visiting the Virgin. After lighting a green candle and placed it alongside the others, I stood back to take a photograph. It is a lovely sight seeing all the rows of lit candles.
~~Other things to see~~
There is also a museum at Montserrat which we didn't visit and an audio visual tour which costs 2 Euro's per person. This tour was included in the cost of our trip and comprises a short film showing the history of Montserrat and the Monastery, after which you walk through an exhibition with interactive features.
Montserrat suffered terrible fires in 1986 and 1994 causing considerable damage in particular to the vegetation, but it has recovered well and there are plenty of marked walks around the mountain leading to various statues, caves and also up to the cross of St Michael, which gives more stunning views over the mountain and countryside below.
It was nice just to sit in the gardens or on a bench for a while enjoying the views. Even though there were a lot of tourists around the Basilica and the square, you only had to walk off along one of the pathways to find a peaceful spot.
A couple of large restaurants, a bar and a patisserie as well as gift shops selling souvenirs can all be found near the mountain railway station. In addition to this, there are stalls dotted along the walkway leading to the car park selling various cheeses and honey. Samples of these are given out for you to try.
There is also an opportunity for visitors to taste the liquors on sale in the shop. This is charged at 1 Euro but again the cost of this was included in our trip. I am not really keen on these but there was one which looked and tasted like custard which was quite nice! I preferred the vast array of chocolate bars said to be based on ancient recipes from the Monks.
Even though Monserrat is a busy tourist attraction and thoroughly cashes in on this fact with everything they offer and all of the souvenirs they sell, (some of which are quite nice and others are the usual tat with 'Montserrat' inscribed on them) it still manages to retain an air of calm and is a very spiritual place. It is large enough to ensure that you can find a nice quiet corner if you just want to visit and enjoy the scenery. You don't have to be religious to enjoy a visit here.
Montserrat is a meeting point for thousands of visitors and also pilgrims who worship at the mountain every year. In order to satisfy the needs of both types of visitor, a group of 250 people are based in Montserrat to help ensure this is achieved. Daily life is guided by the monks who offer their service of spiritual welcome to all those visiting the Abbey.
A lot of thought has been given to maximising profit from tourism without compromising the environment and spoiling the spiritual feel. Everything blends in well without being obtrusive.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit even though I couldn't face going on the funicular railway. I would love to return again some day.
I must admit I did not expect to find myself back in Barcelona again so soon after my visit at Easter with the kids but my newest bestest mate who I met in a nightclub in town asked me to pop over and pick up a couple of laptop bags and as there was a monkey in it for me I could not refuse, anyway I was there on business and had the added bonus of a spare day, having done all of the site in Barcelona in April I decided to spend a day visiting the Monastery at Montserrat.
There are a couple of option f getting there and I chose to use the excellent train service which takes les than an hour and saves having to navigate the early morning congestion to get out of Barcelona. Departing from Placa D Espanya you want the R5 line to Manresa and the combined train and cable car journey up the mountain cost about 14 euro if I remember correctly. The cable car ride is excellent and provides a breath taking view of the mountain and the monastery perched on it. The train service is pretty regular and there are outwards and return trains every hour so if you are unlucky and time it wrong you may have an hour to kick your heels and grab a coffee, which in Barcelona is no real hardship.
The history of the monastery is fascinating and there are two legends from which its fame arises, the first is that St Peter is said to have left in one of the surrounding caves in the area an image of the Virgin Mary carved by St Luke and the second legend claims Montserrat to be where the knight Parsifal discovered the Holy Grail. It is the Black Virgin or La Moreneta as it is known locally that is the reason for the monasteries existence and the main reason for the umber of pilgrims who visit as well as the tourists.
Whether or not such legends are true or not what is definitely true is that the monastery is a mighty impressive site set on the mountain of Montserrat which has great black craggy rocks jutting out all over the place. This area is a great place for bird watchers or those interested in plant life as it boasts both some rare species and also some unique plants as well.
The monastery itself is not the most spectacular piece of architecture I have seen however it is impressive due to both its location and its size. There are a number of buildings set around a nice clean square and included in this area is a supermarket and naturally souvenir shops. After arriving and grabbing a bottle of water I headed straight for the Basilica which is free to enter and houses the Black Virgin, which sits above the altar, to gain access you need to go to an entrance just to the right of the main entrance to the basilica, basically just follow the crowds as you are sort of herded in that direction and you will have to queue to gain access. I did find that it was very busy and although the queuing time was not bad at about twenty minutes however due to the constantly moving line you only get a short amount of time to get a quick look and decide whether to kiss the images hands an feet, I declined the opportunity as it hardly appeared sanitary and I did not have a wet wipe on me to give it a quick once over before my lips follow those of the rather large Italian bloke in front of me.
It is worth timing your visit to coincide with the choir who ill chant Ave Maria, this is usually at 1.00 and certainly creates a lovely atmosphere in the Basilica and adds to the whole experience making it a much more moving religious experience. It sounded wonderful and the entirely male choir of young boys produced a great performance. This only happens once a day so it is important to be there a good twenty minutes before hand to ensure you get in on busy days.
The only other building that is open to the public is the Museu de Montserrat which has an interesting collection of paintings and sculptures including work by Dali, Degas, Caravaggio as well as Picasso. There is of course a history of the monastery which has certainly seen a few periods of strife as well as a few religious artefacts and archaeological finds, it is worth a visit and the entrance fee of 6 euro was good value.
Having completed my visit to the monastery I decided to purchase some lunch from the supermarket in the form of some bread and salami and take a walk through the woods that cover the mountainside. I got one of the two funicular that run from near to the cable car station which take you to the path which leads to Santa Cova a 17th century chapel. This was a pleasant 30 minute walk through some lovely countryside and with some great views out over the mountains, the footpath is well sign posted, there are other walks as well for the more adventurous but I had an evening meet for dinner to attend so did not have time to explore these.
Having got my timings slightly wrong I did have a bit of time to explore Montserrat and the area around the cable car station, there are quite a few places to eat however the guide book reports them to be generally a little pricey and the food not that impressive. I did have a nice coffee and cake at Bar El Rincon which is behind the rail station while I waited for my train.
There are hotels and camping facilities but again I did not explore these however the tourist office in Montserrat would be able to provide details.
I was certainly glad that I took the time to visit Montserrat, the views are spectacular and I did wish I had more time to walk and explore the mountainside; it is easy to reach from Barcelona and can be explored in a day. The walking can be as tough as you want it to be or as easy and the highlight for me was listening to Ave Maria being sung by angelic voices.
Thanks for reading and rating my review.
1,236 meters (4,055 feet). Mountain near Barcelona, in Catalonia, in Spain. It is the site of a Benedictine abbey, Santa María de Montserrat, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary and which is identified by some with the location of the Holy Grail in Arthurian myth.