During a stay in Tarragona, we take a bus trip to the mountain monastery of Montserrat, a place I had been wanting to visit for a long time. The bus winds its way up into the Montserrat Mountains for what seems like hours but is only forty minutes. Why would anyone build a monastery way up here? Our guide, a pleasant and well informed young man named Victor, explains it to us in three languages, English, French and Spanish.
Legend has it that around 880 AD, shepherds heard music and saw a light coming from a cave high in the mountains. Inside they discovered a Black Madonna. The statue, the oldest Black Madonna in Europe, is only 60 cm tall but when the bishop from the nearest town in the valley came to have it removed and taken to his cathedral, it proved impossible to move. So pilgrims began coming up to the mountain to see it. Eventually, an abbey was built to commemorate the Virgin.
Once we reach our destination, the view from the top is incredible and well worth the trip.
The Gothic-style Basilica and surrounding grounds are amazing. Alcoves in the walls hold statues, including one of San Jorge (St. George), the patron saint of Catalonia. The figure looks very much like a Gaudi creation. Not surprising, as Catalonia´s most famous designer worked on the Basilica as a young man.
Montserrat is home to the Sanctuary of Our Lady and a Benedictine monastery and has served pilgrims and visitors to the mountain for approximately one thousand years. It sits majestically against the backdrop of the rugged mountains. The building has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times over the years, including during the Napoleonic wars, when many of the monks onsite were sadly killed. It was also damaged in the Spanish civil war (1936 – 1939). The current building was completed in 1949. Montserrat Basilica has been modernised to attend to the needs of pilgrims over the course of one thousand years.
Directly in front of the Basilica is an open-roofed courtyard area or atrium. The ornate façade displays carvings representing the martyrs who were killed during the civil war, with five arches leading to the main area. The marbled black and white floor of the atrium was inspired by the floor of the Capitolium in Rome. Once inside, the church glitters with silver, gold and mosaics. Hanging candles line the walls creating an atmosphere of warmth and welcome. On the central pillars of the nave, sculptures of prophets such as Ezekial, Jeremiah, Isiah and Daniel are carved in wood. A stunning stained glass window catches my eye.
Pilgrims line-up to climb a set of elaborate stairs to view the Virgin of Montserrat, or the Black Madonna, the reason many come to Montserrat. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures while paying homage to the Black Madonna. But Victor explains that from inside the Basilica, from the floor of the chapel, I am allowed to take pictures. The famous sculpture sits at the back of the church, above the altar area, framed in an ornate window. Even at a distance, it is fantastic and leaves me awestruck.
A highlight of a visit to Montserrat monastery is to listen to the famous Basilica Youth Choir perform Gregorian chants and other religious choral music. The performances can be heard free of charge at one o’clock inside the Basilica most days. I would advise getting there early as the doors close once the chapel is full.
Montserrat means Saw Mountain, as the range looks like the serrated edge of a saw, and is the name of the Mountains and the sanctuary. It is perfect for walkers with many hiking trails available. A place to enjoy nature and contemplate life as you experience magnificent views of the unusual rock formations. A funicular takes visitors to the top of the mountain, where there are several different walks to choose from, all with amazing views of the Catalonian countryside.
There is also a fabulous art museum onsite. It is not very big but holds some impressive pieces of art and artefacts donated by private citizens, including a painting done by Picasso done at 14-years-old. The Monks consider it their duty to promote culture. It is definitely worth an hour of my time.
There is a small market outside where I stop at a stall and purchase a jar of honey, made by the monks. I leave feeling refreshed and at peace, satisfied I can tick off another place on that long list.
If You Go:
Montserrat is 53.4 km from Barcelona and can be reached by car via the A-2 or C-58 motorway. Be prepared to navigate a very twisty mountain road once in the mountains.
Montserrat is about one hour North West from Barcelona by train. Tickets should be bought ahead of time.
There are many organized bus tours from Barcelona and Tarragona.
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants, and one hotel if you plan to stay overnight.
Unless you plan to do many hikes, a one day trip is sufficient to see everything.
Photos by Darlene Foster.
Darlene Foster is a dedicated writer and traveller. Besides being a travel writer, she is the author of the Amanda Travels series of books featuring a spunky young girl who travels to interesting places such as the United Arab Emirates, Spain, England, Holland and Eastern Europe, where she always has an adventure. Readers of all ages enjoy following Amanda as she unravels one mystery after another in unique destinations. When not travelling herself, Darlene divides her time between the west coast of Canada and the Costa Blanca of Spain with her husband and entertaining rescue dog, Dot. www.darlenefoster.ca