Montserrat monastery — closer to God

Travel Jan 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm
The Black Madonna of Montserrat.  The image once bore an inscription that read, Negra Sum Sed Formosa” – “I am black but beautiful.”  It is believed the statue dates back to the 12th century.

The Black Madonna of Montserrat.
The image once bore an inscription that read, Negra Sum Sed Formosa” – “I am black but beautiful.”
It is believed the statue dates back to the 12th century.

Text and photos by Bruce Gates

MONTSERRAT, Spain–The five-minute cable car ride up to the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey atop the mountain is not for nervous types. The car is fully enclosed, but it does sway, so those who suffer from a fear of heights may want to try the train instead.

But the view! We gaze out the windows as the ground-level boarding platform slowly recedes, and the cars along the nearby motorway become smaller and smaller, and we are struck by some of the unusual sausage-shaped rock formations that make up the mountain range. From a distance, though, the range resembles the serrated teeth of a saw, which, in the Catalan language of this part of Spain, is how Montserrat got its name.

When we exit the cable car, some 4,000 feet above the valley floor, we note how much cooler the air is than in Barcelona, which is 45 kilometers away, or about 90 minutes by commuter rail.

The atmosphere is certainly different from the hustle and bustle of Catalonia’s metropolis and capital city. Here, the pace is much more serene, almost mystical if one is a religious type. Add to that the pealing of the church bell echoing through the mountaintops and the experience is otherworldly. No wonder this summit was a popular locale for religious groups dating back to ancient times.

Monastery and mountain: the handiworks of man and God.

Monastery and mountain: the handiworks of man and God.

According to Barcelona-tourist-guide.com, legend has it that some shepherd children in the year 880 (that’s 1,138 years ago) watched in awe as a brilliant light descended from the sky in the mountains and the sound of angels singing filled the air. They ran home to tell their parents, who then experienced the same vision. A local vicar confirmed what they saw, and in a nearby cave the image of the Virgin Mary was discovered. So began the veneration of the site as holy ground.

The current monastery occupying the site, the Santa Maria de Montserrat, was rebuilt in the 1800s after having been burned down twice earlier that century by Napoleon’s invading armies. The monastery is home to the Black Madonna, a patron saint of Catalonia, housed in a special chapel within the Basilica. The Madonna has been the subject of pilgrimages by generations of locals, and many tourists from abroad, including the Philippines.

Outside of the monastery are hiking trails that lead us on a long climb toward the mountaintops. Some parts of the mountainside provide spectacular views of the monastery. Along the way are signs of the existence of older structures, some of which might have been from before the time of Christ when ancient Romans built a temple in Montserrat to worship the goddess Venus. The entire hike takes at least three hours; we do a shorter version because it gets dark quickly in November. Nevertheless, we could appreciate what the monks who built the monastery must have experienced: They were definitely closer to God way up here.

View from the cable car looking down at the valley.

View from the cable car looking down at the valley.

GETTING THERE:

If you are coming from Barcelona, take its Metro to the Espanya station, which can be accessed by the green or red lines. From here, follow signs to Line R5 to Manresa. Once you arrive, you can take either the cable car (Aeri) or train (Rack railway Cremallera Funicular) that winds its way around the side of the mountain and takes about 20 minutes. To catch the cable car you need to get off at the Montserrat Aeri station. The Rack railway is the following stop, Monistrol de Montserrat.

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BARCELONA CORRECTION
*Author’s note: Thanks to a Barcelona resident who read last issue’s travel story on Barcelona and pointed out that, even though I saw people walking down the street carrying a beer, it is illegal to drink alcohol like that on the street. Barcelona’s liquor laws are definitely more liberal than Ontario’s, but they’re not quite that liberal.

 

Author and his wife Nida with the spectacular view from the top.

Author and his wife Nida with the spectacular view from the top.