So close to Barcelona, yet it took several trips before I finally got around to visit. Why did I wait so long?
POSTED BY PINKY
Montserrat, or serrated (jagged) mountain in Catalán, is a rugged mountain range located about 50km northwest of Barcelona. It’s been a popular pilgrimage site since the 13th century, drawing pilgrims with stories of miracles attributed to the Black Madonna or La Moreneta of Montserrat.
The wooden Romanesque image of Our Lady was believed to have been carved by St. Luke in 50 AD in Jerusalem and was later on brought to Spain by the Bishop of Barcelona. Referred to as the Black Virgin, her dark colour is said to have been caused either by changes in the varnish that occurred over time or by the candles that burned in front of it day and night.
When the Saracens or Moors invaded Spain in the 7th century, the Christians of Barcelona hid the image in a small cave in Montserrat until shepherds from Monistrol, a village at the base of Montserrat, uncovered it in the year 880. A chapel was built where the Madonna was found and the size of the monastery grew as news of the miracles performed spread throughout the land.
Many saints and popes have visited the Shrine over the centuries, including Saint Ignatius of Loyola after being injured in the Battle of Pamplona. In fact, it was soon after that visit that he wrote his Spiritual Exercises (from 1522 to 1524), a retreat handbook to help people experience God in their daily lives. Saint Ignatius later on founded the Jesuit religious order, the Society of Jesus.
In 1881, Pope Leo XIII crowned and proclaimed Montserrat’s Black Madonna as the Patron Saint of Catalunya.
We have the Benedictine monks to thank for settling there hundreds of years ago to care for the growing number of pilgrims and for building their monastery and the Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat in this magnificent location.
Getting there on your own takes a little bit of effort but you do get rewarded by the breathtaking views along the way. In place of the usual pretty, colourful sights we Pinoys expect to get when we visit Europe, what one gets instead is a sight that I found so powerful and so raw, it was downright beautiful. In a purely unconventional way, if that makes sense.
We went there on our own (which I’ll have to write about separately as that deserves a post all its own), so I don’t know if traveling by coach directly from Barcelona to Montserrat provides the same experience. Perhaps to a large extent.
But I felt that going there independently and through the rack railway (or cable car) somehow added another dimension to the whole experience, assuming one is physically able and good about keeping time.
Highlights of our Visit to Montserrat
• Catching the 1pm performance of the Escalonía, a 50-member boys’ choir that has been in existence since the 13th century, making them one of the oldest and most renowned in the world.
It’s imperative that you get to the Abbey early; otherwise, the experience won’t be ideal.
Our trip was in late spring, not entirely the height of the peak season, yet the Abbey was extremely packed. So I can only imagine what it must be like at the height of summer.
Regardless, your efforts will again be rewarded by the angelic singing of the choir. Just a 10-minute performance, they sing two of Montserrat’s famous hymns, the Salva and the Virolai. They do sing daily, though, twice a day, with the second performance at 6:45pm.
I believe they do not perform in July or during the Christmas holidays, so make sure to check that the choir is performing on your planned visit. For the schedules of the choir and other helpful details, see http://www.montserratvisita.com/en/organize-the-visit/useful-information
• Touching or kissing the hand of the Black Madonna will most likely be on your agenda. There will also most likely be a queue, with mornings said to have the biggest crowds. So the best times to do this are either in the afternoon or during the performance of the Escolanía, if you’ve already heard them sing on a previous visit or don’t mind lining up to see the Madonna while listening to them. Hearing the hymns being sung while praying to the Black Madonna might actually enhance the experience.
Please note that you will be climbing up narrow stairs to get to the small chamber that holds the Black Madonna. No elevator or stair lift is available.
The image is protected by glass with only the Madonna’s hand protruding from an opening for pilgrims to have direct contact with it.
• Check out the Museum of Montserrat if you have time. Their main exhibits are centred on archaeology from the Middle East and the ancient world, antique paintings from the likes of Caravaggio and El Greco, modernist works from Spanish painters like Picasso and French impressionists like Monet, avant-garde paintings from the likes of Dalí, fascinating sculptures, and captivating drawings.
For the latest news on their exhibits, please go to http://www.museudemontserrat.com/en/index.html
• Hike to the peak of Sant Jeroni. This can be done by taking the Sant Joan funicular from the Monastery. The funicular ride itself is interesting as it follows the slope of the mountain. Meaning, it’s going to be a steep ride. But you get an amazing view of the Monastery grounds from the top, so try to position yourself strategically when boarding the funicular.
You can reach the peak of Sant Jeroni by following the footpath from the Sant Joan station.
• Visit the Chapel of the Santa Cova or Holy Grotto. Taking the Santa Cova funicular from the Monastery, you can visit the chapel that was built as an extension of the original cave where the image of the Black Madonna was found by the shepherds. As the original chapel of the Holy Grotto, pilgrims were welcomed here until their growing number required the building of the much larger Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat.
Unfortunately, we did not get to visit the chapel. Which gives us a reason to return.
• Eating Miel y Matô. Prior to our trip, I had read somewhere about this fabulous Catalán dessert made out of honey (miel) and matô, fresh cheese made from cow’s or goat’s milk with no salt added. Matô made in the villages of Ullastrell and Marganell near Montserrat are well known, so that’s what I was looking forward to trying.
However, it wasn’t available in the cafeteria during our visit and we didn’t have enough time to search for it any further. I was able to order it at a restaurant in Barcelona but it was in Montserrat that I really wanted to try it, so….. I guess I’ll just have to go back, don’t I?
Read about the adventure of how we got to Montserrat here.
Photo credit: Bernard Gagnon