Strange, mystical Montserrat, the spiritual heart of Catalonia, looms 40km northwest of Barcelona up the Llobregat river. Its name means ‘serrated mountain’, an apt enough description for this isolated, fantastical, 10km massif of jagged pinnacles rising precipitously over deep gorges, domes and shallow terraces, so different from the surrounding countryside that it seemed as if heaven itself had dropped it there to prove all things are possible.
These bizarre landscapes have attracted religious associations since the early days. St Peter supposedly came here to hide an image of the Virgin carved by St Luke in a cave; in another grotto, the good knight Parsifal discovered the Holy Grail — a legend used by Wagner for his opera. The Grail legends have persisted over the decades, enough to attract Heinrich Himmler up to pay a visit during the war, hoping to pick up some clues (the monastery's abbot refused to see him).
In 880, not long after Christians regained the region, the statue of the Virgin (apparently hidden by someone, if not St Peter, before the advance of the Moors) was discovered on Montserrat and, as is so often the case, it stubbornly refused to budge beyond a certain spot. Count Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona built a chapel to house it, and in 976 the chapel was given to the Benedictines of Ripoll, who added the monastery.
In the Middle Ages only Compostela attracted more pilgrims in Spain. Ignacio Loiola kept a vigil before the altar, consecrating his sword to the Virgin prior to founding the Jesuits in 1522. Independent and incredibly wealthy, Montserrat was favoured by Charles V and his pious son Philip II, who rebuilt the church.
During the Peninsular War, Catalan guerrillas fortified it as a base, at one point confounding the French with the madly echoing drum rolls in the nearby pass of El Bruc; in reprisal the French looted and sacked the monastery (1811). As the Catalan Renaixença gathered steam, Montserrat became its symbol. Verdaguer, Gaudí and Pau Casals were all fervent devotees of the Virgin. Under Franco, Montserrat was the only church permitted to celebrate Mass in Catalan, and thousands of couples ascended the mountain to be married in their own language.
Even today Montserrat for Spaniards evokes the same image that Niagara Falls does for Americans; a traditional honeymoon destination, where newlyweds go to receive the blessing of the Moreneta (the 'little brown one’), as the Virgin is affectionately called. A disastrous forest fire in 1986 led in 1989 to the creation of the Montserrat Natural Park to restore and protect the mountain.
The monastery, a collection of mostly grim, Franco-era buildings, and the church can hardly compete with the fabulous surroundings. Only one side of the Gothic cloister remains intact, and Philip’s basilica lost most of its once- sumptuous furnishings to the French in 1811. The enthroned Virgin of Montserrat presides over the high altar; the statue dates from the 12th century and is believed to be a copy coloured black to imitate the original idol. Pilgrims still come in droves to worship her on 27 April and 8 September.
The famous boys’ choir of the Escolanía, founded in the 13th century – the oldest music school in Europe – still performs a virrolei and salve Mon-Fri at 1pm, Sun 12pm; they also sing vespers Sun at 6.45, except during the month of July. The donation-filled Museu de Montserrat (open Mon–Fri 10am–5.45pm; 10-6.45pm in summer and on weekends; adm €7, €4 ages 8-16) has a selection of Old Masters, including an El Greco and a Caravaggio, and archaeological finds from Greece and the Middle East. A modern section on the basilica square displays 19th-century paintings, many by Catalans of the Renaixença movement.
For many visitors, the best part of a trip to Montserrat is the walks around the mountain, to its various caves and ruined hermitages. An easy walk called Los Degotalls takes in a wonderful view of the Pyrenees.
A funicular descends from the monastery (every 20min from 11-5.30pm) to the Santa Cova, where a 17th-century chapel marks the exact finding place of the Moreneta. Another one, the steepest funicular in Spain (every 20min, 10-6.50pm; joint return with the Santa Cova funicular), will lift you up to the Hermitage of Sant Joan. From here, you can take a spectacular walk in just over an hour up to the Hermitage of Sant Jeroni, the loftiest hermitage—traditionally the one given to the youngest and most agile hermit.
From the hermitage a short path rises to the highest peak in the range (4,100ft/ 1,253m), offering a bird’s eye view of the holy mountain itself, across to the Pyrenees and over the sea to Mallorca if the weather’s clear. Before leaving Montserrat, try a glass of the monks’ aromas de Montserrat – a liqueur distilled from the mountain’s herbs.
Montserrat is an easy day trip. You can take the daily 9.15am bus from the bus station on C/ Viriat outside Sants station (Autocares Julià, +34 934 026 900, return trip at 6pm, 5 in winter). Or else take the R5 FGC train from Plaça d'Espanya. This makes two stops at Montserrat. From the first (Aeri), you go up the mountain on the cableway, from the second (Monistrol) you'll take the cremallera (rack-and-pinion mountain railway). Both are great fun, and you can arrange your trip to do both—one up, one down.
The Barcelona Tourist Office offers a variety of excursions, including a chance to hear the boys' choir. At the train station in Plaça d'Espanya, you can pick up a Tot Montserrat ticket, which includes connecting metro ride, train and cremallera. museum admission and lunch in the monastery self service. If you're up in the monastery at lunch time, it will be your only choice. It's not that bad, but you'll be happier in one of the good, simple restaurants down in Monistrol. There are also picnic tables on the Mirador dels Apostols, market stalls and a small supermarket on the mountain.
+34 93 877 77 01
Images by: Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca, enguany