Montserrat means ‘serrated mountain’, it certainly is that… From far away it looks like a tenon saw lying dangerously on its back, pinkish teeth cutting into the sky. 30 miles from Barcelona this mountain is a lovely day trip from the city if you’ve seen all there is to see there or just need some nature time.
We were in that situation and decided to go and see the monastery nestled two thirds of the way up its craggy slopes. To get the most of the day you need to set out fairly early from Barcelona, getting to ‘Montserrat-Aeri’ by train from Plaça de Catalunya station. From Montserrat-Aeri station you have the mountainside towering above you and a cable car station to make all that height mean almost nothing. There’s often a very long wait between cable cars, especially if it’s crowded so again the earlier you get there the quicker you’ll get to ride up to the monastery.
Ascended the cable car plonks you alongside some fairly pricey restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. The monastery is just up the road from here.
The monastery itself, properly called Santa Maria de Montserrat is a Benedictine colony and is famous for the age of its printing press (active since 1499 apparently), being the resting place of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend, and for housing the Black Virgin. The structure is quite impressive with echoes of Florentine architecture. The view from the plaza beside the entrance would be pretty great usually, but we’d arrived on a day where it seemed every Catholic tour group in Spain had decided to congregate.
The coaches never stopped spewing the faithful onto the square. They waddled and shuffled along, a grey-haired and sun-baked-orange-skinned horde. Their leaders gathered them into groups and placed matching baseball caps on their heads. Each leader hoisted a flag of the same colour as the baseball caps and off they went into the basilica. Dozens of these odd groups squeezing into the impressive building. Some men with megaphones began to shout instructions to the more aimless-looking groups and then a small group of nuns began to sing hymns. Surreal.
It was close to noon and very hot so we went into the basilica ourselves. All very pretty inside, lots of gold, lots of Catholic relics. I confess that religion was not my draw to Montserrat that day. After we’d been to see the Black Virgin and taken in all the history we could manage, between being jostled left and right by the grey army, we headed up towards the summit. The worshipers would be unlikely to be able to pursue us up there.
A funicular railway takes you most of the way to the top, from near to the Abbey, and it leaves you on a winding mountainside path. Sheer drops on the left and only a steel bar to ward them off means that you’ve got to be a little careful at times. Especially when a stray gaggle of OAPs blocks the entire path. Follow the signed path round and you can climb to the very top of the mountain.
The views are spectacular. Truly. You can see Barcelona twinkling in the far distance and beyond her the Mediterranean lies peacefully. Apparently you can even see the Balearic island of Majorca on an extra clear day. Ours was quite clear but the heat haze made Majorca a myth and a dream.