So what do two grandmothers who don’t speak Spanish do for a day trip in Barcelona, Spain? We embark on an adventure to live like the locals and take the train to Montserrat, the site of the Benedictine monastery. It was established in the 800s and is home of the Virgin Mary of Catalonia statue.
How to get there
Most tourists take a guided tour service to Montserrat from Barcelona, but I had already been in Barcelona for an entire two days prior to Marla arriving and felt like we could handle this journey on our own. As we started asking people on the street if they spoke English, the first few walked away quickly as they did not want any part of my sign-language Spanish. We finally found a very patient, elderly lady waiting at a bus stop. After an amusing conversation (she speaking Spanish, me speaking with my hands) — and Marla obviously enjoying this comedy show — we found our way to the train, bought our tickets, and boarded.
The 90-minute train ride was delightful, and we watched three small Spanish boys around the age of six having a wonderful time together, for it was a school holiday. Mischievous giggles from six-year-old boys are adorable in any language, and their eyes gleamed with enthusiasm in anticipation of their day off. I’m reasonably certain I picked up on some “potty” language references, because their parents quickly intervened and told them there was to be none of that. As the train pulled into the station, this colossal, boulder mountain, carved by millions of years of rain and wind, rose up into the brilliant blue sky. It was obvious why this site is a pilgrimage. Excitement ensued as we departed the train and boarded the incline up the mountain.
I love overlooks — walking to the edge and looking out across the view and then down into the abyss. I’m sure I was a mountain climber in some past life, one in which my knees were nimble and my upper body in much better shape. As I viewed the magnificence, I found that inner peace that engulfs me when I’m in majestic places of natural beauty. A closeness to God that I long for comes over me. I know that is why I’m continually drawn to places like this.
You learn about a person when you travel with them, and it was on Montserrat that I learned something about Marla — she hates overlooks. We hiked several trails, and at one overlook we walked out to the point for a beautiful view. I turned to tell Marla about the photo I wanted to take, and I found her stopped dead in her tracks. The look on her face said, “I’m not going any further.” Shortly thereafter, Marla had surrounded herself with a small group of Asian women whom she had approached on the trail. They were all laughing as she had commandeered them to walk with her out to the point. Her arms were securely linked in theirs, and the photo was taken. Success!
We were, indeed, fortunate enough to arrive at the basilica in the morning just in time to get in the long line to see and touch the Black Madonna statue. I observed the excitement in the crowd as each person prepared for their own experience with the Virgin Mother. She sits in the very center of the church where she can be observed by all attending the service from the pews. The line to visit her starts from the back side of the basilica and winds around and through a small hallway up into a tiny room which is open to the church below. If you turn to look out where she is gazing, you see the praying crowd below waiting for the service to begin. Although I’m not Catholic, I was inspired to be in the presence of something of such prominence from an ancient time. The Madonna was truly a moving, emotional experience, and it was a highlight of our trip.
- Montserrat has had religious significance since pre-Christian time. The site was first home to a temple to worship Venus. In 880 AD, hermit monks built hermitages in various locations on the mountain. The monastery was founded in 1025.
- It is believed the statue was carved from the earliest times of Christianity and was eventually given to the Bishop of Barcelona for Spain. The present statue probably replaces an earlier model, for Byzantine-style art is evident in the long facial features.
- Citizens removed the statue from Barcelona in 718 AD and hid it in a cave on Montserrat. The statue remained hidden for almost 200 years after the Saracens invaded Spain in the 7th century. Details of its location were lost.
- Shepherd boys at the foot of the mountain were sent up the mountain with their flocks in 890. At night, they saw lights and heard singing. The investigation led to the rediscovery of the statue.
- A small church was built to house the Black Virgin of Montserrat. Later, the monastery and basilica were built to house the statue.
- The Black Madonna’s color is from the aging of the statue itself. It is not meant to represent actual skin color.
- Millions of pilgrims make their way to Montserrat every year to pay homage to the Virgin.
The Basilica and Boys’ Choir
One of my favorite musical venues of all time is listening to a boys’ choir. I love their sweet innocence and pure voices melding together in harmony. Nothing quite compares to the setting of Montserrat and the L’escolania Boys’ Choir singing before the service in the Basilica.
As the boys began singing with their angelic, soprano voices, I felt the welling up of tears in my eyes and the hair on my arms tingle — and definitely the presence of God in this most sacred of places. Make sure you do not miss their performance! And get there early if you want to see them. There is standing room only.
Boys’ Choir History
- The Boys’ choir is renowned for their high standard of music and are some of the most talented young voices in Spain.
- The first Boys’ Choir at Montserrat dates back to 1223.
- The boys are schooled in music and other academia at Montserrat.
- The church at Montserrat is a Gothic structure. It uses Renaissance style and traditional Catalan architecture. It was damaged during the Napoleon war and had to be reconstructed.
- Around the edges of the church are ornate candles hanging, donated by Catalan towns. They represent the constant presence of the Catalan people at the feet of Mary of Montserrat.
- The central pillars hold wooden sculptures of the prophets, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Daniel placed in 1896.
Montserrat nature and hiking
There are many hiking opportunities at Montserrat with varying degrees of difficulty. We walked a few of the trails to see the grand views. Next trip, I will book an overnight accommodation on site. This will allow time to further explore the mountain on foot. I rode the incline from the Basilica level up to the very top of the mountain while Marla decided to keep her feet firmly planted next to the church. If you do not have a fear of heights, the incline is definitely worth the experience. It travels straight up the mountain to the top and is a little scary, but the view is majestic. Go here to find out more information for all areas of Montserrat. http://www.montserratvisita.com/en/ideas-for-your-visit/nature
The food in the cafeteria-style restaurant at Montserrat is nothing to write home about. You do not go to Montserrat for the dining opportunities. Local farmers from the area had booths with some tasty snacks while we were visiting.
The Hotel Abat Cisneros is right next door to the Basilica on the mountain. We did not visit, but the rates looked reasonable and had good reviews.
- Take the R5 train from the Playa d’Espanya station in Barcelona. You can hire a private service that provides a day tour.
- Take the incline from the train station to the monastery.