on June 22, 2010
Located in the centre of Catalonia, around 30km northwest of Barcelona, the mountain of Montserrat is an impressive site with its unusual rock formation ensuring it stands out from miles around. It is approx 10km long and 5km wide, with its highest point reaching 1232 metres.The strange configuration of the rocks led to it being known as the 'sawn mountain' with a famous poet once declaring it to be 'sawn by angels'. Indeed everyone of the 51 peaks has its own name and many of the crags are said to resemble faces and animals. Montserrat is also the site of a Benedictine Abbey where 100 monks reside and is home to the famous Escolania (Children's Choir). The impressive Basilica houses the sculpture of the Virgin Mary (La Moreneta) commonly referred to as The Black Madonna or The Swarthy Virgin. Legend has it that the the statue has both healing and fertility powers and hundreds of visitors can be found queueing to touch the statue.~~Visiting Montserrat~~We booked a day trip to Montserrat and fortunately the skies were clear and the sun shone, providing us with stunning views of the peaks on our approach to the mountain, and also breathtaking views of the countryside once we were up on the mountain.It is possible to drive up the mountain along the winding roads which can be somewhat nerve-wracking for the faint hearted or those who are not keen on heights, (like myself!) so I felt more comfortable in the knowledge that we would be travelling on the mountain railway up the first part of the mountain to the Abbey and Santa Maria Square.The train ride lasts only a few minutes and I was certainly more confident travelling this way than I would have been if we had been travelling up the mountain on the coach. Unfortunately as the train left the station, I realised I was sitting on the side of the train which overlooked the mountainside and there were one or two moments when I simply could not look out of the window, such was the drop below!As we got off the train our guide, Michael, walked with us up to Santa Maria Square, giving us some very useful tips for our visit. Then we were left alone to enjoy our day.~~The Funicular Railway~~The first thing I noticed after disembarking from the mountain railway was the Funicular Railway, which was opened in 1918 and is for those wishing to visit the summit of Montserrat and the chapel and flora and fauna centre which are situated there . The journey up Sant Joan Funicular is a very steep one and I literally gasped when I saw the steep track up to the top where you travel 503 metres in 7 minutes. I was not the only one to do this and our guide Michael said it was also known as the 'flipping 'eck railway' as this is what people say (or similar words!) when they first see it.This is where I had been really silly, as I had no idea it would be so steep and I had paid an optional upgrade of 7 Euro's each to travel on it. Yet I knew as soon as I set eyes on it that there was no way I could face it and quickly realised why this part of the trip was optional!There is also an aerial cable car which goes up and down the mountain, but it was out of service during our visit. Not that I would ever have the courage to go on it of course if it had been in operation!~~The Basilica~~As I mentioned earlier, The Basilica is where you will find the sculpture of the Virgin Mary and I noticed a queue was forming outside one of the doors leading into The Basilica. Our guide informed us that although we could access The Basilica at any time via one of the other doors, the entrance to visit the Virgin Mary would not open until 12 noon and was very popular. It was around 11am at this time and he advised us if we wished to visit to leave it until around 2pm, as it would be much quieter then and he was right.We still stood in a small queue inside which was moving slowly, but it only took us around ten minutes to reach the sculpture, which is housed up some stairs on a throne high above the altar below.There is also a 'promise room' which houses an interesting collection of letters, cards, casts, baby items and even crutches! All of which have been sent in from people claiming to have been healed after touching the Virgin Mary or those who have had fertility problems but then gone on to have children.The Basilica is a really beautiful building. From its ornate facade to the interior which allows natural light to shine in, thus making it appear golden, it was quite breathtaking. I love cathedrals and churches and the Basilica is well worth visiting. The whole building is crowned by the gothic belfry with seven bells which was built in the 14th century.During our visit there was a welcoming service and the Monks sang at 1pm. The Escolania Choir sing the "Salve" and the "Virolai" every day at 1pm alternating the "gregoriano" with the choir of Monks. The Escalonia leave the monastery in July and Christmas holidays, however they were away on tour during our visit so we only heard the Monks. The Escalonia have recorded more than 100 records and CDs and are hugely popular. I overheard one woman complaining they were not there for her visit as she said she had travelled from Sweden just to hear them sing.~~The Path of Ave Maria~~After leaving the Basilica we walked down the Path of Ave Maria which is a carved tunnel between the wall of the temple and the mountain and leads back to the portico. It is lit with different coloured candles which visitors light after visiting the Virgin. After lighting a green candle and placed it alongside the others, I stood back to take a photograph. It is a lovely sight seeing all the rows of lit candles.~~Other things to see~~There is also a museum at Montserrat which we didn't visit and an audio visual tour which costs 2 Euro's per person. This tour was included in the cost of our trip and comprises a short film showing the history of Montserrat and the Monastery, after which you walk through an exhibition with interactive features.Montserrat suffered terrible fires in 1986 and 1994 causing considerable damage in particular to the vegeatation, but it has recovered well and there are plenty of marked walks around the mountain leading to various statues, caves and the cross of St Michael which again give great views over the mountain and countryside below.It was nice just to sit in the gardens or on a bench for a while enjoying the views. A couple of large restaurants, a bar and a patisserie as well as gift shops selling souvenirs can all be found near the mountain railway station. In addition to this there are stalls dotted along the walkway leading to the car park selling various cheeses and honey. Samples of these are given out for you to try.There is also an opportunity for visitors to taste the liquors on sale in the shop. This is charged at 1 Euro but again the cost of this was included in our trip. I am not really keen on these but there was one which looked and tasted like custard which was quite nice! I preferred the vast array of chocolate bars said to be based on ancient recipes from the Monks.~~Overall~~Even though Monserrat is a busy tourist attraction and thoroughly cashes in on this fact with everything they offer and all of the souvenirs they sell, (some of which are quite nice and others are the usual tat with 'Montserrat' inscribed on them) it still manages to retain an air of calm and is a very spiritual place. It is large enough to ensure that you can find a nice quiet corner if you just want to visit and enjoy the scenery. You don't have to be religious to enjoy a visit here.Montserrat is a meeting point for thousands of visitors and also pilgrims who worship at the mountain every year. In order to satisfy the needs of both types of visitor, a group of 250 people are based in Montserrat to help ensure this is achieved. Daily life is guided by the monks who offer their service of spiritual welcome to all those visiting the Abbey.A lot of thought has been given to maximise profit from tourism without compromising the environment and spoiling the spiritual feel. Everything blends in well without being obtrusive.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009