While it would be easy to spend a whole vacation in Barcelona without leaving the city limits, I encourage you to visit the surrounding areas. One remarkable place, which is easy to visit without a car, is the Monestir de Monteserrat, a monastery and basilica nestled in the mountains. Montserrat is advertised throughout Barcelona as a day trip, but there is enough to do that I encourage you to spend the night. I provide those details at the end of the post.
So, what is there to do in a monastery that will celebrate it's 1000th year anniversary in 2025? Well, Montserrat is know for the following:
Did I pique your interest? I thought so...
How to get there without a car:
A train leaves Barcelona from the Plaça Espanya station for the hour long trip. The two train stations that serve Monserrat are the Aeri de Montserrat and the Monistrol de Montserrat. As well as the name of the train station, the Aeri de Monsterrat is also the cable car service to the monastery. Keep in mind that the ten minute cable car ride up the mountain is standing room, so if you don't like heights, it might not be the best choice. On the other hand, if you like dramatic views, it's the way to go.
Another transportation choice from the Monistrol de Montserrat train station is the Cremallera de Montserrat funicular. A funicular is a railcar (on the ground) that operates on a cable and requires a second car to act as a counterbalance—as one car goes up the mountain, the other goes down. The funicular station is one train station farther than the cable car station, so make sure you don't get off the train too early as the tickets for the cable car and funicular are not interchangeable. The funicular is a better choice for anyone who has difficulty standing for long periods of time, or for anyone who is uncomfortable with the heights in the cable car ride.
Once at the monastery, you have to start making decisions -- what to do first! Our first stop was the buffet lunch, which included a salad bar, a pasta bar, hot and cold entrées, and a dessert bar. Beverages included coffee, tea, beer and wine. Once we finished lunch, we took the Funicular de Sant Joan to the very top of the mountain. At the top, there are a number of trails with plaques containing interesting and informative facts about geology and history. Montserrat is also on the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (the Catalan Way) that weaves through the mountain hiking trails. During our hike, we walked up winding gravel paths, wending our way alongside massive serrated rock formations, passing by a small chapel, and then scaling narrower and more challenging paths up to awe inspiring mountainside hermitages. Why some visitors actually wore flip flops or high heels is beyond me, but I can't help admire their adventurousness.
Back at the Monastery, the Santa Cova funicular will take you to the cave where shepherds were said to have seen the Virgin Mary and who later was to become Our Lady of Montserrat. Legend has it that the statue of Our Lady, also know as La Moreneta or the Black Madonna, was to be moved to a nearby city but unexplainably became massively heavy and could not be moved, so the monks built the church around the statue. The black wood of the statue is believed to have darkened over time by candle smoke illuminating the church and natural aging of the varnish. Our Lady of Montserrat is also the patron saint of Catalonia. In addition to the cave and the cave chapel, one can walk along a scenic path that is dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary, along which are stationed statues commemorating each mystery. While there is a strong spiritual presence at Montserrat, anyone can appreciate the area for its historical and cultural significance.
After our hike, we wanted to make sure that we would have time to see the Basilica. Among so many other things, we were impressed by the number of beautifully wrought votive candleholders that hung along the side aisles of the church. Each one was elaborate ironwork that was donated to the church from towns or associations throughout Catalonia.
In addition to seeing the church, we stood in the slow but steadily moving line of curious tourists and the sincerely devout for the opportunity to stand before La Moreneta, with just enough time to touch the globe she is holding, if we wanted. The queue runs next to a couple of small chapels, lined with beautiful and elaborate mosaics of female saints, and other religious artworks. As a historical note, the chapel dedicated to Saint Ignatius, the one time knight turned founder of the Jesuit Order, displays a replica of his sword. The Black Madonna is located above and slightly behind the main altar in the throne room, and viewing her is open between services. La Moreneta is behind protective glass, but it is tradition to touch her hand as a sign of reverence. Because a large number of people are waiting, you essentially have a few seconds before the statue, which does feel a bit rushed after waiting. However, being able to see La Moreneta up close can be a significant experience in the trip to Montserrat.
After seeing the Madonna, you exit the church on Cami de L'Ave Maria, an area where you can light a prayer candle. You don't have to be religious or devout to experience an abiding sense of peace and hope while looking at the beautiful and variegated color of the candle holders and the gentle flickering of their individual fragile wicks.
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit the museum or to watch the educational video that is available to visitors in the souvenir shop. The museum houses a wide range of artifacts and works of art, from archeology to contemporary painting. Museum works of art include paintings from well-known artists such as El Greco, Caravaggio, Monet, Degas, Chagell, Miro and Picasso, challenging the notion that Montserrat can only be enjoyed by those with a religious connection.
In order to do all that there is to do without feeling rushed, I strongly recommend spending the night at the monastery. Fortunately, the Hotel Abat Cisneros is steps away from the Basilica. Packages are available. A recent overnight package is 162 Euros for two people, which includes transportation up the mountain (cable car or funicular), meals (one dinner, breakfast, and lunch), museum entrance, the interactive exhibit center, a liquor tasting (these are Benedictine monks after all) and one night's accommodations.
For additional information, visit the following websites:
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