I didn’t know much about Montserrat before we actually went there. For me, Monteserrat was where they made great fresh cheese (Mató) and jams, as was evident from the produce we sometimes saw in the food markets that pop up all over Barcelona on the weekends. Now mind you, when we actually went to Montserrat, the produce was still its main attraction for me. Second to that is the stunning view you can get of the rugged Catalonian countryside when you’re up there.
For most others though, it is the Benedictine abbey, the Santa Maria de Montserrat, that is the main attraction. I have to say, I don’t particularly enjoy visiting religious establishments. I saw so many cathedrals when I backpacked around Europe ten years ago – I feel I had a lifetime’s fill of churches and such. But, Montserrat is different and well worth visiting.
Firstly, there are the stunning views from the tranquil courtyard. We spent the night in the hotel adjacent to the cathedral and therefore had the opportunity to experience the space before the busloads of tourists arrived. Standing out here, overlooking the valley below, I did feel very reflective, as I suppose the monks who once lived here must have felt.
Secondly, adjacent to the abbey is the Escolania de Montserrat, a music school which has been around in one form or another since the 14th century. In the evenings, the boys come out to sing Vespers. It was a truly memorable event for us, to be able to listen to the beautiful voices of the choir in the stately setting of the abbey as last rays of sunlight poured through the windows and the huge double doors behind us.
The Abbey is also home to some notable religious art, both old pieces that have stood the test of time and some more contemporary ones. I actually quite enjoy modern religious art – I feel at least the constraints imposed upon such works inspire the artists to create something surprising.
There is one particularly memorable sculpture that I wish I had more time to enjoy. It is a sculpture of the angel Gabriel with his wings half open, his body curved in a beautiful serpentine pose. In this portrait, the angel looked both powerful and vulnerable at the some time and it really struck a chord with me.
I find it far superior to the Black Madonna, the statue which most pilgrims come to see. But I guess it is comparing apples to oranges really, they were works from different times.
Apart from the abbey, we also recommend the hiking routes around the top of the mountain. You can hike all the way up to the abbey and to the peak of course, but as it’s pretty sunny and hot around here most times of the year, and the mountain is quite exposed, we would also recommend the funicular. It gets you near to the peak quick on a hot day so you can spend more time enjoying the stunning views.
Near the peak, you can embark on the Tabes Trail, an excursion that will take you around some of the famous “beehive” domes characteristic of the mountains in the area.
This trail is about an hour or so and is well marked, so expect to be on it with a few other tourists! However, if you just go far enough on the trail, the other visitors will peter out and you’ll soon find you have the surrounding nature all to yourself.
The best thing about coming back from the trail however, and finally getting back to the abbey (and our hotel), was of course the cold, fresh queso that was waiting for us in the market stalls outside the main entrance to the abbey. They are always served with Montserrat honey which is divine. It’s the perfect snack for a hot day out.
You can visit Monteserrat for the day, but really, to have the full experience, we would recommend staying in the hotel by the abbey. It was wonderful to wake up to the breathtaking view of the countryside and the fresh mountain air in the morning.
In the early hours of dawn, looking out the window over the courtyard and the Catalan countryside stretched out below, I could almost image life here as it was back when the abbey was built in the 11th century. During a time when this place was truly away from everything else – it must have been wonderfully tranquil…