The Black Madonna of Montserrat perched high above the congregation. Hand outstretched, she rested on an ornate throne decorated with Venetian mosaics. From where I sat I could see people kissing her, with the queue of waiting pilgrims stretching back down the stairs, into the Santa Maria de Montserrat and out the door. The basilica is dark and spacious, filled with candles and gold, shadows and incense. The voices of the famed boys’ choir filled the air.
Reaching the monastery proved an adventure in itself. From the train I watched the mountain range of Montserrat rapidly approaching, a stunning vista of rocks bared like teeth against the sky. Then the monastery came into view, perched high amongst the stone. How on earth was anything ever built here?
The valley below looks as if it’s been farmed for centuries. The soil is poor, and the land parched from the summer sun. Despite this small vegetable plots lay everywhere, a riot of tomatoes and zucchini, luxurious green against the weak soil. They inspired me to resurrect my own garden when I returned home. Long thin poles serves as trellises for tomatoes. Olive and fruit trees offered some shade.
I love the way how in Barcelona fruit is so often served at the end of a meal, rather than a rich desert (those these, too, abound). Each morning at breakfast, after a strong coffee, I smeared fresh garlic over crunchy bread, then sliced a large tomato in half. I then rubbed this over the bread, which soaked up the juices. A sprinkle of salt and pepper, some fresh soft cheeses on the side – a perfect way to start the day.
Which I needed, for quite an adventure lay before me.
First, the challenge of finding the train to Montserrat. Like the metro in Paris, the trains in Barcelona are marked by the last station on the line. It was easy to catch the metro to Placa d’Espanya for this is a major hub of the network. Here we changed for Montserrat, but finding the right platform took a while (simply because I failed to realise Montserrat wasn’t the last station. Despite sitting atop a mountain range, there are a few more stops after the monastery). The sign saying the Spanish equivalent of ‘Montserrat This Way’ helped when I finally noticed it. (For the record, from Placa d’Espanya, take the R5 line in the direction of Manresa). A gorgeous conductor helped us find some empty seats for my Mum; with the monastery being the second most visited pilgrim site in Spain after Santiago de Compestella, the train was crowded. We settled ourselves down, and soon the train lumbered out of the station.
At first we sped through the wasteland of suburbia. Then, as the yards of the houses became more spacious, we passed backyard plots and market gardens. The trip itself took over an hour, yet soon the mountains were in view, impossible mountains of jagged teeth and drunken stones. (Montserrat means serrated mountain.) Small villages nestled at the bottom of these cliffs, with occasional glimpses of the Monastery of Montserrat towering above us all.
The first emptying of the train came at Aeri de Montserrat, where the brave alighted to catch a cable car up the mountain, a veritable vault over the abyss. I chose instead to travel to the next stop, Monistrol de Montserrat, for a 15 minute funicular ride to the monastery. The car wound slowly up the mountain, at times as steep as the Peak Tram in Hong Kong.
Despite the crowds, the Monastery of Montserrat felt incredibly spacious. The courtyard offers a sweeping vista of the valley below, impossible to capture by camera. The open roofed Atrium in front of basilica has a black and white marble floor, inspired by Michelangelo’s Capitolium in Rome. The monastery itself dates to 880 AD. Prior to this the Romans had built a temple to Venus; most likely an older shrine predated them. During the 9th C hermit monks retreated to these mountains, slowly building four chapels some 1200 metres above the valley. The Monastery itself was founded by 1025 by extending one of these chapels. (The Chapel of St Iscle remains, in the monastery garden. From the monastery it is another 300 odd metres for those willing to climb to the summit, and the monastery is surrounded by hiking trails for the ambitious.)
The Basilica is gothic in style, with Catalan architecture. It has been continually rebuild over the centuries, due to damage from earthquakes, fires, and the likes of Napoleon. At the start of the 20th C the facade was rebuilt to repair the damage from the Napoleonic Wars. Under Franco the monastery became a refuge for intellectuals and artists, and many monks were shot as a result.
The Cult of the Black Madonna dates to late Medieval times. Some Madonnas were painted black; others have simply darkened from centuries of exposure to dirt and incense and candles, along with the ageing of lead-based pigments. (Intriguingly, in the language of Aramaic, the word black is also idiomatic for sorrowful.) These madonnas are usually carved in wood and are some 70cm in height, although some are stone and painted icons also exist. Some 400 medieval black madonnas remain in Europe, with many of them associated with miracles. Some I have seen on my adventures include one in Marseille, another in the church of Notre Dame de Mont-Tombe in Mont St Michel, Lady of Regla in Bruges, in Naples, and the Madonna della Salute in the Santa Maria della Salute, Venice.
The Virgin of Montserrat (or Black Madonna) is both the symbol and Patroness of Catalonia. Made from wood, it is said she was carved by St Luke on one of Christ’s own carpentry tables (though carbon dating prosaically suggests she dates to the 12th C). The statue has darkened with age. Traditionally, you kiss her hand whilst opening your other towards the infant Jesus. Famous pilgrims to visit her include Cervantes, Christopher Columbus and Louis XIV.
Besides the Madonna, the church itself is a wonderful piece of gothic architecture. The adjacent museum boasts works by el Greco, Picasso and Dali. The boys’ choir – or Escolania – is one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1223. The monastery itself remains a working monastery, with some 70 monks living here and still following the Rule of Benedict. The monastery even boasts a publishing house, busy producing books since 1490.
Beside the cathedral is grotto filled with thousands of votive candles, the Cami de l’Ave Maria, or the Ave Marisa Path. So many candles are lit and left by pilgrims each day they cover the walls.
Spiritually refreshed (perhaps enlightened? Time will tell) we returned back down the mountain, back to Barcelona and her wonders of art and medieval alleyways, her museums and her lively streets where a glass of kava and some tapas is only a few step away.
What else to read when travelling through Spain, but Don Quixote? Often considered the first modern novel, Cervantes classic work remains both timeless and full of pathos. Published in 1605, it is perhaps the greatest work of Spanish literature.
Although some regarded Quixote as a comic figure, the knight is an inspirational figure in supporting the beliefs of an individual, even when those beliefs are rejected by society. The tragedy lies in the rejection of Quixote by a society which has lost its belief in the imaginary.
Don Quixote is perfect for reading when travelling, for it can be read as a series of short stories, ideal to peruse at the end of long day, over some tapas.
Please click the link if you are inspired to travel, or simply looking for ideas or advice.