Diarama of the Benedictine Abbey and surrounding buildings.
Diarama of the Benedictine Abbey and surrounding buildings.

One of our “must-do” activities in Barcelona was to visit the Benedictine Abbey in the Mountains of Montserrat.  I didn’t know too much about it, other than it was one of the recommended activities listed in my DK Eyewitness Travel Europe Guide Book. I was keen to visit, as it sounded quite mysterious.

To get to Montserrat, we had to catch a metra to Placa d’Espagnol.  From there, you can purchase special Montserrat tickets that cover return tickets on the RENFE train and the climb either by cable car or rack rail.  Whilst Montserrat isn’t far, it still took at least 1 hr 10 minutes on the train, and another 10 mins on the cable car, or 20 minutes on the rack rail.  In total, plan your travel time for at least 2 hours door to door.

Whilst we enjoyed the convenience of modern transportation, you can see that in the old days, Montserrat was a very remote place – and that’s just getting to the base of the mountain.  As we looked up to the location of the Benedictine Abbey, it looked even more remote and isolated.  I recall looking up at it in awe.  If I was a mere peasant in the middle ages, it must have seemed almost impossible to get there.  Nothing but a mountain goat could have gotten up there.  It is unfathomable to me how they even built a whole cathedral.  I can imagine that peasants would have regarded this a place of beauty, of learning, and of being close to God.

Interestingly, it had also been identified as one possible location of the Holy Grail in Arthurian myth.  Heinrich Himler went to Montserrat in 1940 looking to speak to the abbot about the Holy Grail.  I’m not a Grail Hunter, or follower, but I think it’s pretty cool to be in a location of legend and myth, a place where Crusader knights may have sought refuge, and a place where monks spent hours working on beautifully produced manuscripts.  A place where, if the walls could talk, what might it have said of its 1200 year history?

Montserrat means jagged, or serrated mountain in Catalan. It looks like giant elongated piles of potatoes.  The cliff-side look extremely steep, and if you fall off the cliff, it looked like you would keep bouncing off until you reached the valley.  Montserrat today has been developed to support and cater to tourism.  There were large souvenir shops selling Montserrat souvenirs, books and even music from the Santa Maria de Montserrat boys choir.  This is the oldest boys’ choir in Spain, and possibly in Europe.  It was started in the 13th century and continues today.  From about age 12, these boys live in boarding schools and are educated at the Monastery.

The Benedictine Abbey is called Santa Maria de Montserrat, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary.  The church is simply beautiful.  Perhaps because it was recently restored, or because it has been in continuous care by the Benedictine monks, but church and its relics look wonderfully well kept and well preserved.  Whilst it had the architectural structure of the gothic church, its internal walls are beautifully painted.  It is amazing to sit there in the pews and really admire all the features of this church.  Prayer is quite difficult as there is a constant stream of tourists in and out of the church, snapping photos with flashes, even though there is a sign that says no flash photography.  It was abit distracting and made it more difficult to imagine what a day in the life of a Benedictine monk might have been like.

If you go early enough, you may catch mass, which is held at noon each day.  We caught the Montserrat choir at 1 pm.  If you like choral music, this is a must-see.

Much of Montserrat has now been developed to support tourism.  Where the basilica was once perched on a narrow strip of cliff, this has now been extended to allow a large roadway for cars to get in and out and for tourists to walk about.  The walkway is simply a bridge built close to the face of the cliff.

We had large in a large cafeteria/restaurant, which was actually quite nice.  Expect tourist prices, but at least you get decent food to fill your stomach.  The souvenir shop is absolutely fantastic.  I wish I took more time to browse in there.

In terms of walks, there are a couple of fantastic walks which you can do. You can take the furnicular (rack rail) to Sant Joan, which is to the top of the Montserrat crags, and you can a commanding view of the monastery, and of the surrounding area.  From here you can walk to the hermitage.  In days long past, layman would live a hermit life, dedicated to hard work and God.  Hermits were not ordained, and there was a queue of layman waiting to be hermits. Up in the mountains, all you hear is wind and your own thoughts … and maybe the odd roll of thunder.  Perhaps that where the message of God is.

The other place is the grotto, which is down the mountain from the monastery.  Again, you can take the furnicular.  The entire walk is paved, it’s just a long walk of around 30 to 45 minutes each way.  On this walk at regular intervals, there are statues and carvings which follow the stations of the cross.

These walks are really fantastic, but they need planning for.  One of the main things is to get to Montserrat early, which means a start at the train station itself by about 7.30 or 8.30.  For us, we caught the train at 10.30, which meant that by the time we arrived at Montserrat, it was mid-day.  You need to leave Montserrat by the last train out of the mountain and the last train out of the Montserrat area which is around 6.30 pm.  Miss this and …. well, I don’t know what you do.  For us, we were keen to catch the 5.30 pm which gave us a buffer of another train, in case something didn’t go to plan.

On the way back, we were surprised to find a leafy green plant in the train.  On closer inspection, it was a marijuana plant.  Hmm, I thought the Barceloneans were liberal, but not that liberal!  Clearly it caught other passengers by surprise as well.  During the entire train ride, no one claimed the plant, probably in case it was being watched.