Column: A memorable visit to Montserrat


Roger VanHaren

The book I’m currently reading is “Origin” by Dan Brown, the author of “The DaVinci Code.” The opening scenes of “Origin” are set in Montserrat, about an hour’s train ride from Barcelona.

Those first few pages of the book took me back to a wonderful month’s stay in Barcelona with our youngest son and his family in the spring of 2013. Mark and his family lived there for three years. On that first weekend, Mark and Nerissa had planned a trip for all of us to go to visit the Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine abbey and basilica located in the Montserrat mountain, 38 kilometers from Barcelona.

Public transportation in and around Barcelona is wonderful. We took the train from Barcelona’s Placa d’Espanya station and rode through the city and into the countryside on a very pleasant trip to Montserrat.

From afar, the mountain looks very strange because of its rock formations. The mountains seem to be serrated, thus the name “Montserrat,” the serrated mountain. The natural beauty surrounding the monastery, which seems to be hanging on the side of the mountain, is simply breathtaking.

To get up to the monastery, you can decide to either take a cable car or a rack railway, a 15-minute ride. The cable car ride provides breathtaking views, but it is standing room only. If you have a fear of heights, the rack railway is a better alternative. We took the cable car.

The monastery started as the Hermitage of Santa Maria, the Mother of Christ, in 1025. Very soon, there were stories of miracles worked by St. Mary the Virgin of Montserrat, and pilgrimages started to the site. A bigger Romanesque chapel was built to be able to receive more pilgrims. It became one of the best-known shrines in the Christian world and the most prestigious shrine in Catalonia. In the Napoleonic wars of 1811 and 1812, the French destroyed most of the abbey, but the statue of Our Lady was saved because it was hidden somewhere in the mountain.

The rebuilding of the abbey started slowly after the Napoleonic wars and has continued to the present. Today the mountain of Montserrat is a place of worship to God and a place where many pilgrims go, and is the most famous religious site in Catalonia.

Next to the abbey is a beautiful cathedral, built in 1900. When you go into the basilica, you see a beautifully designed atrium floor, which is reminiscent of St. Peter’s in Rome. There’s a medallion in the center and an inscription around it. When one enters the basilica, one can see the statue of La Moreneta in the alcove above the altar.

La Moreneta is a wooden statue of the Virgin from the 12th or 13th century and is so called because of the black color of her face. The varnish on the statue has oxidized, and because of the effect of candle smoke and the smoke of lamps, the appearance is now black.

The Virgin has a crown of diadems and has a ball in her hand. On her lap is the child Jesus. He also has a crown and his hand is making a sign of blessing, while the other hand is holding a pine cone.

La Moreneta is housed in a small alcove accessible from a corridor and staircase on the right side of the abbey. To see La Moreneta up close, you may have to wait in line for an hour, especially on a Sunday. You have to go through the Angel Door, which has designs of many angel musicians adorning it. Then you have to go up many steps until you reach the Shrine of the Virgin and Child to see La Moreneta. The ceiling above the statue has beautiful mosaics. You will only get a few seconds to look at it as the next tourist pushes in line behind you.

Another highlight of Montserrat monastery is to listen to the famous basilica choirboy performances of Gregorian chants and other genres of religious choral music. The performances can be heard free of charge in the basilica daily, with the exception of Christmas holidays, July and some other festive periods during the year. Unfortunately, on the day we were there, there was no performance.

We ate our lunch on the steps of the plaza, where there are many cats who live on the monastery grounds, and the tourists love to feed these very tame cats.

From the plaza in front of the monastery, there are two funiculars. The Funicular of Sant Joan carries visitors up to the mountains above the monastery. There are several walking paths of different lengths and spectacular scenic beauty. We did that and walked for a long time, enjoying the unique beauty of these amazing mountains.

This was a remarkable way to spend our first weekend in Barcelona, and I’d recommend it for anyone if you ever go there.

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