For many visitors to Barcelona, an excursion to the monastery at Montserrat is one of the highlights of their trip. Literally meaning ‘the serrated mountain’ Catalans know it as Montsagrat (‘sacred mountain’) and thanks to the magnificence of the mountain scenery surrounding Santa Maria de Montserrat this is one of Spain’s most visited places.
There was once a legend linking Montserrat with the castle of Monsalvat in the tale of the Holy Grail but this is not now thought to have been justified. First references to a monastery here can be traced back as far as the year 880 when local children are said to have seen an image of the Virgin here. In 976 this was handed to the Benedictine order. Monks from the Ripoll and Vich monasteries came in 1025 to commemorate a vision of the Virgin. The presence of the wooden sculpture of the Madonna and child known as ‘La Moreneta’ (‘the Black Virgin’) even at this stage meant that pilgrims made the journey to the mountain retreat.
It was Pope Benedict who gave the abbey independent status and, at the end of the 15th century, a printing press enabled the abbey’s prominence to be heightened even more. Also in the 15th century the ‘Escolanía’ was founded and is reputed to be the oldest music school in Europe. Today its pupils, the Montserrat Boys’ Choir, still sing in the basilica at least once a day during most of the year. The founder of the Jesuit movement, Ignatius Loyola, spent time at Montserrat in 1522.
The low point of the abbey’s history came in 1811 when it was sacked and destroyed by the French and then abandoned during the Carlist Wars. There was a complete rebuild of the monastery later in the 19th century.
Getting to Montserrat
By Car: Montserrat lies some 50 km northwest of Barcelona and is accessible by road by taking the A2 expressway to Martorell. From there continue on the C1411 via Olesa to Monistrol. There is a suitably scenic and twisting road from Monistrol. Alternatively, just after Olesa you will see a signpost for ‘Aeri’ which is the lower station of the cableway up to the monastery. Bearing in mind that parking near the monastery can be very difficult this is probably the better choice.
By Train From Barcelona: Many visitors prefer to go by train as you can travel directly there from Espanya rail and metro station in Barcelona. This station is accessible on both the red and the green lines of the Metro system. When you are buying your train tickets in Barcelona you will need to decide whether you wish to going up the Montserrat Mountain by cable car or on the funicular railway as you’ll be getting off at different stops depending on your preference:
Cable Car: You can take the train as far as the cable car (Aeri) which takes you up the mountain. This only a 5-minute journey but it is a spectacular one across the Llobregat valley. Bear in mind that you do have to stand.
Funicular Railway: The Cremallera funicular takes about 15 minutes but is not quite as scenic as the cable car. However, it is a lot more comfortable as passengers have the luxury of a seat. Wheelchairs can also be accommodated.
The tickets are the same price and the journey time from Barcelona is just about an hour. There is an additional ticket available known as the ‘Tot Montserrat’ which includes entrance into the Montserrat museum and lunch at the restaurant there.
Scheduled Coach Excursions: If you don’t have your own car and don’t fancy taking public transport then you can easily book one of the numerous coach excursions to Montserrat which are operated by some of the big tour operators in Barcelona.
What to See at Montserrat
Montserrat stands on the top of an enormously imposing range of craggy mountain that is about 9km long and 5km across. With its strangely shaped crags, towers and terraces it seems to rise out of nowhere providing superb rock climbing and fabulous views (apparently you can see Mallorca on really clear day). Such is the beauty that the area is worth visiting even without the monastery and the presence of ‘La Moreneta’.
The monastery is one of Spain’s most important pilgrimage sites and many go to file past the statue of the virgin high above the main altar of the 16th century basilica. As ‘La Moreneta’ has been the patron saint of Catalonia since 1881 many newly married couples come here to receive her blessing. The monastery itself and its associated buildings are eerily beautiful.
Also of note is the museum of Montserrat with works by El Greco, Monet, Picasso and many more notable artists. Visitors can walk to the cave on the mountain where children first saw their visions of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Grotto, which has been ordained as a holy place.
The summit of Montserrat, Sant Jeroni, rises to some 1200m above sea level and can be reached by hiking trails from the monastery. You can take the funicular train up the first section to make the climb easier.
Many of the visitors to Montserrat like to picnic on the mountainside – bear in mind, though, that the wind can blow cold up here, even in summer. However, there is a small and perfectly reasonable restaurant at the abbey. For something a little more special, however, the best place is probably the Hotel Abat Cisneros, in Plaça de Monestir, the main square of Montserrat. The restaurant serves many regional specialities, but can be very busy.
When to Visit Montserrat
If you venture to Montserrat during the winter months then you’d be best off wearing very warm clothes and being prepared for some unpleasant weather. Having said that you might find that on a clear, crisp winter’s day you may well find the place at its most beautiful and at its least crowded.
Unless you really have no alternative try to avoid Sundays during the remainder of the year as that’s when the locals throng there and it can become something of an ordeal trying to move around. Finally, 11th September is the date at which, in 1881, La Moreneta was made patroness of Catalonia and so the whole area around Montserrat is probably best avoided.