I first heard about the Monastery of Montserrat, home of the mystical Black Madonna since the 12th century, from my cousin-in-law. She described this place as an unusual church, sitting on an unusual looking mountain, with unusual Mother Mary statue in it. I was intrigued.
Because of its close proximity to Barcelona, only 50 km away, and the convenient transportation options that are available, the Monastery of Montserrat is a popular day trip destination from Barcelona. We decided to take a train ride there, from the station at the end of the famous street La Rambla.
I slept most of the time on the train that brought us there, but we had to switch trains part way which woke me up. The second train, a funicular, gave us a spectacular view as it pulled us up the mountain. The terrain had changed completely. In front of us were the serrated mountains, very different from what you’d usually picture in your mind when thinking of a mountains. I like to call it a rock formation, rather than a mountain. Really, a huge complex of massive rock formations, coming together in a jagged row of rocky teeth biting into the sky. Actually, the place received the name “Montserrat” because it literally means jagged mountains. And the strangeness doesn’t stop there, it’s pink too! Pink jagged mountains! The landscape we saw on the funicular ride amazed me.
The Monastery of Montserrat, formally called Santa Maria de Montserrat, is a Benedictine monastery that was first built around the 9th century, even though it was originally a monks’ hermitage, and throughout its history it’s been destroyed and rebuilt many times. As soon as I saw the monastery complex, I understood why it’s famous. This beautiful monastery sits on a very distinctive looking pink jagged mountain, close to the top of the range. What a stunning setting! You will be able to appreciate this more as you step back, looking at the whole complex from a distance, in the middle of its magnificent landscape. Breathtaking!
Perhaps my favourite thing that we did here was the “hermit walk”. From a long time ago, because of its distinctive geological features and close proximity to the city of Barcelona, people had recognized and used this place as a spiritual retreat. Before the Christian era, a Venusian temple was built here by Romans. Then, some hermit monks lived in this area. They built small hermitages here and there on this pink jagged mountain, and some of them are still standing to date, even though sometimes only the wall is left. Of course we wanted to see some of this!
We went partway up on yet another funicular, and then continued the climb on foot. The view of the jagged mountain and the green valleys around it was even more dramatic than before. The picture above shows the hermitage of Sant Joan. Look at the picture below. Sant Joan hermitage is shown in the left, and take a look at the precarious looking brick structures inserted between the cleft of the vertical rock wall.
What an incredible setting to build a hermitage! Try to imagine what was in the hermit’s mind when they decided to use that crack on the rock as their retreat. Imagine how to get there, dragging building materials up the rock face and building a simple home nestled in the rocks.
That structure in the rock cleft is now mostly destroyed, with only some walls and the door frame remaining. I wish the structure was still intact, as I’d love to see how it was to live there. Well, at least we managed to get there through the carved rock steps. It was a perfect place to stop for a rest and a drink during our climb. The view was fantastic there, and the brick walls that were left are very pretty too, giving it a romantic and serene feeling. If Ryan and I were going to get married again, I might choose this place!
These hermit monks in the past had built tracks all over the place by carving the rock surface, and some of these tracks go to the mountain summit Sant Jeroni. The track has been abandoned for a long time, beaten up by war and nature. In some places, the path was entirely gone. Since this was really early in our backpacking journey, I was still not too used to with walking in this kind of terrain, but I was so glad I kept pushing forward, for the view there was truly glorious.
And here is another one:
Apparently Montserrat is not famous only for the monastery and the hermitage, but also for rock climbing. Here I sat on the rock, catching my breath from trekking up the mountain in the broken path, and there I saw a single guy climbing up the almost vertical rock across from us. I really admire rock climbers!
We went back to the Monastery complex, and checked out the museum. As the day came to an end, we watched the last group of tourists leave. That night, we stayed in the little hotel at the monastery run by the monks. From our window, we could see the basilica and the row of statues overlooking the countryside far below. The monastery complex yard was now mostly empty, and the darkness was coming. We fell asleep to the sound of chanting coming from the church as they held their evening service.
We spent the next day exploring the Basilica. The basilica Gothic-Renaissance interior was beautiful and highly ornate, but perhaps what left most impression for me was the Escolania boys’ choir performance from the altar. My first time seeing a live boys’ choir performance. Such a beautiful monastery, such a strange and isolated mountain, such a solemn and innocent singing by the boys, the whole things mixed to one and gave me a serene chill <shiver> . Maybe the fact that Montserrat’s boys’ choir is one of the oldest in Europe, from the 14th century, also added to the chill that I felt.
In this Basilica sits the famous 12th century statue of Black Madonna (Virgin Mary) with baby Jesus in the silver throne altar, up in the basilica apse. I have never seen a black Madonna statue before, this was new to me. I was intrigued by the reason behind the depiction. Apparently in Europe alone, there are hundreds of Black Madonnas, in statue or painting forms. Nobody is quite sure why she’s black: some say that it was just a matter of material choice: dark wood or stone. Some of the statues appear to be black because they’ve been blackened by soot over time. And others think that they were colored that way for some reason – but nobody’s sure what that reason is. I think the most interesting theory is that the black Madonnas express some strong feminine power, that’s lacking from the gentler pale-skinned Madonna, that usually symbolizes purity and kindness.
Everybody in the line up for seeing the Madonna (yep, there was a line up, a very long one) touched the globe that she holds. I did the same, even though I wasn’t sure the meaning of it. I bet it’s supposed to bring goodness of some sort. I meant to check later, but I guess I never did. The globe was smooth and cold to the touch.
That day we left the jagged mountain behind. This marked our last day around Barcelona, and I have to say that this pink mountain has left a deep impression on me. The train ride back to Barcelona was a mix between reflecting on the lives of hermit monks in the past, and sleeping peacefully on Ryan’s shoulder.