An awe-inspiring day trip from Barcelona: the Monastery of Montserrat

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!

Monastery of Montserrat
Monastery of Montserrat (Photo from Wikimedia Common by Richard Schneider)

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!

 

Hermitage of Sant Joan
Hermitage of Sant Joan

 

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.

 

Hermitage of Sant Joan (left) and the precarious one (right)
Hermitage of Sant Joan (left) and the precarious one (right)

 

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!

 

Beautiful ruins in the mountain cracks
Beautiful ruins in the mountain cracks

 

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.

 

Can you spot me?
Can you spot me?

 

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!

 

Rock climber, can you spot him?
Rock climber, can you spot him?

 

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.

 

The marvelous view from our window
The marvelous view from our window

 

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.

Escolania Boys Choir, performing at the Basilica of Montserrat

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.

Montserrat flowers and vegetation

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23 Responses to “An awe-inspiring day trip from Barcelona: the Monastery of Montserrat”

  1. Ashley
    6 August 2010 at 1:28 am #

    Great post Dina! I loooved Montserrat, even though my fear of heights kept me away from some of the steeper climbs :-) We only visited on a day trip, though – I had no idea you could spend the night there. The Black Madonna was beautiful. We luckily didn’t have to wait in a long line…but missed the boys choir – your picture of them is quite pretty.
    Ashley´s last post…LOCALS 1

    • Dina
      6 August 2010 at 1:00 pm #

      Hey Ashley, thanks :D I love Montserrat too, would probably mention it myself in the Top Temple if you hadn’t! The monks there have a hotel and another cheaper one (but you have to stay longer than a night in the cheaper one).
      The trail was wicked in many spots! I hate slopes, and there are many precarious slopes where the carved steps was gone (like becoming smooth again, scary). Ryan had to encouraged me along the way. But so worth it in the end!
      I agree, the Black Madonna is beautiful. I was amused, so different with any other Mother Mary statue I’d seen by that time.

  2. Farnoosh
    6 August 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    Incredible photos – Barcelona is on our list, Dina – did you find the trekking up the mountains to be dangerous? I am not a big risk taker and not a climber by any means but I am pretty fit from my cycling and power yoga so I wonder if the path is safe for going up to get the views yo had? Gorgeous – A heaven for meditation I bet!!
    Farnoosh´s last post…Making Tough Decisions- How to Break a Commitment Professionally

    • Dina
      10 August 2010 at 11:35 pm #

      The trekking up could be challenging if you don’t like heights or sloped surfaces. I’m okay with heights, but really bad on slopes, especially those with loose rocks on them, so we had to move slowly. There are parts of the track that kinda disappear. Either they fell down somewhere, or have been beaten up by weather and footsteps to smoothness. But overall if you don’t have those phobias, it’s quite safe for regular healthy people. I think it’s very safe for someone like you, totally worth it for the view! Fingers crossed for a perfect weather when you are there. It’s a great meditation spot indeed, so quiet and serene up there.

  3. Suzy
    8 August 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    I may have to do this in a few weeks. It looks gorgeous! I’m headed to Barcelona and this sounds like a great day trip.

    • Dina
      11 August 2010 at 12:09 am #

      You are heading Barcelona? how exciting :) I hope you will have the time to go up there to Montserrat! Don’t forget to spare some time doing the hermit walk!

  4. Shannon OD
    10 August 2010 at 2:13 am #

    What a beautiful spot! Love the photos and looks like an amazing place to unwind and just enjoy

    • Dina
      11 August 2010 at 12:27 am #

      Thanks Shannon! Unwind and enjoy, that’s what we did :)

  5. Dave and Deb
    10 August 2010 at 9:13 am #

    wow! you had a beautiful day. We went to Montserrat and it was pouring rain, so it is really nice for me to see it in clear weather. We just ran from the car to shelter and then back to the car. The weather was so bad, it started hailing golf balls too! It ended up raining for a couple of days, so we moved south to better weather. We wanted to go climbing at Montserrat, we heard it was excellent there!

    • Dina
      11 August 2010 at 12:32 am #

      Golf ball sized hail, ouch! That sounds horrible! I didn’t even know that Spain around Barcelona could have hail… that’s horrible weather indeed! That was unfortunate…
      So are you going to go back there at some point for climbing? That sounds wonderful! I’m crossing my fingers for great weather next time you go there! (Don’t forget the pictures :) )

  6. Travelogged
    15 August 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    I didn’t have time to go to the Monastery of Monstserrat when I was in Barcelona, so I really enjoyed this post. Great photos — now I know what a great place I missed :)
    Travelogged´s last post…Sandy Hook- NJ- A Beach Just a Ferry Ride Away From NYC

    • Dina
      24 August 2010 at 10:11 am #

      Yeah, I know what you mean by great places we missed… I forgot to visit Ephesus Temple when I was in Izmir, I was disappointed at myself!

  7. Sasha
    22 August 2010 at 11:21 pm #

    Great post Dina! Thanks for sharing this, I’d certainly heard about Montserrat but didn’t know a great deal about it. I’m definitely gonna have to head there some day for sure, it encomppases my 4 main interests, history, religion, architecture and beautfful scenry! NICE!!! Can’t wait to see it for myself one day!:)

    • Dina
      24 August 2010 at 10:25 am #

      Definitely it will satisfy your 4 interest :) I’m glad we didn’t skip it. We might of, if not for my cousin’s recommendation.

  8. Heather
    15 September 2010 at 8:44 am #

    Aww, this post just caught my eye — I went to Montserrat when I was in Barcelona a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it! In fact, I want to go back because 1) I should have purchased the CUTEST children’s book at the gift shop but didn’t and 2) I enjoyed the MOST delicious pastry there and want to have it again.

    Really loved your photos! Much better than the shots my friend and I took that day :-)
    Heather´s last post…How to eat your way through Queensland

    • Dina
      26 October 2010 at 12:36 am #

      Hi Heather, so great to know you have been there! Thanks for the compliment in photos, but I bet yours are good too!!
      Cutest children book, eh, and delicious pastry? Now I’m curious! What pastry? I want delicious pastry too!!

      • Heather
        26 October 2010 at 3:15 am #

        It looked like just an average pastry there at the dining area/food court…but it had the most delicious filling and the dough itself was beautiful. *happysigh*
        Heather´s last post…Epic East Coast Trip- The End

  9. Amber
    23 September 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    All these photos you have taken are absolutely beautiful. I am a keen photographer myself, these are brilliant. I’m hoping to go to Montserrat myself, hopefully sometime soon. I’m not very good at climbing, but I’m a big risk taker, so I’ll have to have a go. Anyway, hope you had a fantastic time in Montserrat and are enjoying yourself wherever you’re at now.

    • Dina
      26 October 2010 at 12:45 am #

      Hi Amber, thanks so much for the nice compliment and wish :) I hope you will get there someday and climb the jagged mountain, you will definitely have a great time there!

  10. alex
    18 October 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I’ve been to this place a couple of times but these are some of the best pictures I’ve seen so far.
    alex´s last post…Scared of Heights Phobia

    • Dina
      26 October 2010 at 12:45 am #

      Thanks so much, Alex!

  11. Jen Laceda
    4 November 2010 at 10:43 am #

    I LOVE Monstserrat! Haha, I took the easy way up, though – via cable car. No rock climbing for me ;) Hahaha. Seriously, the basilica was really nice and they have a (boys’ ?) choir there that was just absolutely angelic!
    Jen Laceda´s last post…Trivia Thursdays- Where in the World

    • Dina
      5 November 2010 at 10:37 pm #

      Even from the top of the cable car, the view is already breathtaking ;)
      The Basilica and the choir were enchanting, weren’t day, I felt like going back to the ancient time.

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