Physical Challenge and Spiritual Rest at Monstserrat Monastery outside Barcelona
The Monastery of Monserrat is about 50 km North of Barcelona in the mountains of Catalunya, Spain. It is an amazing place that can demand every ounce of your physical stamina – if you are going to walk- whilst offering calming, peaceful nourishment for your soul.
There has been a monastery here for over 1000 years and it is a place of worship to Mother Mary. Legend has it that there was a statue of Mary found by shepherd children in one of the caves, which had miraculous healing powers and, when the people tried to take it down to the church in the valley below, it got heavier and heavier. So the people left it up on the mountains and built shrines around it. This later became a Benedictine Monastery and has had a very chequered history.
Today there is a large, fully-functioning monastery run by monks, along with a hotel, self-catering apartments, gift shops and some very interesting museums. It is an awesome place for walking.
We flew to Barcelona airport and used public transport to get to and from Montserrat. There are numerous ways you can do this, with varying costs attached to them. We (Greg and I) bought a T10 public transport ticket from one of the little newsagents, at a cost of euros 35. This gives us 10 journeys between us on public transport, excluding the Cremallera train that goes up the final leg of the journey to Monserrat. You have to be careful which buses, trains and trams you catch from the airport as several of them are excluded from this ticket. As we were staying in the apartments at Montserrat, we wanted to go straight up there from the airport and wanted to avoid the centre of Barcelona.
We caught the L77 bus from the airport and got off at St Boi. This is also a station on the suburban railway lines. You can catch the R5, which has more stops or the R50, which is a faster train towards Manresa.
There are then two options to get to the top of Montserrat. You can get off at the station marked Aeri (R5) and catch the cable car up to the top. Or you can get off at the next one and catch the train called the Cremallera. You need separate tickets for these, which you can purchase from machines at the stations.
If you stay in either the hotel or the apartments and make the booking directly with them, then they give you free tickets for your journeys on the Cremallera Train or the Aeri Cable Car.
The Cable car runs every 15 minutes during opening times and the Cremellera runs every half an hour. They are timed to coincide with the arrival of the R5/R50, which is very convenient. The last one is just before 7pm, which we managed to catch.
On the way back, we caught the first Cremallera down at 8.15am, then the R5 in the direction of Placa Espanya. We got off at Europa Fira, had a 2 minute walk to Amadeu Torner and then caught the 46 bus to the airport, so we could use the T10 ticket on all of those trips. We got back to the airport at 10.13 am for a 1.45 pm flight. We had had an email from Ryanair warning us of the long delays due to extra airport security and passport checking. To be fair to Ryanair, they actually had someone on the check in desk, so we were able to check-in and get through the airport to the boarding gates very quickly.
The Monastery complex is beautiful. There is an air of peace here, although that was rather disturbed on the first night as there were groups of Spanish teenagers staying there, who were shrieking very loudly until 11pm.
We stayed on the top floor of the apartments, with views over the mountains. The accommodation is very basic, but I knew that when I booked it because I was not planning on spending much time in there. The kitchen has everything you need in it, although there is no kettle and you need to buy some matches in the shop downstairs to be able to light the gas rings. There is a shower and toilet, a lounge area with a table, benches and a TV and a bedroom. We had a twin room. Bedding and towels are provided, but you will need to buy everything else. There is a shop on the ground floor, which has basic essentials. There are several cafes and restaurants open at various times during the day, serving all different types of food. The cafeteria is open from 8.45am, so that is good for breakfast and the hotel serves a delicious, value for money, 3 course evening meal for 20 euros.
We mostly bought water, as it was very hot there. The average temperatures were in the high 30s Centigrade. This was in June and it coincided with the week of scorching hot temperatures in the UK.
Wherever we go, we pack our tea mugs as cups and mugs tend to be quite small. We take our teabags and we also take a multi-plug extension lead and European Plug adapter, so that we can charge up phones and other gadgets.
Inside the Basilica is the statue of the Black Madonna, which is one of the highlights of the Monastery. It is open from 7.30am and we wanted to go and visit it, whilst it was still quiet before the first of the visitors arrive on the 9am train. It is located in the Basilica and is accessed by some narrow steps. It has a wonderful energy to it and it said to be the source of many miracles for people.
You descend on the other side and come out in a passageway on the other side, which is full of candles, which have been offered with prayers. I bought one of the large candles for 3 euros and brought it home. It is probably the longest burning candle I have ever bought.
There are regular services during the day for the public to attend in the Basilica. The monastery is also home to world famous boys’ choir, where the boys have been trained by the monks in the monastery. The choir performs on a Sunday evening and it is beautiful to listen to.
The inside of the Basilica is beautiful, both from the architecture and also the amazing acoustics. The whole site is geared up for tourists and everything is in multiple languages.
We decided that we would do a couple of the walks around the site. For the first one, we walked down the path to where it meets the Funicular Santa Cova. From here we walked along the path until we came to the little chapel, where the original statue of the Madonna was said to be found around the year 880 AD. It is a very pretty walk with the paths being mostly well made. There are some parts that are a bit steep and few places where there are stony steps.
The little chapel at the end is built into the original cave wall where the statue was first found.
We decided that we would take the Funicular back up to the main complex.
You can buy tickets for the funiculars as single or return journeys and there are also various combination packages you can buy. You can find information on the Montserrat webpage http://www.montserratvisita.com as well as in the tourist information office, which is located close to the main Cremallera station.
It was very nice to be able to go back to the apartment to cool down and to have a little rest. In the afternoon, we walked over to the cross that is dedicated to Archangel Michael, which is close to the little Hermitage of the same name. The views from here are awesome. You can look back across to the Monastery as well as enjoy sweeping views of the whole area.
We decided we would eat in the hotel this evening and enjoyed a very tasty 3 course meal for under 30 euros each.
This was the day for my big walking project and I was determined to do it, although the temperatures were up in the high 30s Centigrade and we were walking in open, exposed mountains with little shade. According to the map from the Tourist Office, it said the route was 7.2 km, which I thought was about 4.5 miles, so that would be do-able. As it transpired, the route was actually 6.8 miles, (nearly 10km) according to Endomondo.
The monastery itself is located at 700m above sea level, so we took the Funicular St Joan up to the starting point of the walk, which is just over 900m and set off on the path to Sant Jeroni (St Jerome), which is located at 1236 m above sea level, so it was a considerable uphill climb.
On the way up the last mile was the hardest as it went up over 150 metres, in a short space of time, by a lot of stone steps. The hardest part was actually the descent, as we came from the top right back down to the monastery level, which was almost 600 metres of descent in the end.
The view from the top of Sant Jeroni was absolutely awesome and I was so proud of myself was getting all the way up there. It was one of the peaks which has a lot of false dawns, in that you think you can see the top, but when you get there, that was not the top at all and there is a further peak or two behind it.
On the way down, we saw several waymarkers which indicated the height. We were puzzled that we did not seem to be descending very much and we did not seem to be making much progress back towards the monastery. The last mile or so was made up almost entirely of steep stone steps that were cut into the side of the mountain, almost straight right down!
I am very glad that we did not attempt to walk up those, as we would never have got to the top.
It was a gargantuan effort that pushed us to the very extremes of our capabilities – mentally, physically and emotionally. It was certainly not helped by the intense heat and lack of shade, as well as it being nearly twice as far as I had expected.
A cold ice-cream was very welcome when we got back to the Monastery!
We decided that we would have a bit of an easier day today, after our exertions of yesterday. Greg wanted to visit the museum and the interactive tour, so he set off to do that. I went back up in the Sant Joan Funicular, but this time I wanted to do a much shorted circular walk, which incorporated the ruins of some of the old hermitages, including the Hermitage St Joan, which is built as caves out of the side of the rock.
This whole area is really fascinating from the point of view of the geology and the environment. There are some spectacular rock formations, which make for fascinating photos. Millions of years ago, this whole area was covered in water as a large sea. You can clearly see this in the layers on the rocks, many of which are sandstone that are interspersed with harder rocks. This has also allowed for the formation of caves and other fascinating rock outcrops. Many of these look almost human and there are many myths and stories surrounding them, as people have observed what looks like human figures and animals.
After lunch, we took the Aeri Cable Car down to main railway line. Close to the station is a little, traditional Catalan outdoor café, so we sat here in the shade and enjoyed our bocadillos (crusty bread sandwiches) and drinks. We were under the shade and it was still very hot. The thermometer on the outside wall showed 42 degrees centigrade, so no wonder we were hot!
On the Sunday evening, we attended the service in the Basilica. The only mistake we made here was sitting too far back, as this was the area that contained all the fidgety people – those who came in late, fidgeted and rustled for about 10 minutes and then got up and left. We would have been much better nearer to the front, as there was less movement of people there and we would have had a better experience of the amazing Gregorian chants from the boys’ choir.
As we went over a weekend, the complex was very busy during the day. It was much quieter in the evenings and in the early mornings. It was a place of peace and tranquillity. It was awesome to sit in the Basilica in those quiet times and to let my stress melt away. I felt very nourished and calm.
It was a very powerful weekend experience.