Monday, 19 May 2008


There are a lot of photos in this post, I've tried to cull them somewhat, but it is hard. This trip out to Montserrat has got to be one of the best holidays I've had so far this year. The weather was perfect, the walks were fantastic and the scenery was amazing. If anyone visits Barcelona you have to spend a day in Montserrat and do some walking, I was blown away.

While I was visiting Barcelona I did a day trip out to Montserrat, which is about an hour's train ride on the suburban train lines.Monterrat is this weird rock formation, actually it apparently means "jagged mountain" in Catalan (the language of Barcelona) and it really is a freaky looking mountain.

I guess the other reason it is quite famous is because it is home to the black virgin and has been a religious attraction for centuries. The story goes that the statue of the Black Virgin was carved by St Luke in 50 AD and it was then taken to Spain and hidden in a cave at Montserrat. It was meant to have been rediscovered in 880 AD, but this story wasn't written down until the 13th century. Anyway shepherds (it's always shepherds isn't it, God really loves the sheep-keepers) saw a shining light and heard music coming from a cave where they discovered the statue. A bishop of a nearby town wanted to take the statue (and related glory) for himself, and tried to move the statue there, but old Mary was having none of that, and the statue was meant to have gotten so heavy that it couldn't be moved. Thus the bishop had to accept that the Black Virgin wanted to stay inMonterrat, the surroundings are probably nicer than the nearby Mansrea after all (the town where the bishop was from). So they built a monastery way up in this mountain so the Black Virgin could be venerated properly.

This religious background is good for me though, because if it didn't exist they would have been no way I could have gotten out to Montserrat, or even have known that it and all these great walking trails were even there. Because of all the pilgrims who want to visit both the Black Virgin and the cave where she was found, a lot of whom are incredibly old, there is an easy train ride and then either a cable car or a rack railway up to the actual monastery. The train was incredibly packed heading out there in the morning and so I was a bit worried about getting a spot in the cable car, because who wouldn't want to go up in a cable car.

It's a 15 minute ride up the side of the mountain with fantastic views of the valley and the various mountain ranges around the place. But then it turns out that the vast majority of people were scaredy-cats as they all went on the rack railway, or perhaps they were just lazy as you have to stand up in the cable car. I myself was a little nervous about the cable car as you are pretty exposed as you cross a valley before you get into the shelter of Montserrat. But this cable car was much bigger than the one in Barcelona, with 30 people in it, as opposed to 4, so it was weighed down a lot more. This one also had the operator with you in the car, so you feel a bit safer as I don't think someone would do the job if they thought they were going to plummet to their death everytime they went to work.

This photo to the above left is taken inside the able car, not quite halfway up, and you can see the train station we have come from. It is the building just poking above the cable pylon.

Here is the cable car heading up to the monastery which you can see amongst the rocks above.

Once I got to the top of the mountain safely I had to first of all check out this monastery, there are still about 80 monks living here and they get heaps of pilgrims. They get almost 3 million visitors a year it seems, though obviously not all of these are pilgrims. So I get into what I think is actually a short line to head into the church to have a look around. After I get through the door I realise that I'm actually in the line to see the Black Virgin. I'm still thinking the line is pretty short, it is hard to see ahead as you are quite confined, and so I decide to stay and see where I end up. It turns out that the line is actually not all that short, in fact it heads all the way down the entire church and then up two flights of stairs and then along a bit further. Still it took only about 30 minutes and I was able to touch the Black Virgin and get a photo taken, so I could see what all the fuss is about.

The carving is actually inside a glass case but they have left an opening so you can touch her right hand which seemed to be holding some sort of egg. Apparently if you touch her you will have healthy children so there you go, though she must do other stuff as well as there were a lot of people in that line who were well-past child bearing years.

The monastery and church is not all that impressive, at least I didn't think so, I suppose the most impressive thing is that it is built on the top of a high and inaccessible mountain so I suppose they didn't feel the need to go all grandiose inside as well. There is meant to be a really good boys choir who sing every day at 1pm but I was out in the mountains then and so didn't get to hear them sing, maybe next time.

Once I had touched her and had a quick look through the church it was time to head off on what I was really here for, a nice long walk through the massive rocks. I first headed off to Santa Cova, which was a grotto/cave where the Black Virgin was originally found and there now is a church built on the site. Along the walkway, which is actually a concreted foot-highway (it was much more than just a footpath) there are all these statues and monuments along what they have called the Mystery of the Rosary. It is here that you see your highest concentration of pilgrims. There were even people who were walking bare-foot, I don't know whether that was to better recreate the original pilgrim's experience or just because they didn't like their shoes.

This is the Santa Cova church, built in the 18th century. The day I was there it was packed with people listening to mass (I think).

Santa Cova from the train station

This is just one of the massive monuments along the path of the Rosary, but still dwarfed by nature.

The walk I wanted to keep doing was meant to link up with the path I was on by going through the church. But it was completely packed with pilgrims listening to something or other and so there was no way that us non-religious pilgrims could get through (I was on a pilgrimage to nature). So instead I had to turn around and take a small off-shoot path I had seen earlier to try and get around the church and link up with the walk again.

In the end this was the best thing I could have done, as it turned out that all the main trails (the ones I was going to do) were all these massive pedestrian highways, suitable for people in wheelchairs that could be pushed by 80 year olds with hip replacements, they were that good. So by taking this little branching trail I got off these main paths and so there was suddenly nobody else around, just me and some spectacular views, plus a few flowers and some bees. The path was also a bit more of a proper path, on dirt rather than concrete and just wide enough for one person, that's how I like it! In the end I walked a lot further than what I was intending to on this path as it didn't join back up with the main trail network for much longer than what I was expecting.

The photo to the left here shows the path I was now on, looking back towards Santa Cova

Here you can see the pedestrian high-ways of the main paths, I tried to stay off these as much as possible. If only because the white concrete was particularly blinding. One of my first presents to myself when/if I start a nice new job is to get myself a pair of prescription sunglasses. My options at the moment are to just wear my glasses (ending up with sore eyes from the glare), or just my sunglasses (and miss out on all the wonderful views, no thanks) or just wear my sunglasses over my normal glasses and look like a fool (which is generally the option I take)

Santa Cova and the massive rocks

Montserrat and the mountains on the other side of the valley.

A little shack all by itself looking over the plain towards Barcelona and the sea.

Eventually I joined up with the hordes of people again and was back on the trail that I should have taken in the first place. I was now heading towards the old hermitages built into the side of the cliffs. When Montserrat was in it's hey-day there were so many hermits and people wanting to be hermits that there was actually a waiting list and it was only when one hermit died that you could move up the list. It looked like a bit of a tough life though so perhaps the list moved fairly fast.

Here you can see a hermitage carved out of the rock almost and it's associated church. There was a story that went along with this hermitage, if I can remember it correctly I think it went something like a king sent his daughter off to stay here with this famous hermit, to protect her or something. But the hermit was overcome by lust so raped and then killed her, disposing of her body to hide the evidence. He was then overcome by guilt and so somehow he turned into a bear or something and the story was he would stay that way until God forgave him. He ended up at the king's court after a few years and it was there that God turned him back into a man where he confessed his crime to the king who then also forgave him. Pretty crappy story if you ask me, but then that's religion, trampling women's rights for centuries.

You can see to the left a bit of their hermitage still left over, it really looked pretty uncomfortable and must get freezing cold in the winter. They had to grow their own vegetables and everything as well as building their little houses and praying all the time.

The rocks with the hermitage and church at their base

The obligatory church built near the hermitage.

More of the freaky Montserrat rocks and where I was headed to next, Saint Jeroni, the highest mountain in the Catalan region at 1,236 m.

View down to the monastery on the way to Saint Jeroni

Another church/hermitage at the base of Saint Jeroni. I don't know where these hermits got their water, I didn't see any flowing streams when I was there, I did cross a few dry river beds though. And it sure didn't look like it was going to rain anytime soon.

The view from Saint Jeroni, they say you can see from the Pyrenees to the sea from the top of Montserrat, and those are the Pyrenees with snow on top in the distance.

I have a new appreciation for the cyclists who do the Vuelta, I went in quite early Spring and it was already hot. These guys cycle at the end of summer where it must be absolutely sweltering. Coming from Australia you think it can't get that hot in Europe and that they are a bunch of wusses over here, but after this holiday I think in Spain it can get hoooot.

When I got to the top I thought it had been a pretty tough walk, I mean long and in parts it was kind of steep. You really could never think too much of yourself for conquering this mountain though as on the back down I was passing tiny little kids heading up, one of them even had a broken arm.

Montserrat must be a serious mecca for rock climbers, it's all this pink granite stuff, so I don't know if that is easy for rock climbers or if they just like the views but there were so many of them on the way to Saint Jeroni. I only saw one other rock climber in the first area of the mountain, just near Santa Cova. I don't know, maybe he smells or something. See if you can spot the climbers in the next 4 photos, granted the 1st one is an easy one for you.

More rock shots, no people this time

Rock people

On the way back down to the monastry the vegetation changed quite dramatically so I was now wandering through a slightly rainforest feeling area, no water anywhere though

One more sacriligeous comment, this photo to the left shows how I felt at the end of my 5-6 hour walk in Montserrat.

It was a little funny heading back to Barcelona at the end of the day. I was sitting next to an Irish couple (I think). The woman proceeded to do her hair and then kiss her husband for a while. Then they started talking about how they had missed 4 masses and they had to go to church tomorrow before they both pulled out their rosaries and started muttering to themselves. So somehow I don't think they had visited Montserrat for the wonderful scenery and amazing walks.

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