On 5th December 2013, for reasons already described, I woke in Barcelona with a day and a half to play with. What to do with it? I had seen all the things I then knew I needed to see in Barcelona proper, document-wise, and enough of those in Vic to make a trip up there a bit silly, and this more or less left Montserrat (or I suppose Urgell, but I don’t have a hit-list for Urgell whereas I knew of at least eighty Montserrat documents I needed to see). Now you will remember, perhaps, that obtaining access to these documents had been a process that led nowhere thus far. This has, in fact, very recently changed, but in December last year I was at the point where I thought that maybe the best thing I could do was just go and see if I could knock on a door. If that proved utterly unsuccessful—which, spoiler, it did—at least I would have been somewhere that seemed to be reputed worth seeing. And, well, I just had no idea.
One gets to Montserrat, if one’s me, by train from Barcelona, which takes you, as it happens, right past my old avatar monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès, but that picture was not much good. In Barcelona they will sell you several sorts of Tot Montserrat ticket that cover almost all the attractions up there, which include an audio-visual exhibition, a museum (almost entirely Classical archæology and modern material), two funicular railways and a basic but filling lunch included along with your travel to the summit by the rack railway and travel to its lower station from Barcelona. In its fullest form this is a waste of money unless you’re going to get there at day-break, because there’s just too much to fit in, and you could save a lot on the lunch too, but mainly it means you can’t travel on the vintage cable-car, which is run by a different company but is presumably fantastic. The train fare is worth including though, so get one of the reduced versions, I reckon, and then pay to come down the other way. You may be beginning to gather that Montserrat is quite high up.
This impression of vertigo is not lessened by arrival, it just brings the heights closer.
The setting is just generally incredible.
This has caused people, quite understandably, to use it as a setting for their own attempts to be incredible, and I did quite like this one.
There are two funicular railways, one of which goes right up to the top from where my stock image of Santa Maria de Montserrat, the reason for my ascent, is taken, but I didn’t leave enough time to do that one what with wandering around gawping, visiting the abbey church (which is splendid, but where since I hoped to make contacts, I didn’t take photos) and eating a dull fatty lunch, as well as trying to solve the basic problem of access to the documents.
Well, I did my best. I could not find an outer door to the Biblioteca. I got a telephone number from the tourist office, rang it with trepidation (because we have mentioned how my Catalan is not very good, yes? It’s much worse on the phone because I can’t watch mouths) and found I was talking to the town library. They, however, put me through to the monastery library, where the custodian, once he had geared down his language to the point where I understood him, explained that there was no access without e-mail contact in advance. I explained that my mails had gone unanswered and he told me I must have been using the old address and gave me the new one, which was of course that which I had already but what was to be gained by arguing at this point, even if I’d been able? And I was running out of change anyway. So I thanked him and rang off, utterly thwarted. So, what do you do when men of God have apparently found you wanting? Well, this is a pilgrimage site…
In the slowly-lowering light I set off down the path to the Santa Cova, the actual Marian shrine that supposedly explains the presence of a monastery up here, and found about a hundred more things that demanded photos, of which hardly any came out usefully because of the light, but still.
The route becomes, once you are halfway along, a procession along the Stations of the Cross, but though several of them are splendid, only one of them photographed at all well and they’re all quite modern, nineteenth-century modern. The actual church that now covers the cave where supposedly, in 880, a child found the image of the Virgin that now resides in the abbey church, is very early eighteenth-century. But it’s still something of a relief actually to see it.
I do have a photo of the inside, but I probably shouldn’t have, and I feel as if there should be something for you to discover when you go. Because you see why you have to. I think everyone who can should see this place, it’s amazing. I walked back along the trail, legs shaking somewhat, got on the rack railway down, had to wait for the next train at the halfway point (and found an unexpected open air museum of the rack railway) and eventually got back into Barcelona and more or less fell over, so how I would have coped if I’d actually got into the monastery, I’ve no idea. But by the time I’d seen it all I didn’t mind so much that my essential purpose here had failed. I would have come here again anyway…