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Flying Visit to Montserrat II: the place itself

As you may recall from the last post, in late April 2018 I was very briefly at the Catalan mountain shrine site of Montserrat, which is one of the places I wish everyone could see at least once; I think it is truly amazing. However, when I’ve gone before, I’ve always used the rather handy rack-railway to get up there, which as I learned on this trip you can watch from Monistrol, at something closer to ground level, crawling like a four-coach caterpillar across the hillside before disappearing round the back of the mountain for the final ascent. What I had never done before this point was approach the shrine up at Santa Maria as a medieval person would have done, which is to say, on foot (unless they did so by hoof, but I wasn’t equipped for that). And it was nicely and clearly signposted from Santa Cecília, where I’d just been, and getting down the hill again to take the train would probably have been more difficult; so I set off.

A tunnel on the road from Santa Cecília de Montserrat to Santa Maria de Montserrat

It’s a fairly easy walk, but not without drama

Path up from Santa Cecília de Montserrat to Santa Maria de Montserrat, Catalonia

Small shrine to the Virgin on the path from Santa Cecília de Montserrat

A small memorial to the Virgin along the way

The path up from Santa Cecília is pretty easy walking, despite the steepness of the surroundings, and it has been well walked. Indeed, one of the things you find along it are little indications of various groups, largely (naturally) Church ones, who had done this enough that they felt they should leave some kind of devotional marker.

Small shrine to the Virgin on the path from Santa Cecília de Montserrat

Another one, set up by a different group

I don’t know who was the first—some of them are dated but not all, and I didn’t think to keep track until I’d seen too many for it to work—but now there are lots, at least twenty as I remember, from Church groups or excursion clubs from all over Spain and beyond, and some quite recent.

But eventually, you come to the top, and stop, and take a look around. And around at Montserrat is pretty dramatic, but apparently – I guess because of the roiling mist around the mountaintops we saw last post – what I mainly photographed was down.

View from one of the viewing platforms from Montserrat, Catalonia across the valley leading down to Monistrol

View from one of the viewing platforms across the valley leading down to Monistrol

View from Santa Maria de Montserrat of the path down to the Santa Cova

The path down to the shrine, in the atmospheric conditions of the day

View out over the landscape to the west from Santa Maria de Montserrat, Catalonia

View across the landscape out to the west

But up remained a possibility! The previous time I’d visited, I’d had a fancy ticket which included access to an art gallery that was too angularly modern for my taste, a museum that was almost entirely about the twentieth century development of a town up here rather than my interests, a really lousy meal in a café, and free use of both funiculars, for there are two, one down to the Santa Cova where the actual shrine is, and one up to the chapel of Sant Jaume. I’ve always thought that not walking to the shrine if you can, especially after getting the train up, is a bit feeble, so I hadn’t used that funicular, and the other one was shut for repairs. So on the whole I don’t recommend that ticket, but on this occasion at least the upper funicular was running.

Funicular railway from Santa Maria de Montserrat to Sant Jaume de Montserrat

Running, but still a little daunting to contemplate

My first photo from the top makes it clearer why you have so little sight of mountaintops in this post.

Pathway from the funicular station for Sant Jaume de Montserrat, Catalonia, to the chapel

I think this is the path to Sant Jaume that (as will be told) I didn’t take. It didn’t look like much fun in this weather.

View across the top of the Monistrol valley from Sant Jaume de Montserrat

The mist is a bit clearer – if you see what I mean – in this one in the other direction

But, once you’re at the top, it turns out there are quite a lot of paths which wander all over the plateau and through the peaks, because this place is a kind of vertical archipelago. To draw another parallel with Iona, whose main community of monks living together also maintained smaller outposts on different islands where the hardcore hermits lived, either together or in the most extreme cases alone, Montserrat has its main community at the level where the town has gathered about it…

The monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat viewed from the funicular station of Sant Jaume de Montserrat

The monastery, just about visible in the mist down the side of the funicular terminal

… but then, as well as the chapel of Sant Jaume, which I actually never reached, also quite a number of small hermitages and outposts up at the top, some really quite some distance away. Apparently, if you had been abbot of Montserrat but had to retire for some reason, you might retire up here (which, I have to admit, I thought would probably speed up even the most robust ex-monk’s journey to God, let alone that of someone with a more venerable and perhaps fragile constitution). So I looked at the distances on the fingerposts and decided that I could get out to the furthest one and back and have done a proper day’s exploring, in this upper space of the world I hadn’t known existed. Even if that did mean basically walking through clouds.

Path from Sant Jaume de Montserrat up to the hermitages on top of the mountain

Path from Sant Jaume de Montserrat up to the hermitages, in the mist

And this is (some of) what you find. Some of the hermitages are still in use, or could be; some really aren’t.

Active and inactive hermitages atop the mountain of Montserrat, Catalonia

At the right you have the quite modern Sant Joan, currently closed but evidently in use, and then at the left and beyond you have the ones that are done with… The furthest ones up are two cells for retired abbots, I think; apparently the second couldn’t live in his predecessor’s hermitage so had another built next to it.

View down to Saqnt Joan de Montserrat from the hermitages on the mountain

A view back down to Sant Joan. It would be quite easy to feel alone here, certainly, except for all those other hermits…

But, dear reader, maybe you wouldn’t know it from this so far, but I do not have a brilliant head for heights. Specifically, I fear falling off things, even when that’s not very possible. And the paths to the furthest hermitage, they offer real possibilities.

Pathway to the high hermitages above Montserrat, Catalonia

The path onwards beyond the abbatial ruins

An aside: the most bizarre thing I learnt this day was that the space you see just beyond where I was standing here, where the fence pops out briefly to make room, was briefly run as a café for visitors up here. Apparently it didn’t make very much money and was shut again after a decade or so. I dread to think what happened to it after that: I could well believe that the front just fell off into the gorge, but even before that I doubt it could ever have seated more than six or seven people. Truly a business decision I couldn’t imagine someone making. But I digress…

So, if you look beyond that in the photo, you can see a precarious-looking stairway leading down the hillside; it goes back to Sant Joan, in fact. What you can’t see is the extension of it up the hill and over the little pass at the top that is the way to the furthest hermitage. Neither can you really see how slight the fence and sloped the path is that would have got me to that unfenced, open, narrow, stone-cut stairway on which the mists had been steadily weeping for hours. In clear dry weather – if there ever is such weather up here – and with sure-footed company, I might still just about have tried it. But in this… ?

View into the peaks above Montserrat, Catalonia, from a ruined hermitage

Looking through where the windows of that café would have been…

But it had to be either forward or back, and this time I chose back. And I only have one photo after that, which suggests to me that I put the camera away and got myself down with both hands on something wherever possible. I seem to remember reaching the monastery level hyperventilating somewhat even after the ride down on the funicular. But then, acknowledging that I had in some sense failed in my mission, I had at least to do the walk down to the shrine. And my last photograph is from in there, but I’m going to be precious about that; you should go and see yourself, if you can. I will again, and next time maybe it will be drier and I’ll make it all the way along that path, or indeed to Sant Jaume instead. But for now, this is what I have to show you!


All the ‘facts’ I’ve presented in this post are my probably-dubious memory of local signage, and I’ve not had time to check my recall of them. If anyone knows better please do correct me!

11 responses to “Flying Visit to Montserrat II: the place itself

  1. Well, it seems you’ve just made your first visit to castro Odgario.

    • Maybe! But a search on your own site and in the indices of the Catalunya Carolíngia don’t find me that name. Where are you getting it from?

      • It’s XI-XIII Cth. I’ve wrote about it some years ago: Vilaseca i Corbera, Joan : 2014 : “El Castell Otger de Montserrat” : Recerques sobre l’Alta Edat Mitjana Catalana (III) : p.69-78 and Vilaseca i Corbera, Joan : 2015 : “La quadra de Sant Miquel i el Castell Otger de Montserrat entre els segles XI i XIII”

        Just google-it and you’ll find the blog entries explaining those articles.

  2. Impressive photos, JJ. They remind me of my daughter’s report on her first visit to Switzerland: “bloody hilly.”

  3. I am both afraid of heights and compelled to climb things. Not rock climbing, but castle towers, cathedrals, and any steep trail with stairs are magnets for me. I don’t think anything outdoors has ever frightened me as much as the climb to the top of the dome of St Paul’s. The views and experience are always worth it, but I do sometimes question my sanity! Those stairs to the furthest hermitage are calling my name.

    • How high did you get in St Paul’s? The upper two balconies are on the outside…

      My absolute worst was at the Duomo di Siena. I’m still not sure how I made myself do it. My post about it is here, but for some reason all the portrait-aspect photos in it are now on their sides; I’m not sure what’s happened there but I hope it hasn’t done so anywhere else, as I really haven’t the time to check and fix them!

  4. Pingback: Flying Visit to Montserrat, III: Manresa by night | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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