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.
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.
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.
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.
My first photo from the top makes it clearer why you have so little sight of mountaintops in this post.
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…
… 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.
And this is (some of) what you find. Some of the hermitages are still in use, or could be; some really aren’t.
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.
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… ?
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!