“Nowhere but in his own Montserrat will a man find happiness and peace”
I first visited Montserrat over 20 years ago, on a day trip from the coast. It was summer and our coach accompanied many others winding their way up the mountain to the revered pilgrimage site where the Virgin of Montserrat resides. According to the information office, Montserrat received 2 million visitors last year and in the summer months that can be up to 5000 in one day.
Luckily, January is a much quieter time to visit and, on this bright winter’s day, I am joined by only a few Asian tours groups, an American school party and some individuals. First, I pay my respects to the Virgin by following the corridor of side chapels and up the marble staircase to where she sits enthroned, looking down upon the congregation of the basilica through an arched window. Then I pick up a leaflet from the information office and read about the many walks in the area.
Although the monastery site is in the shadow of the mountain, I can see the sun is shining high above, so I take the funicular up to the Tarantulas Plain with a large number of loud, American teenagers and a terrified Spanish grandmother.
At one point, there were 300 hermitages dotted around the mountains and a path from the upper funicular station takes me to the site of two of them, St Joan and St Onofre, which were originally built around natural caves. I find a secluded spot in the sun with a spectacular view and enjoy a picnic lunch, until the teenagers catch up with me and so I decide it is time to move on. Retracing my steps to the funicular, I then follow a long, but easy, downhill route back to the monastery, via the chapel of Sant Miquel.
“What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours.”
Stanley Adams / Dinah Washington
The next day I can no longer see the valley below due to low lying cloud, or the peaks of the mountain, which are also shrouded. However, I can see the destination of my morning walk – the chapel of Santa Cova, built on the site of the cave where the Virgin was first discovered in 880. Legend says that some shepherd boys saw a bright light on the mountain, and when this was investigated with the local priest, they found the cave and the image of the Virgin inside. However, when they tried to remove her to the town of Manresa, they got no further than the site of the present monastery, where she became too heavy to move and so a shrine was built around her. It was also said that she was carved by St Luke and bought to Spain by St Peter in 50AD, though as the Virgin has been dated to the 12th century this cannot possibly be true.
As I climb back up to the monastery complex, it starts to rain, so I treat myself to a hot cup of coffee in the self-service cafeteria. It could easily seat several hundred people, and there’s another, even larger restaurant next to the coach park, though it is currently closed. The cafeteria is linked to a long shopping area, so I don’t have to go back out into the rain. Postcards, books, CDs and many religious souvenirs are on offer but I prefer to spend my money on entrance to the Audio-visual Centre where I can learn more about the mountain, the monastery and the history of this fascinating place. A short introductory video is followed by a display of key historical dates for both the monastery and the world. Then further videos inform me about the increasing popularity of the pilgrimage site and the modern day monastic life of the monks who live there. The final section is about the Escolania, the music and choral school for young boys, who perform daily in the basilica for a brief, though magical moment. The Audio-visual tour concludes with an enthralling music video, using three separate screens to show the two opera singers, the choir and the magnificent mountain scenery of Montserrat.
For me, Montserrat is not the spiritual sanctuary, or the myth of the Madonna, but it is the majestic mountains and the memorable music.