Photo by Purabi Sinha Das Location: Montserrat, Spain

I had never heard of this place until we planned to visit Barcelona.

Montserrat or Jagged Mountain, about 45 km northwest of Barcelona is Catalonia’s most important religious retreat; groups of people from all over Spain hike in this region at least once in their lifetime. It is also the highest point of the Catalan lowlands and rises 4,055 feet above the valley floor. The only way to get around this place is on foot.

With limited time at our disposal we did not have the luxury of an overnight stay opting for a half-day tour, instead. I am ever so thankful we did decide to come here.

On the second day in Barcelona we made our way to Plaza Espanya train station (checking the Barcelona metro map ahead of time was a good idea) and followed the signs for the R5 train. Our tickets, purchased the day before, would take us right to the bottom of the mountain, then a ride on the Rack Railway (Cog rail) which would pull us up on the steep slopes to the final destination.

We got off at our designated station, Monistrol de Montserrat, then a ride on the Rack Railway and we were at the foot of the mountains. My jaw dropped at the sheer beauty of this place. Craning my head, I looked up the steep slopes and out of the corner of my eye saw an Eagle soaring far above, in the clear blue sky. The top of the mountain seemed completely inaccessible. How, in the world, did the monks build their monastery, I wondered. The view from the mountain top is gorgeous, while the cathedral itself is breath-taking.

We had come here to see the Black Madonna, patron saint of Catalonia, housed in the Santa Maria de Montserrat the Benedictine abbey. Believed to have been carved in Jerusalem in the early days of the church, it is a Romanesque sculpture in wood from the late 12th century and being one of the black Madonnas of Europe, also lovingly called by the familiar Catalan name, la Moreneta – The little dark-skinned one. It is believed that the Benedictine monks could not move the statue to construct their monastery. So, they chose to build around it.

We lined up to get closer to this holy place the statue’s sanctuary located at the rear of the chapel where an altar of gold surrounds the icon in the basilica of the monastery. It is now a site of pilgrimage – Lady of Montserrat. Along with others I, also, had a chance to lay my hand on this holy spot and say a short prayer. I leave with a sense of awe, this place has seen millions of pilgrims through the ages.

The abbey also houses the Publicacions de l’abadia de Montserrat, a publishing house, the oldest press in the world, still running, with the first book published in 1499.

The mountain itself has been of religious importance since pre-Christian time. Before Christ a temple to worship Venus was built by the Romans. The first construction by monastery monks was reported to have been around 880AD.

At the time of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain the Catalans were forbidden to speak their own language, but the monastery put up fierce resistance for which a number of the monks were executed. This resistance has made the monastery an important symbol of the Catalan sense of independence for which the people of the region are still grateful.

When we planned this journey to Montserrat we had also planned to visit Santa Cova, often referred to as the Holy Grotto which is situated at the bottom of the mountain on the opposite side from where we had disembarked from the train. We took the funicular that took us part of the way, but there was still a lot of walking downhill. Partway down when we were upon St. Michael’s Walk and there was yet more to go, we made the wise decision not to carry on, for the walk back uphill would be punishing. We were devastated for the Grotto is a holy place.

Here’s the story of Santa Cova – dating back to 880 on a Saturday evening some shepherd children saw a great light from the sky followed by divine singing. They ran to get their parents and the same sight and sound happened a second time. This continued for four Saturdays and was also witnessed by the rector of the nearby town of Olesa. When the Bishop of Manresa heard about it he organized a trip to visit the mountain on a Saturday – this time the image of the Virgin Mary was sighted by all.  They tried to take the image in a procession to the city of Manresa but found it impossible; this was considered to be an act of divine intervention and believed the image had to be worshipped at Montserrat. It just could not be moved. Ever since, the cave has been a site of worship with people coming here as pilgrims to pray to the Virgin Mary and ask for help.

Although I could not visit the Holy Grotto I was thankful I had made it part of the way and had been to the Cathedral. This trip to Montserrat will live on in my heart for a very long time.

Keep Well….Keep Smiling

                                                                                                                 Purabi Das

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