Glenis lives in England. She enjoys travel in the UK and in Western Europe with occasional trips further afield.
When on an escorted coach holiday based at Calella on the Spanish Costa Brava, I took a day trip to the cathedral at Montserrat, perched on a spectacular, multi-peaked mountain that is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal range. It was a day I'll never forget.
Montserrat is less than an hour from Barcelona and the Costa Brava. Nestled near a mountain peak you will find a Benedictine monastery, Montserrat Abbey, the basilica of which holds a shrine to the Black Virgin of Montserrat. Visit for a day, or linger for a few days, enjoying the crisp mountain air and a comfortable bed in a hotel that was formerly a medieval monastery building. Or perhaps stay longer and arrange to make a retreat within the monastery itself.
History of the Black Madonna of Montserrat
Originally known as La Jerosolimitana, the statue was thought to have been fashioned in Jerusalem during the earliest times of the Christian Church. The Black Virgin of Montserrat is nowadays also known as La Morenata or simply as The Madonna of Montserrat. The statue was eventually given to the Bishop of Barcelona, who brought it to Spain.
The Madonna Is Hidden
In the 7th century, the Saracens invaded Spain. Eventually, when it became obvious that Barcelona could no longer hold out, a group of citizens removed the statue from the city and on the 22nd April, 718, hid it in a cave at Montserrat. For almost 200 years, the statue remained hidden. It was not forgotten but details of its location were lost.
The Madonna Is Rediscovered
In 890, shepherd boys from Monistrol at the foot of Montserrat were sent up the mountain with their flocks. At night, they saw lights and heard singing on the mountainside. The matter was reported to the village priest and the investigations led to the discovery of the statue.
A Monastery and Basilica Are Built in Her Honor
The statue was brought down from the cave and a small church was built to house it. The ecclesiastical infrastructure that later developed—the monastery and the basilica—were entirely to facilitate the worship of the Black Virgin of Montserrat. The monastery was completed in 1592.
Despite their protected position on the mountain, the buildings have suffered many onslaughts caused by invaders, civil wars, and rebellions. But the statue has been protected by the custodians. The shrine that houses the statue, situated behind and above the altar, was completed in 1954.
She Becomes the Patron Saint of Catalonia
The Virgin Mary of Montserrat was declared the Patron Saint of Catalonia by Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878–1903). Every year, millions of pilgrims make their way to Montserrat to pay homage to this statue of the Virgin.
According to superstition, the Virgin will intercede to encourage the fertility of a woman who is hoping to become pregnant if she kisses the hand of the statue.
Note: The present statue probably replaces a much earlier model. Byzantine-style art is evident in the long facial features of the Madonna and the Child.
Why Is the Madonna of Montserrat Black?
It is a misconception that the statue is an African representation of the Virgin Mary. It is thought that the dark colour on the face of the Virgin and the Christ Child is discolouration caused over hundreds of years by the tens of thousands of votive candles that have been burned before the statue.
Visiting the Holy Cave of the Madonna of Montserrat
There are two means of reaching the cave where the original statue was discovered by two shepherd boys. Walk the mountainside path or take the funicular. (I chose the latter!)
Note: The Shrine of the Black Madonna is accessed via a steep, narrow staircase which may be too difficult for very small children, the elderly and those with limited mobility.
National Day in Catalonia
The date of my visit to Montserrat fell on the 11th of September, which is the National Day of Catalonia. Montserrat was awash with Catalans who had made a pilgrimage to the Abbey. Hundreds of people queued inside the Basilica to climb the stairs and kiss the hand of the Black Madonna.
Legend has it that if a woman who is hoping for a child performs this ritual, the Virgin will exert a positive influence on her fertility.
The Boys' Choir of the Escolania Montserrat Sings "El Virolai"
The World Famous Montserrat Boys' Choir
One of the oldest boys’ choirs in European history is located in the Escolania (school) at Montserrat, which can be traced back to the 14th century. Nowadays the choir is internationally renowned and gives concert performances all over the world. But its primary role is still to take part in religious ceremonies at the basilica of Montserrat. Arrive at noon and, on most days throughout the year, you will hear the choir give a performance of the Virgin of Montserrat's hymn "El Virolai".
Unfortunately, the choir was not singing on the day that I visited. But the massed voices of the hundreds of members of the congregation were so incredibly moving that it is an experience that will stay with me for a long time.
The Museum at Montserrat
The museum at Montserrat has an extensive collection of 1,300 wonderful paintings, artefacts, and sculptures, both modern and ancient. Just a few examples of those that I loved are the ecclesiastical paintings by Tiepolo and Caravaggio, which mingle with more modern art by a long list of renowned painters which include Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley.
There is also an interesting collection of signed posters by Pablo Picasso. The museum truly is a treasure trove of art where art lovers might easily immerse themselves for hours.
If you're considering a visit to the Shrine, I urge you not to miss a stop at this fabulous and under-used museum and art gallery in Montserrat.
Opening Hours at Montserrat Museum
- Monday–Friday: 10am–5:45pm
- Weekends and feast days (from April 2 to October 30): 10am–6:45pm
- Summer (from June 24 to September 11): 10am–6:45pm
Other Visitor Attractions in Montserrat
- The scenery at Montserrat is so fabulous that it's wonderful simply to relax on a bench or in the picnic area enjoying the mountain air, but there are other things to do.
- Take the opportunity for a walk on one of several mountain paths of varying length and levels of difficulty.
- The visitor shop has lots of souvenirs, local goodies, and books for browsing.
Where to Eat in Montserrat
There are two large cafeterias, two formal restaurants, a bar, a supermarket, and market stalls selling locally produced food items.
- Restaurant Montserrat and Restaurant Abat Cisneros require advance bookings.
- It is not necessary to pre-book at either of the two cafeterias, La Cafeteria and the Self-Service Restaurant.
- The bar sells a limited range of food.
- A small supermarket and market stall selling locally produced products serve the needs of visitors who prefer to picnic in the fresh mountain air. Designated picnic areas with tables and benches are provided.
What to Wear for a Trip to Montserrat
In the Catalonian mountains, wear comfortable layers that can be added or discarded according to the dictates of the weather. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.
If you intend to enter the basilica, the clothing that you wear should indicate a respect for the local customs and values—not too much exposed flesh!
A Video Tour of Montserrat, Catalonia
The National Language of Catalonia
Catalonia is an autonomous state within Spain. The official language throughout Spain is Spanish, but the Catalan language has a special status in Catalonia and is a compulsory subject in all schools. It is estimated that 35% of the population speaks Catalan exclusively and that 11% speak both Catalan and Spanish.
I recommend learning to say bon dia, adéu, and si us plau (Catalonian for good day, goodbye, and please). Knowing these basics will help you establish good relationships with local people.
That said, I have not come across anyone in Catalonia who was unable or unwilling to converse with me in Spanish, which I learned from the excellent Michel Thomas series of CDs whilst commuting to my workplace. His credentials as a language tutor speak for themselves—he has taught presidents and A-list actors to speak various languages. I have tried various different methods of learning Spanish and have found this to be the best by far.
How to Reach Montserrat From Barcelona
- By Bus: There is only one bus each day in each direction. If you miss the return journey, you will probably need to hire a taxi to get to the foot of the mountain.
- By Train: You can buy a pick-and-mix package at the train station which may include tickets for the funicular or rack train (one of which you will have to join at the foot of the mountain), a voucher for lunch at the cafeteria and entrance to the museum.
- By Car: There are 400 parking spaces in the car park next to the monastery (you might have difficulty parking here on national and public holidays) and a free car park with 1,000 spaces further down the mountain (you will need to get on the funicular or the rack train to get up to Montserrat).
- With an Organised Coach Trip: This is what I chose. It saved me the hassle of having to buy train tickets with my limited grasp of the Spanish language.
Stay Overnight in Montserrat
Accommodation is available at:
- The 3-star Hotel Abat Cisneros, which was formerly part of the 16th-century monastery.
- The Abat Marcet budget-priced self-contained apartments, which were constructed in the 1960s.
© 2016 Glen Rix
Gupi on June 11, 2019:
Thanks for that insightful article. Certainly seems like an appealing place to visit.