Visiting Montserrat, Spain: Spectacular Site and Views

Montserrat, Spain is host to a Benedictine abbey (Santa Maria de Montserrat) that sits grandly at around 4,000 ft of altitude.  Its name literally translates to “serrated mountain” – which is appropriate as it is a jagged-topped mountain that rises up the Catalonian landscape.  It is an amazing site for several reasons.  For the faithful, it is home to the Virgin of Montserrat (the “black virgin”).  For the hiker, it is a neat place to trek up – and not a hard hike.  And for the traveler, it is a great destination offering great views, great architecture, cultural perspective, and a thrill just to get up to it!

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View upon exiting the railway station

 

Some History on Montserrat (but not too much!)

The monastery atop Montserrat has been around since the 10th century – it is still a functioning monastery.  It is absolutely mind boggling to me to think it has been there over a thousand years!  (I even read that it has been an important religious site since Roman times before Christ.). St. Ignatius of Loyola came to this site to pray/contemplate and, eventually, went on to found the Jesuit order in the Catholic Church.  Most recently the monastery suffered closure during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the killing of 22 of its monks (lots of religious were killed by the Communist side of the Civil War).  The basilica itself is not that old and has suffered through wars and fires.  The basilica has a museum with art work that includes the likes of Picasso, Dali, and El Greco.  The statue of the black virgin that sits above and behind the main altar of the basilica is supposedly from Holy Land origins in the early days of Christianity though others believe it was carved many centuries later (Middle Ages).

Getting to Montserrat

Montserrat is easily accessible whether you have a car or you take a train from Barcelona.

If you are driving, you are basically headed to Monistrol de Montserrat.  We came from Andorra via Lleida and it was easy to find though at the very end, exactly how to get to our destination took a little more guesswork…  If you are coming from Barcelona, well, it is just about 45 minutes away.

Once there, your options for parking are parking up at the monastery (parking is limited and it is not free), or parking by one of the two railway stations.  Where you park is really based on how you want to go up.  As I mentioned, you can drive up.  You can also hike up if you are so inclined; I did not hike up but hear the trail round trip is about 20km and the trail is relatively easy and fairly ‘stepped.’

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At Monistrol-Vila railway station’s parking area – notice the mural showing the ascent and the mountaintop!

Now if you don’t want to drive up or walk up, then you have two options:  the cable car (or “Aeri”) or the inclined railway (“Cremallera“).  They both are easy ways to go up but you need to decide before you get there as each is taken from a different point around the area.  Both the cable car and railway have frequent departures which vary depending on the season you visit – schedules are posted online and at the stations.

If you take the train in from Barcelona, you will arrive at the lower station, Monistrol de Montserratu, where you can take the railway.  If you drive, you can opt to drive a little further up and park at the railway station Monistrol-Vila; there was open parking for buses and a parking deck for the rest of us.  We opted to start at Monistrol-Vila as there was ample free parking, and the station was clean and new.  If you do use this station, remember that on the way down, you get off at the first stop of the railway!

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At the railway station

We opted for the railway as we had heard that it allows more time to absorb the scenic views (the cable car only takes 5 mins whereas the railway takes between 15-20 mins) and it is pretty amazing to climb the slopes of the mountain via the train.  The train is very comfortable and the views were indeed great.  The cost was around 10 euros for the round trip.   Note that there are packages you can get for entrance to the museum, audio guides, etc.

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Looking down towards Monistrol de Montserrat from the Cremallera

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Heading up the Cremallera, a small green train can be seen on its way down

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My Mom not realizing the down train was about to pass us!

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The Cremallera railway station atop Montserrat to the right

It is worth noting that one can go even higher up the mountain via a second funicular (Funicular de Sant Joan) located behind the railway station atop Montserrat!  It does not take long but, again, we were pressed for time so I had to skip that, regretfully.

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A second funicular can take you to the highest point in Montserrat

My research showed there were a couple of places to stay on the mountain but I did not look into it.  I do imagine it is a spectacular place to stay and watch the sun set and rise…

Visiting the basilica and the Virgin of Montserrat

Once you get up, everything atop Montserrat is in close proximity.  There is some slope to walk up towards the basilica and monastery complex but it is a nice short walk.   When you leave the railway station, you can go straight up some steps into the walkway up, or you can make a left and avoid the steps and walk up an incline; this last approach passes a little market shop and a small cafe in case you need to eat or drink something.

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Walking up towards the monastery and basilica (there are restrooms in this alley)

Along the way up, you will pass the museum and one of the places of lodging.  And then you enter the area they call the “atrium.”  It is a large plaza with some arches that afford views down towards the railway station and way beyond.  At that point, the basilica/monastery complex is in front of you but to see the facade of the basilica, you need to enter through some arches into a small inner courtyard.

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At the so-called “atrium” – a plaza with great views

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Turning around with the basilica/monastery behind me

When we entered that courtyard, we saw a bride and groom who were about to get married.  Thankfully, the event did not close the visit to see the Virgin of Montserrat (also called the black virgin due to the color of the paint applied to it over centuries).

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The entranceway towards the basilica facade

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Inner courtyard of the Montserrat basilica

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Detail of the basilica’s facade

The interior of the basilica felt heavy and dark to me but not so much to be drab.  If there were no tourists, I would definitely feel like I could calm my soul and pray in peace.

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Heavy Gothic feel to the interior of the basilica

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A rather darkish yet gold-heavy interior

The statue of the virgin sits in a narrow passageway above the high altar.  You can see it from anywhere in the church (you can see someone in a blue jacket above the altar in some of my pictures; how convenient for my photo-taking!) but to visit it face-to-face, you stand in line in the inner courtyard off to the right and you proceed along the side chapels of the basilica, up several stairs and, eventually a very narrow staircase  to individually get to see, touch and pray to the Virgin.  Photos are not allowed once by the statue (there is a guard) but I took a photo at the bottom of the steps so you can visualize the space at least.

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The statue of the Virgin with a faithful wearing a blue jacket

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Left: Initial staircase up. Right: the final steps and the statue at the top

As throughout the rest of the trip around Spain and France, I felt blessed to be able to come to this important Catholic site following our visit to Lourdes atop an amazing mountain in Spain with my wonderful mother and sister!!  Thanks for coming with me!

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With my Mom and sister


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Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

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There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

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Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

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At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

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At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

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The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

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Our wheels in Europe

 

In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

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Salud!


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