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

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

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

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

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

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

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

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, mountain, travel

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

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

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

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

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


Pin this to your travel board!

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Out, Up, and Down in Chile’s Valparaíso

Chile is truly an amazing country.  Nature, in and of itself, offers a myriad different possibilities from the Atacama Desert and the salt lakes in the north to the fjords and glaciers down in Patagonia.  But Chile’s urban areas offer some incredible sights and experiences.  And Valparaíso may take the cake as its character is quite unique.  No wonder it is a UNESCO World Heritage site!

Valparaíso sits by the sea but it does not have the almost unmanageable scale of Rio.  It is old (founded in 1536) but does not have the colonial feel of cities like Old San Juan or central Lima.  And though it is large (the greater Valparaiso metro area is Chile’s second largest) and a center of portuary activity, it is not an economic center like Santiago is.  It faces the ocean but it is not where tourists go for their summer beach vacation – that would be neighboring Viña del Mar.  However, what makes Valpo, as it is referred to in Chile, so great is the charm it has which is a combination of its setting and that it has not been spoilt by becoming a megalopolis.

Out to sea

Valparaíso is surrounded by hills and exploring the city is not just exploring sea-level Valpo but exploring its hills.  But before going up those hills, the best thing to do is to admire Valpo’s lay of the land by taking a boat tour in the harbor.

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The boat taking us to cruise the harbor

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Sea lion enjoying the summer day

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Looking back at the town and hills of Valpo (notice a funicular in the center of the photo)

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National Congress (on the left) sits in Valparaiso, not Santiago, the actual capital of Chile

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View across the harbor back towards the center of the city

Up the hills

Valpo is quite famous for the funiculars (or ascensores) that help move people up and down its famous hills.  The oldest funicular was built in 1883 and it is still in service.  Many of these funiculars are an experience onto themselves with very unique stories and some are considered national monuments.

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One of Valparaiso’s famous funiculars – we didn’t take this one

When we went, we were advised by some locals to keep an eye out as we went up to the hills as not all areas above are equally safe for people who look like tourists.  We took the advice and went up making sure we were aware of our surroundings.

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For the sake of the experience, we climbed the stairs…

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… and this cat had a similar, if different, approach to going up.

Valparaiso, Valpo, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

A house perched on one of the hills looks mighty precarious to me… one lil tremor and…

We were rewarded not only with views of the city and sea below, but also by some neat architecture in the hill we visited.

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View from one of Valpo’s hills towards some of the other hills (spot the funicular on this pic!)

Valparaiso, Valpo, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

View from one of Valpo’s hills towards the harbor

Valparaiso, Valpo, architecture, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

House up in one of the hills

Valparaiso, Valpo, architecture, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

Another great sample of the neat architecture around

And then back at sea level

All this being said and done, I just enjoyed walking aimlessly through the city.  Here are some of the images from our exploring “sea-level” Valpo.

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Charming “booth” for a pay phone

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A mess of utility cables… who knows how many legally set up!

Valparaiso, Valpo, street scene, architecture, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

A side street that was not as interesting (they deserve to show up on a website too!)

Valparaiso, Valpo, street scene, bus, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

Street scene

Valparaiso, Valpo, street scene, Chile, travel, tourism, charm, Canon EOS Rebel, photo

Street scene

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Navy Building in Plaza Sotomayor

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Monument to the Heroes of Iquique (war memorial) in Plaza Sotomayor

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Dog laying in the middle of the street (right below where the bus shows)

My favorite souvenir from my year in Chile is a wood carving depicting one of the stairs and funiculars of this charming city.  A great reminder in my every day of this unique town!

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