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Spain > Montserrat


The popular imagination has seen Montserrat as a huge church organ, an enormous ship, or a magic world of rocky islands rising out of woodland. Its characteristic jagged silhouette, rising in splendid solitude and instantly identifiable from much of the country, make it a mountain like no other: a vast natural altar of stone needles and deep gullies, a paradise for hikers and climbers, but also a haven for pilgrims who come in search of its spirit. Carved out by tiny angels with golden saws... (Amb serra dor, els angelets serraren...")-. this apt description comes from the hymn that epitomizes the sacred mountain: El Virolai. Schiller and Goethe are just two of the travellers and writers from all over the world who have described Montserrat at different periods.

Wagner set his Parsifal there. And tradition has given every rock pinnacle a name of its own: the Mummy, the Elephant, the Cylinder, the Skull, the Magic Friars, the Pregnant Woman, the Scissors, the Parrot, the Nun, the Radish, and so on.

This is the Benedictine monks way of waking up the sacred mountain. They sit in the church, in wooden choir stalls polished by centuries of wear, to recite psalms which are the distillation of centuries of religious tradition. Then they once more take up the strands of life in one of Fjpman Catholicism's most famous places of pilgrimage. Every day of the year, the bells mark the pace of their lives, and so it has gone on since the 11th-century, when Abbot Oliba founded the monastery. Thanks to the communitys continuous presence, devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat, the patroness of Catalonia, is still very much alive, but the monks also run an important publishing house - the oldest in Europe, with 500 years of history - and one of the most ancient and highly reputed choir schools in the Old World. Some fifty boys, aged between ten and fourteen, live alongside the monks, receiving the musical education which gua- rantees the choirs high standards. It is well worth going into the church to hear the Montserrat boys' choir singing the Salve Regina and the Montserrat anthem, Virolai, composed orr a poem by Jacint Verdaguer.

The Basilica of Santa Maria

To reach the basilica we cross a square - Plaga de Santa Maria - which commands a fine view of a group of rock pinnacles known as Santa Magdalena. One is the popular Phrygian Bonnet and we can often glimpse the tiny figures of climbers clambering up to the top, Alongside the monastery's imposing fagade are the remains of the 15th-century Gothic cloister. At the foot of the fagade is the entrance to the atrium, a space midway between the outer squares, teeming with visitors, and the inner tranquillity of the monastery.

The doorway of the earlier Romanesque church is still visible inside the atrium, and there are Renaissance tombs carved in Naples, and sculptures by Rafael Solanich, Josep Clara and Frederic Mares. From the inner courtyard, which has paving inspired by that of the Campidoglio in Rome, the entire fagade of the basilica, built in 1900-1901 over an earlier Baroque fagade, can be seen. On it are sculptures of Jesus and the twelve apostles, a large rose window, and a hundred-year-old clock. The present @ 16th-century basilica has a nave, twelve side chapels - six on either side and a Renaissance-style ground plan. High above the main altar stands the polychrome wooden statue of the Madonna, which was carved in the 12th or 13th-century. She is nick- named La Moreneta (the little dark lady) because of her dark face and hands. She receives hundreds of visitors a day: some come out of religious devotion, others are tourists and sightseers. On their way up to her niche, they pass through several rooms that were refurbished in 1944 by various Catalan artists.

The Madonnas silver throne was made from the proceeds of a collection organized in 1947.

Montserrat, a Place of Culture

The Museu de Montserrat has an impressive archeological section devoted to the Biblical East. Most of the exhibits were acquired by one of the monks on his travels through the Middle East. The other star attraction is the collection of modern paintings and sculptures, which includes pictures by El Greco, Caravaggio, Berruguete, Picasso, Dali, Tapies, Le Corbusier, Fortuny, Vayreda, Casas, Mir, Nonell, Rusinol and many others. Other sections are devoted to earlier paintings, liturgical gold and silverware, and the iconography of the Madonna of Montserrat over the ages. The monastery library is an impressive documentation and study centre which attests to the intellectual and cultural activity of the Benedictine monks. It contains 270,000 volumes, including approximately 400 incunabula (some printed in the monastery itself) and over 2,000 manuscripts. Among them is the remarkable Uibre Vermeil, an encyclopaedic manuscript dating from the 14-16th centuries. Over the years Montserrat has been, not merely a religious and cultural icon, but a major patriotic rallying point and has endorsed the cause of movements in defence of Catalan identity.

Mechanical Devices

One can drive up to this world of fantasy by taking the road from Monistrol to the monastery. But the trip is even more exciting if we take the cog railway, which makes the 500-metre ascent up a vertiginous track that clings to the rock and affords stunning views. The Montserrat cable cars are also very popular. The yellow tubs are hauled along steel cables from the foot of the mountain to the monastery and for decades the tiny dots, dangling over the void against the immense rock face, have been a characteristic sight - indeed a veritable symbol - of Montserrat.

Montserrat Curd Cheese

For many years a daily market of local produce has been held at the entrance to the monastery. A prime speciality is mato, a curd cheese made mostly in the village of Marganell, which nestles at the foot of the mountain. Honey, cheesecake, fig loaf and other products made by traditional methods are also on sale, while above the market towers the neo-Romanesque apse of the monastery of Santa Maria.

Ora et labora

The monastery of Montserrat originated in a tiny chapel - Santa Maria - which is documented as early as 888. The chapel is gone, but vestiges of the 12th-century Romanesque church that replaced it still remain. The present basilica was built in Renaissance style in the 16th-century. Today, as in centuries gone by, the eight monastery bells - one of which weighs 7 500 kilos - peal out for matins from

Short Outings from the Monastery

To get an overall view of the monastery, most people take a short walk from Plaga de IAbat Oliba along the stone path up the mountain to the lookout point of Sant Miquel, surmounted by a great cross, which overlooks the chasm and offers a wide panorama. A funicular departs from the beginning of the path and descends to another path, on a slightly lower level, leading to the Santa Cova, It was in this cave, according to tra- dition, that the statue of the Madonna was disco- vered. All along the path stand the fifteen sculptures of the Monumental Rosary, some of which are by Puig i Cadafalch, Gaudi and Josep Uimona.

The Natural Park

The mountain of Montserrat was declared a Natural Park in 1987. It is a fascinating place to explore, a unique environment and distinctive landscape in which over 1 000 plant species have been inventoried, a third of all those that grow in Catalonia. Many generations of hikers and climbers have perfected their skills on Montserrat. Countless hidden tracks and paths wind in and out of the rock faces and pinnacles, making it possible to explore the range in all directions. The mountain rises sheer from the valley and its slopes are steep. A good map should be carried at all times. There are hundreds of climbing routes of all levels of difficulty. Montserrat is a whole world just waiting to be discovered.

The Surrounding Area

There are plenty of places to visit in the vicinity of the legendary mountain.

Nestling below its loftiest pinnacles, for instance, beside the road to Can Magana, is a Romanesque church dedicated to Saint Cecilia. Or one can explore the Coves de Salnitre (saltpetre caves) near Collbato. The tour, which lasts an hour, takes in half a kilometre of chambers and galleries with names like the Cathedral Room, the cave of El Mansuet, the Butterfly Gallery, the Devils Well, the Monks Cloister, the Niche, the Devils Wings, the Bishop and the Confessional.

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