What to do with one day yet in Barcelona before the cruise weighs anchor? There’s plenty of ground yet unturned in the city, but there’s also an intriguing day-trip site of a completely other flavor that begs to be on a Barcelona short list.
The Monastery of Montserrat – also called the Abbey of Montserrat or Santa Maria de Montserrat – sits at the edge of the Pyrenees about 30 miles from Barcelona. Founded by the Benedictines in the 11th century, it’s tucked into a mountain of the same name that rises to more than 4,000 feet.
Since tour bus service from Barcelona is non-stop and everything at the other end is very walkable, it makes sense to sidestep car-rental-and-parking-spot-search and grab an uninterrupted chance to enjoy the great scenery.
The ascent starts gently, but it’s not long before rock formations begin to sprout. These are not the sharp-toothed mountains of Colorado or the Alps, but weathered monoliths on which the angles are all now worn to curves.
As the bus approaches, the monastery grows picture postcard perfect out of the mountain not as much perched upon it as embraced by it. The architecture here is Romanesque, and buildings including a basilica and belltower are arrayed around a classic courtyard.
The “Santa Maria” part of the abbey’s name comes from a Madonna-and-child statue carved in dark wood that’s the centerpiece of the basilica. She is one of only about 500 Black Madonna artworks to survive the Catholic Church’s remake of Christian art in a European image, and she is known affectionately among Catalonians as La Moreneta… the little dark-skinned one.
Paradoxically, Ignatius Loyola laid down his arms at the icon’s feet before founding the Jesuits and in 1881 Pope Leo XIII declared her the patroness saint of Catalonia!
There’s more to Montserrat than worship, though. This monastery was a productive community that provided for itself and was very engaged in the world around it.
The Benedictines have been printing books here since 1499, and the monastery houses one of the oldest continuously operating printing presses in Europe.
The celebrated Montserrat Boys Choir – the Escolania de Montserrat – sings at least once daily in the basilica and on select dates gives more extended performances.
The basilica museum houses sculptures and paintings by artists including works by El Greco, Dalí, and Picasso.
Did I mention that wine’s been made here for centuries?!
Wherever there’s traffic there’s a market, and Montserrat is no exception. Here the merchants all looked like mothers and grandmothers. Everything for sale looked to be both homemade and edible; there was not a Montserrat T-shirt or baseball cap in sight!
The funicular’s upward and downward trams share the same mountainside track, and those with an inclination can hike further up to a lookout point from which it is claimed that the island of Majorca is visible on a clear day.
As the tram descends and the monastery grows ever larger, it really sinks in that in medieval Europe there were a lot worse jobs than being a monk!
Monastery at Montserrat, Spain
Monastery at Montserrat, Spain
Courtyard market, Monastery at Montserrat
Antonio Ramblés’ books include the novels Mirasol Redemption and Lifelines, and the short story collection Laguna Tales. His work also appears in the anthologies Embracing the Fog and Mexico: Sunlight & Shadows. His blog Antonio Ramblés Travels shares observations on journeys across the U.S., Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. His travel photos are featured on Pinterest and he is a Senior Contributor to TripAdvisor. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Ramblés’ studied journalism at the University of Miami. His fiction and commentary have appeared in El Ojo del Lagosince 2006.