Well, that’s not strictly true; the trip was booked with the original intent to see Barcelona, but once Montserrat had been mentioned, it became the dominant reason to come. As I wandered through Barcelona feeling lonely, the desire to seek solitude on a mountain top grew ever greater.
Montserrat (literally “saw mountain”) is a mountain range inland from Barcelona, famous both for its geology of weathered stone peaks rising high above the valley, and for the religious village built halfway up its slopes as a retreat and refuge. It is a place of great spiritual significance, with many tiny chapels built further up the mountain, and long decayed hermitages where elderly monks would retreat in contemplation. It is also the home of the Mare de Déu de Montserrat, a holy wooden relic of the Madonna and Child, discovered in the 9th century and considered to have miraculous powers.
Getting there meant an early start, wandering bleary-eyed through empty avenues to catch the morning train out of the city. At the coffee shop, a group of youths stood at the bar knocking back beers, either finishing a long night, or perhaps starting early on the next one. I boarded the train in the darkness of the underground, emerging from the tunnels to witness a hazy sunrise over industrial sprawl.
As we moved further up the river valley of El Plat, the hills began to rise up on either side of the train. Finally, we rounded a curve and Montserrat came into view, dwarfing the rest of the landscape around it. The morning sun reflected off the rocky faces of the cliffs, illuminating even the most sheltered reaches of the river valley that wound along its side. Far up in the distance were the golden buildings of the abbey, bathing in the radiance of the day.
Whilst the solitude of Barcelona was stultifying and lonely, the solitude of the mountains was liberating. Being alone in Barcelona felt out of place, anomalous. Here it was natural. I wandered as a ghost amongst the ghosts of hermits past.
Nearby was a staircase path leading away into the cracks between two cliffs, which I followed, ever climbing upwards. At the top was the hermitage of Santa Magdalena, long given over to the elements. All was ruins, the only sign of habitation being a few scraps of wall that were worn away by years of neglect.
As I walked back to the main path, I remained totally alone, save for the rare hiker that passed by in the other direction. As we passed, we would greet each other in Catalan as if we were lifelong friends, though we were never to meet again. I hiked along the ridge, through dry brush and scrub land. Each curve and change of direction presented a new vista; new rock formations that stood tall above me, views down back to the abbey, long panoramas over the Catalan countryside.
The final part of the descent was an impossibly steep and winding set of stairs that cut down into the valley where the abbey stood. It was now the afternoon, and tour groups and families flocked about the main square, moving between the various buildings of the village.
I feasted on a hearty and filling lunch of sausages, vegetables, and beer, refueling and replenishing after the arduous hike. The restaurant was filled with people speaking a cacophony of languages, the story of Babel reenacted in modern times.
After lunch I walked to the basilica and braved the long queue to visit the sacred relic of the Mare de Déu de Montserrat. I watched the variety of the queue as each took their turn before the ancient statue. Some were true pilgrims, weeping and crossing themselves as they laid their hand upon the orb carried in the right hand of the Madonna, praying and seeking intervention. Others were true tourists, cameras in hand, observing the world through the lens. I, being neither, felt out of place. It felt wrong to touch the statue, being no pilgrim or seeker of miracles, and yet felt a deep awe towards its significance. I bowed gently before it and moved on, the sounds of organ music filling the space of the chapel.
I then took the funicular that dropped down the side of the mountain and walked to the chapel of the Santa Cova (holy grotto), where the relic was discovered. By now my feet had grown tired feet, and so I rested, sitting in a chapel pew, gazing upon the small nook of the cave where many hundreds of years ago a group of shepherds found a statue high above the valley. Beyond the chapel was a small room where pilgrims had left offerings to the statue in appreciation for their intervention. There were many motorcycle helmets. I could only speculate as to why.
The day was closing, and so I hiked back up to the abbey, back to the cremallera, which descended back down into the valley. From there it was a long train ride back to Barcelona. The carriage was filled with tired tourists and pilgrims, who watched the light fade as sunset gave way to twilight, and then darkness. I sat there, feeling solitude, but satisfaction.