From loneliness in the city, to solitude amongst the mountains.
Barcelona was not the reason I came to Barcelona.
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.
At the village of Monistrol I debarked, and transferred to the cremallera, a rack railway that wound its way up the side of the mountain at an impossibly steep angle. The track was the only flat point on the mountain, with sheer face rising above us on one side, and dropping away to the river and the town below on the other.
The train entered a tunnel, and we emerged out the other side to find the abbey, nestled within the crevice between two tall ridges. Even in the midmorning nearly all was still closed. Groups of early rising tourists and rockclimbers milled about in the main square. I suddenly remembered that in my haste I had skipped breakfast, and with the café closed, I was left no choice but to buy a pack of premade pastries from the grocer to sustain me. They were dry, but sweet and satisfying.
The plan was to hike to the highest point of the range, the rocky outcrop of Mont Sant Jeroni. It meant a long hike, with the first stage being a funicular railway to the trailhead. But at the (ever later, but still early) hour, the funicular had not yet started running. I had no choice but to follow the old path uphill and south to make my way there. It led me past the St Miguel chapel and to the monumental cross which faced back towards the abbey across an open chasm. I stood there, exposed to the wind and the sun, looking out into the valley far below.
From there it was more path and more uphill climbing to reach the trailhead at Sant Joan and the top of the funicular. The first trip of the day had just arrived, disgorging its passengers. From there I walked to the hermitages of Sant Onofre and Sant Joan; traversing the edge of the cliff face where the residence was carved into the side. It felt amazing to be in a place of such contemplation and solitude.
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.
Eventually, I came to a grove of trees surrounding a building no bigger than a cottage, the Chapel of Sant Jeroni, the last stop before the final ascent to the summit. Through the window of the door one could see a handful of pews, placed before a modest altar and a statue of the saint, depicted in front of a tamed lion, open book beneath his left hand. Sant Jeroni (Saint Jerome or Hieronymus) was a scholar and ascetic, who spent much of his life travelling. It seemed appropriate that I, a scholar and wanderer, would find myself at the door to his chapel, high in the mountains, far from home.
I turned to climb the eponymous mountain, passing upward through rocky forest. Almost out of nowhere, the trees stopped, revealing giant rocks topped by a long staircase to the top. Reaching the summit, I could see far, to the north, the Pyreness, to the west, rolling hills topped with wind turbines. To the south, the curve of the coast, and to the east, the city of Barcelona and the sea, its blue tinted red by the haze of the city. A few hikers rested upon the peak, taking the sun. An old man had set up near the top, armed with a set of binoculars, looking out at distant things that were known to him and him only.
Returning to the abbey came by a different path. Unlike the scrub of the ascent, the descent was through dense forest, following the trail of a creek bed that was still dry from the summer. It was a wholly different landscape, yet barely a few hundred metres from the way I had come. Birdsong echoed off the trees. Insects buzzed to and fro across the path. All was green and shade. Occasionally the path would emerge into a clearing, with open views to the rocky peaks, there as if to remind you that you were still on the mountain.
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.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.