“Two Hours” on Montserrat

This past weekend, I took a day trip with two of my friends to Montserrat with the intention of writing about the experience for this blog entry.  The following is said blog entry.  It is a fantastic tale about exceeded expectations, sacred monasteries, “magic”, misread show times, the real meaning of “Spanish time”, improper footwear, survival instincts, angels, Italian food, self-discovery, and many, many life lessons.

Montserrat Life Lesson #1: Have expectations?  Get rid of them.  Because no matter what you expect to see/hear/taste/feel/ experience/whatever, your expectations will be incomparable to reality.

I had wanted to visit the mountain range of Montserrat that lies just Northwest of Barcelona both when I thought it was El Escorial that actually resides in Madrid, and after I found out what it actually is.  Montserrat, in reality, is a place very dear to the Catalans’ hearts and is most known for the magnificent monastery built into it that houses La Moreneta, the Black Madonna, patron saint of Catalan.  I was already extremely excited about visiting Montserrat after one of my favorite teachers had told my class that Montserrat is a “magical place” that is hard to describe, but has an “energy” that you feel when you go, so when my friend asked if I wanted to join her and a few other friends and go a week earlier than I had initially planned, I emptied out my camera’s memory card and cleared my weekend.

Getting to Montserrat is actually incredibly easy.  You can buy a combination train/cable car or train/cremallera ticket that will take you an hour outside of Barcelona to the mountain and then up to the monastery.  I highly recommend taking the cable car because it is faster, offers a great view, and plus, how many can say that they rode a cable car up into the skies of Spain?  Now, you can Google image search Montserrat and scroll through a plethora of great, artistic photos from the top of the mountain, but I can assure you that no panoramic photo can compare to experiencing the sight with your own eyes.  As such, I can’t even being to describe the sight from the monastery, because I simply cannot do it justice.  But I can, at the very least, show you a photo I took in order to give you a myopic glimpse.  Luckily, it was a particularly beautiful day in Catalonia:

View from Montserrat Monastery
View from Montserrat Monastery

Montserrat Life Lesson #2: Double, triple, and quadruple check the dates and times for any performance you ever attend, ever.

Now, aside from seeing the famous monastery, feeling the “magic energy” that permeates the mountain, and acquiring material for my blog, the other reason I really wanted to visit Montserrat was to hear the famous Escolania Boys’ Choir.  I learned about the boys’ choir in my Barcelona guide book and how they move to Montserrat in order to attend boarding school, endure a two year-long selection process into the choir, and perform once a day in the basilica inside the monastery.  In other words, to experience their performance in-person is a one-of-a-kind, probably once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Now, the boys’ choir performs once a day around 13:30pm (1:30pm for those of us not yet that comfortable with military time).  So, since we got to the monastery around Noon, my friends and I decided we would grab some lunch inside the Montserrat cafeteria and then head into the basilica to ensure excellent, video-recording seats.  Now I must say, the exterior of the monastery is beautiful, of course, but in comparison to other monasteries around the world, it’s nothing particularly outstanding.  However, once you walk inside, you enter into a completely different world.  Again, I cannot even begin to do justice to the beauty of the monastery’s interior with words, and can only provide a crude picture:

Monastery Interior
Monastery Interior

After sitting in the front pew of the basilica in preparation for the boys’ choir and watching a man set up for what seemed like a sermon, I decided to pull out my guide book to double check the time of the performance.  Upon closer examination of my guide book’s Montserrat chapter, my friends and I learned that the boys’ choir does perform once a day, SUNDAY TO FRIDAY.  It was Saturday.

Monastery Candles
Monastery Candles

After the soul-crushing realization that Saturday is the day between Friday and Sunday, we continued to explore the rest of the monastery.  We took pictures of the marble work and stained glass, listened to part of the ongoing sermon in Castilian (or maybe Catalan?) via the echoes through the basilica, sang “Like a Prayer” to the Black Madonna herself, and lit a candle for the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin Mary
Roughly translated from Catalan: "Lord, we ask that the protection of the Virgin Mary always accompany those with faith and hope (that are) pilgriming in this world to you."

Montserrat Life Lesson #3: If you’re planning on doing anything mildly active that is outside of your day-to-day routine, plan accordingly.  This includes bringing ample amounts of water, something to snack on, weather-appropriate clothing, and in my case, shoes that are more comfortable and supportive than Converse.

From the monastery, it was decided that we would take advantage of the beautiful Saturday (which again, comes AFTER Friday and BEFORE Sunday) and go for a hike along one of Montserrat’s many scenic trails.  Since we had dedicated the entire day to Montserrat, we decided that we would hike the longest of the trails and that we would take our time enjoying the silent beauty of being away from the bustling city life.  We acquired a map of the routes from the local information office and chose the red trail which had a difficulty level of “medium-high” and which was “approximately 2-2.5 hours.”  We then asked a local worker where the start of the trail was, and after smiling and thanking him for showing us where the trail began and for letting us know that it was a “mucho caminar, no?”, we began our adventure!  Little did we know how much of an adventure we had actually gotten ourselves into.

Now, hiking along the trails of Montserrat is a fantastic, active way to spend a Saturday (again: Fri, Sat, Sun).  The trails are marked with different colors of paint indicating the different routes to ensure that none of the hikers, families, pilgrims on their way to Santiago, and naive study abroad students will get lost in the mountainside.  The red path was beautiful and we have many beautiful pictures to prove it, such as:

Montserrat Trail Scenic View
Montserrat Trail Scenic View

At some point along the way though, it occurred to us that perhaps the sign posts that kept appearing every now and then indicating that we still had 3 hours and 55 minutes to to go, were trying to tell us something.  But the trail pamphlet that we were given said that it was only a 2-2.5 hour trail and therefore, there was NO WAY that the trail would be any longer than that…right?  That’s what we concluded, anyway.  Around hour 2.5 or so, we began to think otherwise.  It was also around this time when we realized a few other things: 1. we hadn’t seen anyone else along our trail in over an hour, 2. the trail was beginning to appear increasingly less traveled, 3. the sun was going down, and 4. according to a recent sign post, we still had 2+ hours to go.  Preferring to not wander around in the mountains of a foreign country, alone and in the dark, we picked up our pace.  Eventually, like a lighthouse signaling our return home, we saw a sign post informing us that our destination was only 15 minutes away.  Finally, we would soon be back at the monastery on our way down the mountain in a cable car to the train station that would then take us back to Barcelona where we would be able to rest.  Well, we eventually reached the end of the red trail.  Fact: it did not end where it began.

Montserrat Life Lesson #4: Angels are real and they are bilingual, drive red Hondas, and have great taste in music.

In the middle of a park/dirt parking lot/highway at dusk, with no clue as to where we were, no inhabited buildings in a visible distance, and staring at a sign that read “Montserrat: 9km”, we began to worry a little (a lot).

"Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here"
"Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here"

Fortunately, with a good few semesters of college Spanish under our belts, we were able to ask the few people who were around for help.  Unfortunately, the only things they were able to communicate back to us were either how far away Montserrat was (which again, was 9km, which in case you don’t know, is equivalent to about 5.59 miles) or that they did not have enough room to drive all of us where we needed to be.  Later that day we discussed how at this point along our journey we had all begun to simultaneously imagine the following, in no logically consistent order, but separated by semi-colons:
If we have to camp out here, we’ll only be, like, 7 hours without sunlight before we can start hiking back; we can go without food until tomorrow; walking 8km of highway can’t be that bad; if we call our program’s emergency number, it would still take a director a few hours to find a car, drive here from Barcelona, and then somehow find us wherever we are on this mountain; hitchhiking along the highway isn’t that dangerous; we can huddle for warmth; do police provide escort?; how much will a taxi be from here?; we are three educated, perfectly capable college students, how did this happen?!

At some point along this stream of consciousness, a man amongst a large group of people who had no room left to drive us anywhere, asked us if we had ask the couple getting into the red Honda for assistance.  We proceeded to do so.

This couple, whoever they are, were heaven-sent.  Not only did they speak very good English and take the time to figure out where we needed to go, but they also drove us the 20 MINUTE distance (turns out walking would have been that bad) to the train station in the opposition direction of where they were headed, came into the station with us to make sure we got on the right train, and then refused to let us pay them for gas and for helping us.

Maybe it’s because we rubbed the orb of La Moreneta , or lit a candle asking for the Virgin Mary’s protection, or karma paying us back for our good deeds.  Whatever the reason, we are so grateful for those two people whose names we don’t even know.  They are, without a doubt, angels.

Montserrat Life Lesson #5: Never assume anything about a person, because you never know if they might save you from being stranded up in the Spanish mountains or if they just hiked for four hours straight and were almost stranded up in the Spanish mountains.

Exhausted, covered in dirt, and slightly bleeding from some scratches acquired during our many falls, we eventually made it back to Barcelona and rewarded ourselves with the greatest comfort food of all: Italian, from Gino’s Ristorante, which I’m pretty sure is the Olive Garden of Spain.

My teacher told me that Montserrat was a magical place and after the adventure that I had there, I can sincerely agree with her and say that it is.  I honestly learned a lot about myself  in just those “two hours” that I spent on that mountain.  If ever you are in Spain, you must visit Montserrat.  You simply must.

P.S.  My friends and I are going back in two weeks, NOT on a Saturday.  ;)

Martin Drafton
Barcelona, Spain
Spring 2012

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