During a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I decided to forsake Gaudi’s city for a day tour into the surrounding countryside. With no prior knowledge of the destination, I made my way from my hotel on La Barceloneta to the meeting point next to the Palau de la Música Catalana, an art nouveau concert hall known for its ornate facade and opulent auditorium. Blithely following the tour guide, I traipsed through the alleyways of the upper Gothic area, ignorant to the fact I was walking the streets of Daniel Sempere’s neighborhood, the young protagonist of one of my favorite books, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
On our arrival at Plaça de Catalunya, the central hub of Barcelona, we boarded a bus and headed north toward a prominent rock formation that rose from the surrounding landscape, stretching high into a blue sky feathered with wisps of cloud. Our destination was Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 10th century, located on Montserrat, Catalan for ‘serrated mountain’. Forty minutes later, as we began to wind our way up into the rocky range, the mountain’s distinctive geology soon became apparent. As with a child who sculpts a castle from a mound of wet sand, the mountain range looked as if a giant hand had dragged its fingers down the mountain face, digging deep into the substratum to leave behind a heavily scored façade. According to our guide, these towering columns had been the inspiration for the towers of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s famous Basilica, started in 1882, yet to be completed.
The abbey lay nestled within the mountain’s towers and crags, a going concern, with over one hundred and fifty monks still in residence. Thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage to this holy site every year, drawn in part by a shrine to an image of the Virgin of Montserrat, a Black Madonna and patron saint of Catalonia. The complex also boasts a prestigious boys’ music school which showcases the Escolania, the Montserrat’s Boys’ Choir, one of the oldest in Europe. There is also a museum which houses works by El Greco, Dalí, Picasso and more; a publishing house, which has one of the oldest presses in the world still running (its first book published in 1499); and a hostel, which offers accommodation to hikers eager to explore Montserrat’s many trails, climbers hoping to scale the rugged cliff faces or pilgrims setting out from one of the lesser known starting points of the Camino de Santiago.
Not initially impressed by what looked to be a very commercialized enterprise, I paid for a ticket to one of two funiculars, the one that headed up the mountain. We’d just finished a tour of the abbey grounds, during which we learned of the sacking and near destruction of the abbey by Napoleon’s troops and the violent suppression of the abbey’s inmates during the Spanish Civil War. A quick glance at my watch told me I was on a tight time budget if I wanted to hear the performance of the famed boys’ choir in the Basilica at 1 pm.
During the funicular’s steady climb to the top of the rock formation, I wondered why it was that monasteries around the world, of varied religions, were frequently to be found at seemingly unreachable heights. To be closer to God? To demonstrate devotion by the challenge of the construction? To live high up in the clouds, secluded from the rest of society?
The views from the top soon put paid to my ruminations, as did a glance at my watch. There were two directions from which to access the maze of trails that littered the mountain top. If I wanted to explore both directions and be back down at the abbey by noon, I would have to hit the trails hard. I struck off to the right, setting a small structure in the distance as my goal to reach within fifteen minutes. Munching on an apple I had pilfered from the hotel lobby that morning, I made good time, even with quick stops to capture the views with my camera. The structure turned out to be a miniature chapel, with panoramic views of the rugged mountains and the plains far below, a perfect setting in which to commune with your God, your soul, or nature, whatever your proclivities. As much as I wanted to explore a series of caves within sight of the chapel and which had once been a hermitage, I retraced my steps back to the funicular station. I continued past, heading left this time to a section of the trail which offered bird’s eye views of the abbey complex below. Wishing I had more time to explore the mountaintop, a perfect setting for a romantic thriller, I made the return journey down the mountain.
Aware there was another trail that led from the abbey to a cross at a mountain’s edge, I decided to allow forty minutes to see how far I could make it before heading back to the Basilica. I reckoned this should still give me ample time to find a seat to watch the boys’ performance at 1:00. Backpack hugging my shoulders, I set off, my sights trained on my destination, only to find myself stopping every fifty meters or so, distracted by a raft of sculptures. Made of stone, bronze or plaster, they were mostly religious pieces, located either along the track or tucked into grottos, the natural backdrops creating a whimsical blend of art and nature. Needless to say, I didn’t make it anywhere near the cross, reluctantly turning back at the appointed time to make my way down hill to keep my date with the choir.
Hurrying through the abbey’s inner courtyard, I eyed the long lineup to see the Black Madonna, suppressing the guilt that I preferred to find my spirituality amongst the hills rather than in an image of a saint. As I stepped into the Basilica, my heart sank at the sight of a packed church. All that planning in vain, only to feel chastised, once again, that my priorities were not aligned with the faithful. Standing room only, I stood at the back, finding myself forced to brush elbows with the congregation as the church continued to fill. Letting my eyes wander around the gold gilt interior, movement in an archway, incongruously located above and behind the altar, caught my attention. Puzzling over the placement of the archway and the people filing past, it finally dawned on me that this must be where the Black Madonna was housed and that the people drifting past were good Catholics paying homage to their patron Saint.
The crowd began to stir and a line of boys aged nine to fourteen walked out to form a semicircle around the alter. The Basilica went deathly quiet and after a beat or two, the voices of angels filled the air. I surprised myself when tears filled my eyes. To hear those young voices lifted in song within the vaulted ceilings of the Basilica was truly a privilege, one of those moments you know you will never forget, a magical culmination to my time spent racing around the hills of this sacred site.