A visit to the isolated monastry of Montserrat in mountainous northern Catalonia is simply unforgettable.
More than two million Christian pilgrims and travellers, each year, make their way to the spectacular Benedictine monk retreat about 31 miles or 48 kilometres west of Barcelona.
The eye-catching Montserrat mountains – with unusual serrated ‘saw tooth’ edges – rise starkly from the centre of Catalonia to a height of 1,236 metres above sea level.
The solitude of the mountains has been attracting people to the remote area for centuries.
In pre-Christian times, the Romans built a temple to Venus in the area. Montserrat’s spiritual significance can be traced to reports of bright lights and heavenly visions in about 880.
Today, the Santa Maria de Montserrat sits like an eagle’s nest clinging to the side of a 700 meter cliff, reached by road, cable car and funicular railway.
Over the centuries, the site has also been the subject of many strange stories, including one that claims the mountains are hollow, hiding a lake that can only be reached through a door inside the monastery.
Others have claimed that the site is the secret resting place of the mysterious and long-sought ‘Holy Grail’, probably the Big Daddy of all Christian relics.
At 1,236 metres (4,055 ft) above the valley floor, Montserrat is the highest point of the Catalan lowlands.
As well as the splendour and solitude, there is a reason that Montserrat draws so many Christian pilgrims to light candles in the magnificent Mare de Déu de Montserrat Basilica.
The site is home to a famous wooden statue known as ‘The Black Madonna’, or ‘la Moreneta’ in Catalan
Depending who you ask, ‘la Moreneta’ was either carved in Jerusalem by Saint Luke and brought to Montserrat by Saint Peter, or is probably a Romanesque sculpture from the late 12th century.
The statue sits behind a sheet of glass, with the exception of one arm, which is traditionally touched or kissed by pilgrims.
From the monastery, it is another 300 metres to the peak of the Montserrat. A funicular railway goes almost all the way up to the summit.
There several well-marked hiking trails through the nature park.
The visual splendour of the Monserrat mountain location is matched only by the breath-taking interior of the Basilica that houses the statue.
The Atrium of Abbot Argerich is this open-roofed courtyard area that sits directly in front of the church. Five arches lead to the main area.
Mare de Déu de Montserrat is a Gothic structure that also uses Renaissance shapes and traditional Catalan architecture.
The first stone of the Basilica was laid in 1560 and the church was consecrated in 1592.
In 1811-12 Monserrat was destroyed by Napoleon’s army. Reconstruction started in 1858.
The famous grotto
Today, the original site of the Monserrat visions is marked by a grotto, which can be reached by a walking trail.
Age is no barrier to experiencing the wonder of Montserrat.
There is a direct rail link and a modern motorway from Barcelona. A smooth train will take you to the Basilica and monastery, which are relatively level and can be viewed by most without difficulty.
Alongside the monastery and basilica there are two museums, a selection of shops and eateries and guided tour services around the area.
Montserrat is also just over two hours from the Principality of Andorra, high in the east Pyrenees between France and Spain.