The word ‘mountain’ doesn’t really do Montserrat justice. Only an hour away by train from Barcelona, this massive and entirely unique natural wonder can be seen from across Catalonia, and as a result holds a special significance for Catalans. With its multiple peaks and weird rock formations, there’s no mountain quite like it.
At 1,236 metres high, Montserrat towers above the surrounding countryside. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Pyrenees. Its name literally means ‘serrated mountain’ and its peculiarly jagged silhouette is the result of a combination of dramatic geological events 10 million years ago and centuries of soil erosion.
Widely considered Spain’s top natural wonder and shrouded in legend, Montserrat was once thought to be the resting place of the holy grail, and has been the inspiration for many a Catalan poet. The place of this mountain in the Catalan psyche can’t be underestimated. Daughters are often named after it (‘Montse’ for short) and making an early morning hike to the summit to watch the sunrise over Catalonia is something of a rite of passage.
Humans have long looked on Montserrat with awe, and its natural wonder sits alongside its ancient role as a place of pilgrimage. A monastery was first founded amid its windswept crags back in 1025. For centuries pilgrims have come to pay tribute to ‘La Moreneta’, an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary, and the patron of Catalonia.
Despite several attempts to supress this place of devotion it remains a popular destination for the devout. Daily performances by L’Escolania – the abbey’s renowned boys’ choir – are hosted in the bejewelled Basilica at the heart of Montserrat monastery.
On stumbling upon such a performance, so far removed from modern-day Catalonia, it’s hard not to let the lyrical strains of Latin incantations take you back in time. This impression is made all the stronger by the fact that this fully functioning monastery remains home to some 300 black robbed Benedictine monks. Montserrat also boasts a substantial museum and art gallery featuring works by El Greco, Caravaggio and Dalí.
How to visit Montserrat
If you decide to visit Montserrat, the extra muscles required to get to its highest point are well worth straining. The monastery sits at an altitude of 725 metres, so getting to the highest point of the mountain, Sant Jeroni, involves a fairly steep 500-metre hike. While the route is tough at points, it is mostly well-laid out, and a return journey takes around four hours. If you visit at the weekend, don’t expect to be alone – Montserrat is a highly popular destination with tourists and locals alike. On the other hand if you can’t be bothered to walk there is a funicular near the monastery that takes you most of the way to the summit.
Getting to Montserrat from Barcelona is simple. Make your way to the Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya (FGC) station at Plaça Espanya where you can buy a combined ticket that will take you all the way to the Monastery by a normal suburban train service, and then up the mountain by either cable car or funicular train.