MONTSERRAT, SPAIN — As the tiny train slowly chugs up the side of the honeycomb mountain, rock formations the shape of cubby fingers poke up outside my window. In the distance, I see sand coloured mountains shaped like elephants and horses. Mother Nature’s sculpting brilliance is on full display in this geological wonderland just outside Barcelona known as Montserrat.
Excited chatter fills the car. Words are being spoken in every language imaginable.. Cameras are clicking and whizzing as occupants record the natural beauty surrounding us.
When the landmark Benedictine monastery that crowns Montserrat comes into view, some of the pilgrim passengers lower their heads. Others make the sign of the cross. The less devoted gasp at the sheer size of the complex that was first started by some hermit monks in the 4th century.
A tiny stone chapel constructed by Benedictine monks in the 9th century suddenly appears in the window.
Above: The sprawling Benedictine monastery atop Montserrat is one of the most impressive of its kind.
Originally, there were four such chapels built by the pioneering monks on Montserrat but only one, St. Iscle’s, remains. The others were known as St. Mary’s, St.Peter's and St. Martin’s. St. Iscle’s stands as a monument to the monks’ early engineering skills and tenacity.
As the train pulls into the station, we’re greeted by the sound of angelic voices echoing off the peaks.
“That’s the Benedictine Escolania (boys) choir,” says Aicard Guinovart, my guide. “The choir (it dates back to 1223) is made up of boys from the surrounding communities who come to the monastery for a high level of musical training.
“They’ll be singing later in the basilica and we’ll see them there,” Aicard assures us.
The excited guide first wants to show us the monastery’s world famous museum — a mini Louvre — where great works by legendary artists like Caravaggio, Dali, Picasso, Casas, Sisley, El Greco, Monet, Renoir and Degas hang alongside archaeological treasures brought here from Egypt, Cyprus and the Holy Land by wandering monks.
In all, there are over 1,300 pieces housed in the remarkable museum covering a broad period — the earliest exhibit is an Egyptian sarcophagus from the 13th century BC. The most recent exhibit is a sculpture from 2001 by Josep Subirachs.
The museum was completed in 1982 to celebrate a visit here by Pope John Paul II. The pathways that meander through this mountain retreat are also lined with sculptures that blend in beautifully with those sculpted by nature.
Above: Pilgrims from around the world crowd into Montserrat's basilica to see the Black Madonna, right.
The crown jewel of Montserrat is a giant Gothic basilica, home to the monastery’s most prized procession, The Black Madonna. The golden statue sits in a special room above the main alter and pilgrims line up for hours just to touch the treasured symbol that was reportedly found by some monks in a nearby cave.
The basilica, officially known as Santa Maria de Montserrat, is packed with people when we arrive — they’re eagerly awaiting the choir’s performance. That gives us time to explore the ornate church that was originally built in the 16th century and earned basilica status under Pope Leo XIII in 1881.
The central nave is 58 metres long and 15 metres wide and the basilica’s dome reaches 23 metres in height.
Ornate candles, which symbolize the unique Catalan style of jewellery-making after the Spanish Civil War, line each side of the basilica and all have been donated by area towns and associations.
The central pillars are adorned with wooden sculptures of renowned prophets — Ezekial, Jeremiah, Isiah and Daniel — and were made by the hands of Josep Llimona in 1896.
Just as impressive as the basilica interior is its atrium. Known as the Atrium of Abbot Argerich, it is beautifully decorated with important shrines and symbols of Christianity as well as the history of Montserrat. The atrium’s checkerboard floor was inspired by Rome’s Capitolium, which was designed by none other than Michelangelo.
Above: Small trains take pilgrims to the monastery atop Montserrat. Along the way they pass honeycomb hills shaped like fingers.
The monastery has endured much upheaval over its history. In the 18th century, Napoleon’s army destroyed it and during the Spanish Civil War the monks were expelled from their beloved home — 23 monks were actually killed when they refused to leave.
So impressed was Christopher Columbus with Montserrat that in 1493, on his second voyage to the Americas, he named one of the islands he discovered in the Antilles after this Catalan wonder.
Many myths surround Montserrat — one that gets a lot of attention is that this was the final resting place of the Holy Grail.
So impressive is Montserrat that many people extend their stays and are accommodated in an 80 room hostel-style hotel just outside the great basilica. Some even or reserve one of the abbey “cells” that come equipped with a kitchen.
There’s also plenty of dining options onsite and the La Cafeteria, housed in a unique Catalan style building, offers up lots of traditional dishes.
Montserrat truly is a blessing for all to see.
Above: The stone carvings atop the monastery leave visitors awestruck.