Montserrat is a wide, ragged range of peaks in Catalonia, just outside the city of Barcelona. Its highest point is only 4,000 feet above sea level, a height that won’t win it any NBA contracts, but does make it the highest point in the region and a unique mountain for various reasons of location and geology. Even better, perched atop one of those crags is Santa Maria de Montserrat, a millennia-old Benedictine monastery that is the keeper of one Europe’s fabled Black Madonnas.
And a few creaky, swaying, rock-scraping moments later, we were at the monastery.
At the top, the view was heady and seemed to encompass almost all of Catalonia. The whole thing was further dramatically heightened by the mountain’s strangely shaped crags of rock, which framed the scene and stretched off into the distance on all sides of us. It was obvious that we were not “on” the mountain, but on just a small part of it.
But if you’re not looking for an Iberian ham sandwich or a replica Black Madonna statuette, the basilica is where all the cool stuff is, where the 80 or so monks that live on Montserrat are quartered, where the worshipping takes place, where all the religious art is, and where the Black Madonna holds court.
Known as the Virgin of Montserrat or, in the native tongue, la Moreneta (“little dark one”), its story goes that sometime in the ninth century, shepherds on the mountain followed strange music and lights to a cave, where they discovered this three-foot-tall wooden statue of an enthroned, dark-skinned Mary and the infant Jesus. The monastery was then built on the site as a result. The real back-story of the statue is unknown. Some try to trace it back to Jerusalem circa apostolic times and others say it’s local and “only” goes back to the thirteen century. Whatever the source, it’s assumed to involve a knife, paint, and a hunk of wood.
Most fun, you can actually get up close to the Madonna and touch it. To do so, you enter through a side door of the basilica, which takes you through various chapels that parallel and give a view of the main auditorium. Depending on when you go, the lines can be pretty long. On a Saturday afternoon in late February, it took us about 40 minutes to get to her. But there is a lot of artwork to marvel at on the way. There’s also an offshoot stairs along the way down to a small chapel-like crypt where some of the abbots are buried.
Finally, at the end, we ascended a staircase to a small alcove that overlooks the church. It only fit two or three people at a time. The Black Madonna is encased in glass there except for a croquet-ball-sized sphere in her hand which protrudes from the glass, allowing visitors to touch it to receive a blessing. We used ours for the return cable car trip.
In the end, I don’t foresee myself ever being a spiritually enlightened man. Introspection, patience, and self-denial are hard. But I can cross “visit a mountain-top monastery” off my list. Me and Leonard Cohen now have that much in common.