Where in the world can you take public transportation all the way from your urban doorstep to the top of a mountain? In Catalonia that would be Montserrat, a serrated peak about 50 km inland that is home to the Benedictine abbey of the same name, nestled high in its toothy spires. Three metro changes, one commuter train ride, a jumbo-sized cable car, and a funicular railway (all on a single package ticket, no less) brought us to a point where we were only steps away from the eyries of hermits on the sheer rocky slopes of this spectacular mountain.
The Abbey, officially the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, is actually situated part way up the mountain, reached by cable car ride or funicular; visitors can then take another funicular that climbs an additional 1000 feet or so, to access a series of trails that snake along near the peak. One of these trails does in fact lead past a cliff-hugging hermit's dwelling dating from the 16th century, one that might be listed in Zillow as having 'the best views from your doorstep of any hermitage in the district'.
At least that would have been the case had not the peaks been wrapped in clouds, from the time we decided to go up this last leg until we descended on a reverse funicular path. In a way, this only added to the thrill of trekking along the rocky trail and steep stairsteps, with nothing but a sheer cliff and white nothingness beyond, and steamy wraiths of cloud boiling up from below.
Geologically speaking, the Montserrat mountain is part of an old riverbed that metamorphosed and was then 'left behind' when the landmasses all around abandoned it and sank. Compression resulted in cracking, and erosion did the rest over the eons. Up close, the sedimentary layers are seen to be a conglomerate -- the rock's cross section looks like frozen 12-bean soup, in the variety of river-rounded rocks encased within (as well as its color!). The formation is apparently a rock climber's paradise.
Back down at the abbey: there has been a monastery here since 1200 or so, but the property has been destroyed or ravaged a number of times through the centuries and then neglected energetically under Franco. It has come into its own again in recent years with an impressive array of well-kept buildings and a large, ornate basilica, all built of brick or stucco and well blended with the warm colors of the conglomerate rock rising behind the site. Here can be found Benedictine monks, a boys choir school, and a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims.
The church contains a sacred statue of Mary and the infant Jesus, supposed to have been found in a cave nearby about 800 years ago, that can be viewed up close and venerated by standing in line at an appointed time to go above and behind the altar.
The abbey also maintains a creditable art museum with a selection of paintings and other artifacts through the ages, either donated by patrons or collected by an opportunistic abbot in the 1920’s. These include a smattering by old masters like Caravaggio, Degas, and Picasso, which of course get top billing in the signage. More interesting, though, were the Catalan artists whose paintings are not that well known but give an impression of faces and places of the region's past century and a half.
We returned via the same transportation in reverse order, finding ourselves seats on the crowded commute-time train next to a serious-looking fellow reading Schopenhauer.