Travelling to Montserrat, Spain, is a great excursion from Barcelona. A mountain monastery high in the Sierra de Montserrat, this unique Spanish destination appeals to hikers, spiritual pilgrims and lovers of history. You can visit Montserrat as a day trip from Barcelona – and most people do – but I recommend lingering longer to soak up the atmosphere and dodge the crowds. Read on for my experience or scroll down for all the how to’s.
My experience at Montserrat, Spain
Another sacred spot, another failure. Ah, well. I look out over the wind-rounded ridges of Montserrat Mountain, Spain, wondering if I’ll ever live up to people’s expectations. Truthfully, I’d rather dodge them altogether. The wind blows my hair as I look past the Cross of St Michael and down over the valley floor of Catalonia.
St Michael’s Cross Montserrat
I breathe. Spread my arms wide like St. Michael’s Cross, the Creu de Sant Miquel. This is why I signed up for this tour of spiritual places in northern Spain. For a chance to experience the Sierra de Montserrat, a mountain ridge so improbable and moving the German philosopher Goethe declared, “Nowhere but in his own Montserrat will a man find happiness and peace.”
Like Goethe, I’m here at the ‘Serrated Mountain’ to find my inner Montserrat.
What I’ve found so far, however, aside from a stunning historical site that has a monastery, restaurants, museum and cathedral, is (yet another) confrontation with my non-robust self, my dread of pre-dawn tours and desire to hike alone (except when worried about serial killers and wild boars). A person who let the group down.
It’s not as if I set out to be a failure. In fact, let’s not call it failure. Let’s call it: Finding My Own Path, Which Happens to Be Slower, And Possibly Shorter, And Hopefully More Downhill Than Everyone Else’s Path.
The Serrated Mountain
At least our guide, Carlos, had been understanding when I’d confessed I wasn’t up for a pre-dawn 5-hour hike up Montserrat Mountain, so my companions, a handful of travel bloggers went without me.
And I went on my own time, following the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross. The Cross of St. Michael takes about 40 minutes to get to. A breathtaking lookout point with a vast view of Catalonia, it was to be the group’s first stop. Here they were going to watch the sunrise and drink hot “Coca de Montserrat.” I’m sure it was a life-changing moment full of camaraderie and epiphanies. My eyes sweep the ground for telltale signs of their stop, an empty cup with chocolate dregs crusting the bottom perhaps, or little paper flags from their home countries of Portugal, Norway and USA.
Of course there is nothing. Ethical hikers wouldn’t leave anything behind. It’s just me, St Michael’s Cross and Montserrat, a mountain that rises up so unexpectedly from the plains of northern Spain it’s said to have been carved by angels.
Where is Montserrat Mountain in Spain?
Sitting about 50 km northwest of Barcelona, the 10-km long Sierra de Montserrat mountain ridge was formed, if not literally by angels, then by a delta that deposited a mountain’s worth of sediment, gravel sands, and pebbles in a long-vanished ancient lake.
Then, for the last 20 million years or so rain, wind and acidic soil have used Montserrat Mountain as a way to express their creativity, carving and eroding it into fanciful shapes and needle-like columns.
From some angles the mountain looks like a mass of (slightly squashed) organ pipes sculpted from clay. At other times it looks cartoonish, the Flintstones version of a sacred mountain. Some say it looks like the fingers of God reaching up. One thing is certain. Montserrat Mountain is a tourist destination with a powerful presence and it’s one of the most popular day trips from Barcelona.
Monserrat Monastery of Spain and the Black Madonna
Above all, this Spanish mountain monastery is a pilgrimage spot. The devout come to the basilica to see the Black Madonna, a wooden statue found glowing in a cave back in 880 AD. The Black Madonna, said to have been carved by St. Luke himself, has a mind of its own. When it refused to be moved from Montserrat Mountain, by suddenly becoming enormously heavy and impossible to lift, the powers that be (the ‘powers’ in this case being Count Wilfred the Hairy) ordered a chapel built around it. The current benedictine monastery, the Santa Maria de Montserrat, was established in 1409.
(Mysteriously, the statue of the Black Madonna dates back to the 12th-century Romanesque era, making it 300 years younger than its actual discovery, but no matter – that’s how miracles work.)
What is Montserrat?
Montserrat, Spain, is many things to many people. For the Benedictine monks who live here, it’s the ‘Holy Mountain.’ The first religious buildings date back to at least 880 AD, when four chapels were constructed by the hermit monks who made this Spanish retreat their home. The first official monastery was established in 1025 and by the 1100s pilgrims were travelling here.
For hikers, it’s a natural paradise. There are a number of hiking trails of different lengths and levels, and the views from the ridge are far reaching and inspiring.
To New Age seekers Montserrat Mountain is the heart chakra of the world – you can see them gather in a particular spot in front of the basilica. The monastery doesn’t encourage the chakra hunters, but they do welcome spiritual pilgrims of all religions.
Now I’m trying to figure out what it is to me. I stare at the Cross of St. Michael, standing like a sentinel over the mountain, and think of Saint Michael. In addition to defending the faith, he is the judge of souls, weighing their worth on Judgement Day. It seems appropriate as today I’m judging myself.
Montserrat Museum – St Jerome
I’d like to hike farther (yes, I would so!) but I also want time to visit the Montserrat Museum on St Mary’s Square. For the culturally minded, it’s one of the top things to do in Montserrat. Among its many artworks is a famous Caravaggio painting, St Jerome in Meditation – a dark brooding painting that suits my contemplative mood.
The accidental museum
Montserrat Museum was created almost by accident – a Spanish-born phoenix that rose from the ashes of Napoleon’s troops, who sacked the monastery in 1811 in retaliation against the Catalan guerrilla fighters who had holed up here. If they could have, they probably would have smashed Montserrat Mountain itself.
The ruin of Montserrat Monastery in Spain
During the sacking Montserrat Monastery was destroyed, its precious jewels plundered, artifacts smashed – though the Black Madonna escaped unscathed – one of its many miracles.
Montserrat was forced to re-invent itself, or at least to rebuild. When the new Montserrat Basilica was erected in the late 19th century, the monks bought a few paintings for its walls. Unexpectedly, however, so many donations of artwork poured in, the vast majority from Catalan donors, that a museum practically established itself.
Hiking Montserrat Mountain
I take a last look out at the valley, give a nod to St Michael’s Cross then start the hike back. Do I need to re-invent myself like the monastery did? Re-build myself into something bigger and better? Someone who doesn’t desert her team? I place my palm against the rock of the mountain, as if to tap into Montserrat’s earthy energy, before walking on. After a few steps I come to a crossroads. One path leads up Montserrat Mountain; a challenging trail the group must have followed.
I take the other path, the one that leads down.
What do you do with your inner Montserrat once you find it?
A bird flashes out of a yew tree. I pause at the statue of an angel and think about what I gained from not keeping up. A leisurely breakfast (mountain sunrise not included) in the stone-lined dining room of the monastery hotel. A hike in the silence of early (but not too early) morning before the tour buses arrive. No blisters.
A short hike on a mountain in Spain
I start swinging my arms as I lope down the trail. Maybe life isn’t all about challenge and self-improvement. Maybe my inner Montserrat is about tranquility, silence and a fresh mountain breeze. Maybe you don’t have to climb every mountain in your path – at least not every day. And maybe once you find your inner Montserrat it’s not enough to bring you the peace and happiness Goethe refers to. Maybe once you’ve located it, you have to accept the person you find.
(PS: When I showed up for our hike the next day to the Cami dels Bons Homes, the Good Men Trail, near Berguedà, at the lovely hour of 10 a.m., only one other person wanted to go. Everyone else’s feet were too sore.)
Visiting Montserrat Mountain and Monastery
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Montserrat as a day trip from Barcelona
Most people do Montserrat Barcelona in one day, which is precisely why I recommend staying longer if you can. The real magic of Montserrat, Spain, happens after the tour buses depart and before they arrive in the morning. It gets really crowded during the day.
Where to eat
You have several options for Montserrat restaurants.
- The Restaurant Hotal Abat Cisneros has a huge stone arch, exposed stone and was actually the monastery stables in the 16th century.
- For panoramic views and Mediterranean cuisine you can dine at the Restaurant Montserrat on the ground floor of the Mirador dels Apòstols. You can book online.
- You can grab a quick meal on the second floor of the Mirador dels Apòstols at the Montserrat Buffet.
- There is a cafeteria on the monastery grounds as well.
- The Bar de la Placa is another option.
Montserrat Spain, how to get there
- To get to Montserrat from Barcelona take the train from Espanya Rail Station. (Line 5 towards Manresa.)
- Then take either the Cable Car from Aeri Montserrat Station or the Rack Railway Cremallera Funicular from Monistrol Montserrat Station up to the monastery.
- Or, you can be a pilgrim and walk up from the foot of the mountain. (As you can guess, this is not the option I selected.)
Where to stay in Montaserrat
There are a couple of places to stay in Montserrat – just not very many. Your main options are either the hotel or the apartments. Note: While the Monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat is a Benedictine monastery, people from any religion (or non religion) are welcome to visit. The ‘Holy Mountain’ is for everyone.
- I stayed in the most deluxe option, the 3-star Hotel Abat Cisneros beside Montserrat Monastery. The building has hosted visitors and pilgrims since 1563. It’s basic but I liked it, and talk about a room with a view. Prices vary depending on when you stay – a room with either a view of the monastery square or the mountains is about €62 but ranges according to season. Address: Monasterio de Montserrat, Plaza del Monasterio, s/n, 08199 Montserrat, Barcelona, Spain.
Staying in a apartment at Montserrat Monastery
- There are also apartments at the monastery, the Abat Marcet Apartments built in the 60s. They’d make a good base to explore Montserrat from. Prices are about the same at the hotel or cheaper. Address: Monastir de Montserrat, s/n, 08199, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.
Doing a spiritual retreat
A spiritual retreat is not for the average tourist. To organize your retreat you need to contact the Centro de Coordinacion Pastoral at the abbey.
Tel: +34 93 877 7766
Check availability and prices for hotels in Barcelona and Montserrat, Spain
For more information on Montserrat Mountain visit the monastery website.
Top 10 Things to do in Montserrat Spain
Visit the basilica
The basilica is one of Montserrat’s top attractions. Over the years it has gone through a number of reconstructions. Built in the 1500s it had to be rebuilt after the Peninsular War and the facade was again redone after the Spanish Civil War.
Listen to the Montserrat boys’ choir, Escolania
Escolania is one of the most prestigious – and oldest – boys choirs in Europe. Historical records show there was a choir in Montserrat as far back as the 13th century. When can you hear the choir? The Montserrat Boys Choir sings daily in the basilica at 1:00 p.m. (Except during July or at Christmastime, though you should check the website to be sure). Here’s another reason to stay in Montserrat overnight. The choir also sings in the evening at 18:45 – and there is no crowd. It’s truly otherworldly.
View the Black Madonna
The Black Madonna, ‘La Moreneta,’ is a revered icon in Spain. The 12th-century Romanesque statue of the Virgin with the baby Jesus on her lap is famous for its dark colour. Also known as the Virgin of Montserrat, it is the most venerated relic in Catalonia so be prepared to wait in line. It’s located in the basilica.
Yeah, yeah, I’m a fine one to talk. But there are a number of hikes and walking paths on Montserrat Mountain, and it’s one of the best ways to experience the destination. Some of the more popular walks are:
- The Cami dels Degotalls, a flat shaded walk on the Degotalls, which means “Magnificent Path’ with views of the Pyrenees and numerous artistic sculptures and monuments along the way. The walk takes about 50 minutes.
- The hike from the monastery to Santa Cova takes you to the pilgrim site of Santa Cova, where an image of the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared. The walk takes between an hour and an hour and a half and the climb back up can be avoided by taking the Funicular de Santa Cova.
- More ambitious is the hike to Sant Jeroni. Most people access it from the Funicular de Sant Joan. (See below.)
Take the Funicular up to the top of Santa Magdelana
Way up. From the Monastery of Montserrat you can take the Funicular de Sant Joan – the steepest funicular in Spain – up to the top of Santa Magdelana. From here you can follow a footpath to the Hermitage of St. Jeroni. Note: The peak of St Jeroni is the highest point of Montserrat Mountain – 1,236 metres.
Visit the Montserrat Museum
It seems unlikely that such a prize of a museum would be found way up a mountain, but the Montserrat Museum has a serious collection of art, especially strong in Catalan masters. Highlights, in addition to the Caravaggio, include work by Picasso, Miró, Dalí and the famous Post War artist, Antoni Tàpies, whose Modernist abstract painting Montserrat segle XXI hangs on the museum walls.
Tap into the Heart Chakra
Some believe the planetary heart chakra energy spot stems from the mountain of Montserrat. To be more precise, the energy spot is located in the centre of the atrium of the Montserrat Basilica – so if you see people spontaneously hugging each other or reaching up into the sky, you’ll know why.
Visit the interactive exhibit ‘Inside Montserrat’
For a better grounding in Montserrat history and surroundings, a new interactive display ‘Inside Montserrat’ focuses on different aspects of this mountain sanctuary. 6 Euros.
Try the Open Air Museum audioguide for a self-guided walking tour of Montserrat
The Open Air Museum Audioguide lets you explore at your own pace. Pick it up at the tourist office near the Cremallera de Montserrat Rack Railway station.
Do a combo ticket with self-guided tour, booklet, entrance to the audio visual exhibit and the museum
Why stop with one Montserrat attraction? The combo ticket for 16 Euros gives you the audioguide, a guide booklet, entrance to Inside Montserrat and the museum. If you can’t decide between the various things to do in Montserrat this will save you making a decision. It’s available from the Montserrat Information Office. You’ll need to leave a deposit.
Buying a combo ticket before you go. You can also get a combo ticket that includes return train tickets, museum entrance, lunch and funicular tickets here from $59.
Tours to Montserrat from Barcelona
Many people choose to do day tours from Barcelona. This is a good option if you’re pressed for time, want the expertise of a guide or don’t want to deal with public transportation. Here are a few tour ideas.
Half-day tour of Montserrat from Barcelona: A four-hour guided bus tour to the monastery complex including the basilica and museum. Available here from $56.74.
Montserrat tour with wine tasting: This day trip to Montserrat includes a wine tasting and tapas stop at a 10th-century castle from $81. Book here.
Montserrat Monastery with horse riding: For something different, tours to Montserrat with a horse riding excursion are also available here.
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