BEST THINGS TO DO IN MONTSERRAT
Visiting Montserrat is everyone’s first choice for a day trip out of Barcelona. So if you have several days in town, make sure you don’t miss it.
The name of the place means “the sawed mountain”, because the shape of its rocks and peaks look like the dents of a saw. In the heart of the mountain stands a Benedictine Monastery with a sanctuary dedicated to the Montserrat Madonna (patron saint of Catalunya), that locals call “La Moreneta” (“little suntanned girl”) because of its dark skin. But a Montserrat visit is not only just about visiting the monastery: there are many more things to do (actually so many you won’t be able to do all of them unless you spend a complete day there. Today we’ll help you figuring out what to do when visiting Montserrat.
Here is what to do at Montserrat:
Cambril (Black Madonna’s shrine)
The Black Madonna is worshiped in a small chapel overlooking the naves of the main church. Pilgrims and tourists must stand in line and walk up 50 steps to get there and follow the local tradition: touching or kissing the Madonna’s hand and making a wish. It’s a gorgeous little chamber decorated in gold, silver and mosaic and views over the inside of the Basilica. At the exit there is a chapel where you can stop to pray if you wish, then you proceed through an alley carved into the stone of the mountain, with hundreds of candles lit by the pilgrims as offerings or prayers.
Many centuries ago, the inhabitants of the three villages located at the food of the mountain were given a royal permission to sell their products in the Montserrat monastery, and upto these days a few families have continued to do so. When visiting Montserrat, locals will never leave the mountain without buying some of their honey, mató (cottage cheese similar to ricotta) or fig bread. The farmers are very proud of their homemade goods and often offer free samples – don’t be shy: accept them! They are very gentle people who won’t be pushing you into buying and they’ll always have a smile for you even if you tell them that “you’ll come back later” (many people do that, planning to buy on their way back to the parking lot).
Cablecar, rack train and funiculars
You can get to the monastery by car, cablecar or rack train. We often do in our private tours to Montserrat. The cable car was inaugurated in 1930 and it’s the fastest way to go uphill as it travels 1350m in 5min. If you are not scared of highs it’s a wonderful option to admire the landscape. If you prefer the rack train, it’s a slower option but very comfortable: it travels 5km uphill and the ride lasts 15 minutes. The funiculars are used once you are in the monastery area: one of them takes you even further up to see more views or take some hikes (get some information about the local paths at the Montserrat Tourist Information Point), the other saves you 15min of the walk to the chapel of the Holy Cave where it’s said the Black Madonna was found.
If you love art, you’ll agree with us that this museum is the hidden gem of Montserrat. Made mostly out of private donations and purchases made by the monks during their trips to Italy and Holy Land, they feature works by Caravaggio, a lovely collection of modernist and contemporary Catalan artists and the only display of French impressionists in Catalonia, with works by Monet, Sisley, Degas or Pissarro. They also have a quite curious archaeology section on religious items from various cultures: here you can see one of the few real Egyptian mummy in Spain. It is said that when it was bought by a monk and brought into the country, they couldn’t figure out how to label it in the import form (as obviously there was no such “mummy” entry), so they ended out passing it as “dry cod fish” as it seemed to be the closest possible description of it, LOL.
Interactive Exhibition (Espai Audiovisual)
This space is a great complement to your Montserrat visit if you want to know more about the mountain and monastery and what they mean for the locals. The visit starts with a video explaining Montserrat from the natural, cultural and religious point of view, then you proceed into an exhibit that covers the geology of the mountain, the history of the monastery, as well as the life of the monks and the children of their famous choir. It’s been recently updated and they have added a few quite cool videos on large screens. The one showing the monks at their daily activities is really interesting and it shows you clearly how their routine is axed around the Benedictine rule of “ora et labora” (pray and work). But my favorite is the video before the exit: a music clip of the Escolania choir singing along an opera singer (former student of the Montserrat choir) welcoming a pilgrim (a famous local musical actor): it’ll give you the chills!
AND BONUS! When to hear the famous Montserrat choir?
Escolania Boys Choir
No list of “what to do in Montserrat” should skip hearing the Escolania – the Montserrat Boys Choir. It is one of the oldest boys choirs in Europe, documented already from the 1500’s. You can hear them singing the Virolai (the Black Madonna of Montserrat anthem, that many Catalan people sing standing up, with as much pride and passion as if it was a national anthem) Mon-Fri at 1PM as well as at the end of the evening mass that starts at 6PM. They also sing after Sunday mass at noon, and they take their day off on Saturdays and during school holidays. You can find their up-to-date calendar in their website.
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