Montserrat

For the final day of my trip I planned a visit to Montserrat, the ‘serrated mountain’, which is about 25 miles from Barcelona and had the dual attractions of hiking opportunities and a monastery complete with boys’ choir who sing daily. A day on a mountain followed by Vespers seemed the perfect way to bring my trip to a close, but the practicalities weren’t as easy to bring together due to the timings of the last train/cable car down from the mountain. I had an early start, but managed to find time for a short stop at a cafe for my now traditional cafe con leche, accompanied by a croissant, on the way to the metro.

The connection to the train was uneventful, helped by the convenient numbering system which makes it easy to identify both the right platform and the right train when it arrives. I had to stand for the first 15 minutes it so, but once we had left Barcelona there was a bit more seating room. The highest point of Montserrat, Santa Jeroni, is 1236m which, if it were in Scotland would put it up there with the ten highest mountains. It’s all the more striking as it’s not surrounded by other mountains and really looms over the town of Monistrol at its foot.

Although there is parking on the mountain, the typical tourist options are to take either the cable car or the rack railway (Cremellana) up to the abbey. I had decided though to hike up, and had the choice of two routes. When I got out of the train at Monistrol Aeri (where the cable car also starts) I looked up at the side of the mountain and it looked pretty daunting. It’s a steep mountain with quite a lot of rocky outcrops and I wasn’t too sure whether I would cope with the exposure of the path. I did briefly consider taking the cable car up and saving my hiking for the top of the mountain but I really wanted to do what I’d set out to.

Cable car approaching Monistrol Aeri

After a short stretch along the side of the main road, the path off to the monastery was easy to spot (one reason I’d chosen this route rather than the alternative that set off from the next station) and I was soon on the mountain side. There were a few scrambly bits that made a little uncomfortable but nothing too bad. The climb was steep, but not ridiculously so. I’d hoped to have put a little more hiking time in the legs over the past week than I achieved, but even so, I feel like I’ve a bit more strength than I’ve felt for a while.

Tile showing monks, the abbey and the Virgin of Montserrat on the side of a building where the path left the main road
The start of the path

The path was well marked, and I never had any issues with finding it, even through the scrub, much of which was made up of rosemary bushes. Having reached about 300m though I was struggling. There were a couple scrambles which I found uncomfortably exposed and a big stretch. I could see on the map though that the path was going to level off a bit following the contour of the mountain, before joining what looked to be a bigger track. I was hopeful that the hardest stretch was over and that I might feel better, but this turned out to be the worst bit as the path was all of 18” or so wide and with only some low bushes between the edge of the path and thin air. I managed a very short stretch and realised I just couldn’t go on, especially knowing that there was still about the same amount of climbing left to me. I was about half way along this stretch so turning back wasn’t necessarily any better than continuing except that I had no idea what was ahead for the rest of the walk. I had a suspicion it would be better but wasn’t confident enough in that suspicion to continue.

The path was very gentle to start with
View from the mountain side
A friendly section of path
Somewhere around the point where I lost my nerve, although I’d put my camera away by that point as I couldn’t cope any excess movement/weight

So, with shaky legs and palpitations I made my way back, hugging the mountain side and clutching every prickly plant along the way for security. Writing this now (on the plane home, with ironically an even great drop out of my window) I can feel the same squirming in my stomach and sensation of panic building up. I’d walked about 45 minutes uphill and now I had to retrace by steps, along with quite a bit of bum-shuffling down the scrambles. On the way up I’d thought how I’d not like to do the path downhill, but the relief of getting off the mountain side helped. I had one small stop to watch a very determined ant trying to climb up the side of the rocks along with what looked to be a piece of insect exoskeleton that was huge in size compared to its own body. It kept falling back down and then doggedly carrying on back up. That really put my struggles into perspective.

Very vali-ant

By the I reached the cable car station again I was feeling rather despondent. Two routes up the mountain remained to me, the cable car and the rack railway, whose station was about a 45 minute walk away. The cable car seemed the logical option but, still feeling a bit trembly, a bit daunting. I was beginning to think I had taken on something that was beyond me, but I was determined to get up there, so I stood in the queue for the cable car and had about an hour to collect myself as a train had disgorged a large number of passengers just as I arrived and the cable car could only take 28 at a time.

Finally I was shepherded onto the cable car and tried to squash my nerves, taking a spot right in the middle and distracting myself by chatting with a group of Americans and their tour leader. The journey was ok, and the views spectacular, but when we arrived at the top I needed to scuttle away quite quickly through all the people who were dithering around near to the exit so that I could find a spot a little less close to the edge where I could relax a little. It’s an odd experience arriving at the little village which is perched on a crevice in the mountain at about 700m altitude and is bustling with activity with hotels, restaurants and plenty of cars parked up, I’m more used to Scottish mountains after all.

Gateway to the village of Montserrat
The village of Montserrat

My first stop was at the tourist information to ascertain whether I would be able to get back off the mountain using the train after vespers. Oh yes, no problem was the answer. The last train down to the bottom goes at 7.15 and vespers will be finished by then. I had a few doubts but as there was one further train that only went partway to a car park at least there was a back up option.

The second order of business was to get a hiking map and some advice on whether the paths were going to be just as scary as those of the way up. I had the feeling that the staff may be trained to discourage people from the path to the summit at Sant Jeroni which was the longest hike they described but still only estimated as 1h15min walk in each direction. With a couple other options circled on the map and my confidence low I headed to the funicular as it gave me access to a walk back down to the monastery. I felt discouraged, to be honest, that I wasn’t doing what I set out to, but having ‘cheated’ by taking the cable car up I could no longest be purist about my hike, which has actually been a pretty good theme for this trip!

There are two funiculars on the mountain, the other of which is currently out of action, and I was horrified to see workmen climbing on it from the cable car. The funicular journey was a short  trip taking us up about 230m over a distance of 500m. At the top I was reassured to see lovely wide paths, more at home in a country park than up a mountain but very reassuring to me at this point.

The hiking routes from Pla de les Tarantules, at the top of the Sant Joan funicular

Feeling a bit better, I decided to start with a 45 minute out and back hike to a number of chapels. The views were tremendous but still rather shaky I was hugging the inside of the path, shuddering at the people on the outside of the path posing for selfies. It was around that stretch that I got talking to an Australian lady, who was roughly of Mum and Dad’s vintage. She and her husband were on a 9 week tour of Europe and I was curious to know where they’d been. Imagine my surprise to find that not only had they just come from Manchester, but that they’d stayed with family in the house 3 doors down from Granny’s house. This little coincidence gave me a great boost, and made me feel better about the way my day was going as I would most likely never have bumped into her if my day had gone according to plan. In the end I made it most of the way along this trail, but turned around a little bit before the end when the trail narrowed and became more exposed with a scary looking set of steps. Exciting perhaps only to me on this section where what I believe to be alpine swifts swooping back and forth over our heads.

Sant Joan’s chapel in the background
Path to Sant Joan’s chapel
The final stretch before I turned around and walked back
Looking down to Sant Joan’s chapel

Having regained some confidence and with about 4 hours ahead of me until vespers I decided I had plenty of time to attempt the longer walk to Sant Jeroni as had been my original plan. This trail was certainly less popular than the other and narrower, but had good barriers on the side where necessary and felt fine to me. Finally I felt like I’d escaped the more touristy side of the mountain and could enjoy the scenery and the experience a bit more. The mountain truly is dramatic, with steep drops and huge vistas along with giant rock formations some of which were being tackled by climbers. The times when the path passed through the woods gave some much needed shade and a bit of relief from the exposure that still caught me out now and again. The main part of the climb up to the summit comes towards the end of the hike and whilst it was effortful, I’ve done harder hikes, although before I became too smug it shouldn’t be forgotten that I had skipped an uphill section at the start by taking the funicular. There was a big party of primary school kids who seemed to have managed it and were all smiling and happily high fived me with a cheery hola when I stopped to let them past.

Sant Jeroni path – there were climbers on the rocks ahead
If you look hard you can just about see the winding around the rock formations
View back down to Montserrat
More rock formations with a paraglider
A little respite from the sun
The views approaching the summit were fantastic, but unfortunately my camera battery was empty by this point and I had to rely on my phone for the rest of the hike
Another view of the rock formations

The last 30m or so of the climb took you up a set of steps built into the rock formation. I was dubious I’d manage it, but figured I’d try it. I only got a couple steps up before deciding that it really wasn’t for me. I was, I’ll admit, somewhat comforted that the lady coming up behind me only got a couple steps further than me before coming to the same conclusion.  I was a little sad not to see the views from the very top as there’s something special about a full 360 degree vista but I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it much! Time then to turn tail and hike back to the monastery. I stopped for a few minutes to look at the Sant Jeroni chapel which had been surrounded by a group of chattery Germans on the way up but was now deserted. It was another plain building, most notable for the presence of a desfibril-lador (defibrillator) on one side. I’ve seen plenty around in public areas on this trip but this did seem the most bizarre location.

The final set of steps heading up the rock formation and someone at the summit at the back of the photo
Chapel of Sant Jeroni

Not long after the chapel the return path to the monastery split off and wound downwards through the woods. My feet were beginning to feel the weight of the day’s walking by this stage, although my legs felt as strong as the start. I enjoyed the wooded section but the last part of the walk was a bit daunting with an endless set of steps winding along the side of the mountain again, twisting and turning to its contours. It certainly wasn’t as exposed as previous sections but it did feel a bit daunting coming at the end of the long day. It was quite a relief to catch sight of the village ahead and walk down the last steps and find myself a bench to sit on and rest.

Downhill through the woods
The rock formations never failed to appeal
A nice set of steps, with no drop to either side
The village was finally back in sight, though it still felt too far away on tired legs
A welcome sight for tired feet

I found myself back with about an hour and a half before Vespers so I thought I’d find something to eat. Despite being a touristy site though, nowhere was serving food it being too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Time then to dig out the emergency chocolate ration that I’d purchased before setting of on my hike. Apparently made by the monks and flavoured with crema catalana. To be honest it was rather odd tasting and I can’t say I’d recommend it.

The basilica was a rather dark building and very ornately decorated. Truthfully I was too tired to appreciate it. Although early for Vespers I found myself a pew and allowed the praying the Rosary to wash over me. High up behind the altar is a statue of the Virgin of Montserrat, and there was a steady stream of people climbing up to her and paying her homage. As the Rosary came to a conclusion, the monks started filtering into the pews around the altar. Expecting a procession of choristers to follow I was disappointed when one of the monks opened the service and I realised that there was to be no choir that day. Still, there was something very evocative about being part of this daily office and thinking about the monks living their lives up on the mountainside. The service was in Catalan, and reminded me that I’d read about the monastery being a protector of the Catalan language and people. It wasn’t the musical experience I’d been looking forward to, indeed some monks were clearly more musical than others, but an emotional one nonetheless.

The outside of the Basilica
Interior of the Basilica

As the service drew to a close I rushed out to catch the train down only to find, as I somewhat suspected, that I’d just missed it. Fortunately my feet were feeling better after their short rest as I was going to have to walk the final stretch to the station after all. After 15 minutes of waiting I was the only passenger in this last train down and very glad of its warmth. After some stumbling around the multi-storey car park I found the way out and was relieved to find myself within the little town of Monistrol in a matter of minutes and not walking along a dark road the whole way as I’d feared. This walk I’d dreaded became something to enjoy as the village was quite attractive even at night, and I thought that in daylight it would be worth making the walk up to this other station rather than taking the train from the main station just have a better look.

I didn’t stop to read the information, but I assume this was the original train up to the village (at Monistrol Vila station)
Monistrol at night
Monistrol at night

Finally at the station I had another 20 minute wait for the train back to Barcelona, and eventually arrived there at about 10pm. Although I was worn out and had another early start in the morning to catch my flight, I took advantage of Spanish restaurant hours and stopped at one of the places I’d visited the night before. I’d seen a tempting plate of what looked like wild mushrooms being brought to another customer, so the garlic mushrooms seemed like a good choice and then with the help of google translate, I decided on Cazón en Adobo (fried, marinated fish). The mushrooms, when they arrived, were sadly just your typical garlic mushroom, nothing wild about them, but good nonetheless. The fish was delicious, with a very good herby coating. I walked the remaining 5 minutes back to my lodgings feeling that my day had been a success although certainly not as planned.

Cazón en Adobo

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