Montserrat: The Sacred Mountain
Barcelona’s most popular day trip is a must-see…
By Duncan Rhodes
With its stunning natural beauty and religious significance a sojourn to Montserrat should be high up on any curious traveller’s hit list. We review the main sights, such as the abbey, Black Madonna and boys’ choir, plus offer advice on the best tours and on taking the train from Barcelona.
If you only have time for one day trip from Barcelona during your travels then make it Montserrat. This dramatic rockscape takes its name from the Catalan words mont for mountain and serrat meaning jagged, or serrated, and if you’ve seen the photos you’ll know why. From a distance this pre-coastal range resembles the sharp teeth of some prehistoric monster, or the craggy back of a dormant dragon, with scores of sharply defined peaks outlined against the hazy Spanish sky. Up close the peaks appear more rounded, but if anything more magical too – the bulbous and deeply lined rocks take on an organic, almost animate quality, rearing up in improbable formations like a fantasy landscape from a Tolkien novel or Sci-Fi magazine.
From a distance this pre-coastal range resembles the sharp teeth of some prehistoric monster, or the craggy back of a dormant dragon, with scores of sharply defined peaks outlined against the hazy Spanish sky.
Montserrat is also known as ‘The Sacred Mountain’ for its deep religious significance as a holy site to the Catholic church, which is still held dear by many worshippers in Catalonia and Spain. The legend goes that around 880 AD a group of shepherds saw an eerie light emanating from the rocks of Montserrat, and following the light, they came to a small cave where they found a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary carved by Saint Luke, which had been hidden there to keep it safe from the marauding Moors. The bishop of Barcelona ordered the relic be returned to the city, however those tasked with the job had hardly got moving when the statue fell out of the cart and became so heavy that no one could lift it. Taking this as a sign from God, it was decided to build a monastery on that very site on the mountain, and the Benedict abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat was born.
One of Europe’s Black Madonnas, the statue is commonly referred to as La Moreneta meaning ‘the little dark-skinned one’ and thanks to a number of miracles attributed to it, Montserrat Abbey has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Spain, second only to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Visitors today can either take the train from Barcelona to the town of Montserrat, where a second train (Cremallera) or cable car, will whisk them up the mountain to where the abbey lies, or they can opt for one of many guided tours run by private companies. As well as the chance to visit the sacred monastery with its Black Madonna, visitors can also visit the Santa Cova where the statue was originally found (via the Funicular de la Santa Cova cable car) or head to the very top of the peak (via the Funicular Sant Joan).
Visiting Montserrat needn’t be limited to the abbey and its surroundings, as the whole area is a vast nature reserve with plenty of other attractions, including possibilities for hiking, mountain biking and climbing. Read on for more info on all of the above!
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey
The Basilica and the Black Madonna
Despite the legend, and chapels existing here since the late 9th century, a monastery wasn’t founded until 1025 AD. Due to the number of miracles attributed to the Black Virgin the monastery became a popular pilgrimage site and had to be expanded upon in the late 16th century. Despite being destroyed by Napoleonic troops in the 18th century it was entirely rebuilt soon afterwards. The main attraction at this monasterial complex is undoubtedly the Gothic and Renaissance style Basilica. This dark and solemn church, lit by splendid stained glass and candles, holds the sacred La Moreneta statue and you’ll see a long queue of pilgrims lining up to pay homage to the Black Virgin which sits above the altar (contrary to the legend, historians say that the statue was not carved by Saint Luke in 50 AD, but later in the 13th century, in which case it actually came after the monastery).
The Black Madonna is not the only reason for visiting the Basilica, as one of the world’s oldest and most famous choirs – the Escolania Boys Choir perform. The fifty strong choral group are instructed by the resident monks and perform “Salve Regina” at 1pm on Mondays to Fridays and at noon on Sundays (on Saturdays and for summer and Christmas holidays they don’t sing).
Built into the monastery is the Montserrat Museum, designed by leading Catalan architect Josep Puig I Cadafalch in 1929. It’s well worth allowing some time for a visit as many benefactors have donated artefacts over the year, so that the impressive collection includes paintings by the likes of Caravaggio, El Greco, Sisley, Dali and Picasso, as well archaeological finds and gold and silver craftmanship. Tickets are around 6 euros.
Keep reading for how to get there by train from Barcelona, and selected day tours that include transport.
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Other Sights via Cable Car from the Abbey
After you’ve taken either the cremallera train or main cable car up to the site of the Montserrat Abbey, you’ll also be able to make two further journeys by funicular should you wish – one up the very peak and one down to the shrine of Santa Cova. Both leave every 20 minutes, and you might want to check the timetable when you first arrive to ensure you leave time to get to and back from each destination.
Santa Cova Shrine
This small shrine, embedded in the mountain, commemorates the original finding of La Moreneta in what was then a small, unadorned cave. A short cable car ride takes you a little further down the mountain where you can follow a 15-20 minute trail around the range to the holy site. The winding route is notable, not just for the great views over Catalonia, but for the 15 sculptures which, representing the mystery of the rosary, were completed in 1910 by the hands of architects Antoni Gaudi, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, Enric Sagnier i Villavecchia and the sculptors Josep Llimona and Venanci Vallmitjana. Some are truly breathtaking. The shrine of Santa Cova itself is small and incredibly serene, which a delightful garden from where you can soak up the majesty of Montserrat in silence.
St. Jerome’s Peak
If you’re the sort of person who can’t go half way up a mountain – you’ve got to reach the top – then take the Sant Joan Funicular that runs up to Sant Jeroni (aka St. Jerome) peak, the highest on the range at 1236 metres high. Once out of the cable car you still have several minutes hiking to do to get to the top where a panoramic views over the region unfold, which include the Pyrenees in the North and, on a clear day, the island of Majorca to the East. Hardy folk may prefer to eschew the funicular and take a two hour hike instead!
Probably the most popular day trip from Barcelona, you won’t find any shortage of private tour operators offering you transport and guides to the sacred mountain. Below you’ll find a couple of our favourite options, selected by us, run by our travel partners.
Start the day with a coffee and pastry (yes this a classy trip!) before enjoying comfortable private transport to the foot of the mountain. Once there you’ll get to see the monastery, and of course La Moreneta, and ride the funicular to the highest peak. This guided excursion costs 79 euros person and runs with a max. of 8 people, lasting 5 hours. Email email@example.com for more info or to book.
Run by one of Barcelona Life’s award-winning partners, this tour is truly unique and comes highly recommended. Leaving at 8:45am every day from Placa Catalunya, you will be ferried in comfortable private transport to the mountain where you will have four hours to explore with your guide, allowing you to take in both the natural scenery and the abbey with the Black Madonna, plus hear L’Escolania Choir sing. Then at 1:45pm you will be driven to the nearby 10th Century Oller del Mas castle, where your travel party will have exclusive access to the grounds, vineyards and wine cellars. You will start the afternoon with a delicious traditional Catalan lunch, then enjoy a guided visit of the castle and get to taste three sensational regional wines, before it’s time for home. The €94 all inclusive fee includes transport, guide, lunch and wine tasting, and in fact we’ll give you a discount code that saves you 5% of that fee. Limited availability each day, so email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve or to request more info.
Montserrat Hiking Tour
Take a train up the mountain? What kind of wimp does that! If you’ve got legs of steel and want to experience the beauty of this amazing part of Catalonia beneath your feet then enquire about our private hiking expeditions. They run on request only, minimum three persons, but if that sounds like you get in touch via email@example.com and we’ll help you arrange the transport and guide. Cost around 74 euros per person.
Montserrat by Public Transport
Getting to Montserrat from Barcelona by public transport, whilst not quite as comfortable and convenient as booking a guided tour, is far from difficult and will save you a few euros into the bargain. And as it is only 38km away from the city, it makes for an ideal day trip. The journey takes just over an hour and is done in two legs.
You have two options. The first you take the train from Barcelona city centre and alight at Monistrol de Montserrat station, from where you takey the Cremallera train up to the abbey. The second you take the train from Barcelona, but you alight at Montserrat Aeri station, from where you take the Cable Car up to the abbey.
In both cases the first step is to travel to Placa Espanya train station (which is on both the green and the red line of Barcelona’s metro system) and then make your way to the overground R5 Line. Before you reach the platforms, by the ticket machines, you’ll find two booths. One selling tickets to Montserrat via standard train plus Cremallera train, and one via standard train plus the Cable Car.
The Cremallera train takes 15 minutes to get to the monastery from the bottom of the mountain and takes a winding route, the Cable Car goes direct upwards, taking just 5 minutes. Both have great views so it’s much of a muchness really. The one thing you will need to put a bit of thought into is to the different bonus options. Currently a return, using either the Cremallera or the Funicular, costs around 21 euros, but for a few euros extra you can get a ticket which enables you to use both the Funicular de la Santa Cova and the Funicular de Sant Joan when you get there (they are more expensive if you buy them separately).
Other ticket options include free entrance to the museum and a buffet lunch at the site’s restaurant. All in all it’s definitely worth spending a few minutes discussing your options with the booth attendants who will be able to explain what’s what. Be prepared to spend between 21 euros minimum and 40 euros all inclusive.
Finally one important thing to bear in mind is that, depending on whether you opted for the Cremallera or the Cable Car, you will need to alight at either the Monistrol de Montserrat or Montserrat Aeri train stations respectively. It’s all marked clearly but just stay awake! The final destination of your train (but not you!) is Manresa, so look for that when you are boarding at Barcelona’s Placa Espanya station.
About the Author
Duncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.