The clouds are thin and swirling, obscuring everything one moment, parting to reveal the curiously shaped stones of the mountain, the next. “I get a lot of this weather back where I live, in the southern hills in India,’’ I tell my fellow coach-travellers, only to meet with much disbelief. Alas, India’s mostly sweltering climes get so much press, it pretty much obscures the fact that the country is not one seething hot pot. But that’s another story and not one I’m about to relate here.
This story began more than a thousand years ago and features a shepherd or two. They kept seeing a light shining on the jagged peaks of the hill range just outside Barcelona. On the third day (well, it always is the third day in alm­ost all legends across the world), the men climbed the peak to find a statue that startled them. It was a Madonna…but it was black. The shepherds weren’t in any doubt however: black or not, they knew the Madonna when they saw her. And soon, La Moreneta, the Black Virgin of Montserrat, became the patron deity of Barcelona, with people coming from far and wide to worship at the feet of the small dark, wooden statue of the Mother with Jesus on her lap. Later legends say that it was St Peter who had placed the statue, carved by St Luke, at this place, some time after Christ’s death. Be that as it may, studies have placed the date of the sta­tue in the 12th century. And thus, Montserrat is the jewel in Catalonia’s crown, an enigmatic and wish-fulfilling deity.
Madonna notwithstanding, Montserrat is a beautiful hill range, 4055 feet above sea level, with the naturally formed stones resembling a series of giant monoliths, greyish white rocks around which swirl mists of cotton candy consistency. There is a funicular from the top of Montserrat down to the 11th-century Benedictine monastery, which, of course, is most popular with tourists but the true devotee makes his or her way up by foot. I met a few pilgrims who had started the arduous climb late in the eve­ning, only to reach the deity just before dawn. The Black Virgin, who sits on a silver throne behind the main altar in the Basilica, is deemed a powerful deity, one who grants the wishes of those sincere and pure in heart. Women wishful of children, in particular, come to touch her, convinced that the Mother will make them mothers, in turn.
The contrast with bustling Barcelona makes for a happy comparison. It’s all peace and quiet here; even the steady stream of visitors slow down their pace when they reach the mountain. The Basilica has a boys’ choir, one of the oldest choirs in Europe, pre-adolescent children verily gifted with the unbroken voices of angels, singing the Gregorian chants daily at 1 pm and 6.45 pm. Apparently, there has been a sharp shortfall in recent times, though, of the number of boys who are usually brought up the mountain to live with the priests and learn to sing for the church. The Basilica also holds several beautiful chapels, dedicated to St Peter, St Ignatius, St Martin, St Benedict, and by the walls of the staircase leading to the shrine is some really evocative artwork. The magnificent pipe organ had recently undergone renovation and its sonorous sound fills the surroundings with mellifluous music. To one side, down the path of the Ave Maria, are racks of lit candles, their wicks dancing in the ice-tipped breeze. Once in a while, the quiet is broken by the sound of chopper blades hissing; helicopters routinely fly over the area, looking for trekkers and pilgrims in need of assistance.
The Museu de Montserrat is a must-visit, housing as it does paintings by El Greco, Rusinol and Picasso, as well as Catalan art. In the hills surrounding the monastery sit sculptures by Gaudi, and trekkers who gain the summit of Montserrat are rewarded with the most breathtaking views of the Pyrenees.
After I trawl the ubiquitous gift shops, I make my way into the coffee shop, get a
croissant and coffee con leche, and sit down on a wicker chair. Soon, Ben, one of my aforementioned fellow-travellers, makes his way across to me. “Say,” he intones, “did you really mean it when you said you get cold weather like this in India?” I look at him. This was going to be a long story…..
Getting there: Montserrat sits just 30 km from Barcelona. There are any number of buses and trains (the latter from the Sants railway station, 9 am daily) making the trip. It is almost always cooler at the top of the mount, so do take along a light jacket. The cable car to Montserrat is the most popular option to access the place, especially on a clear bright day. The gorge below makes for a spectacular if scary ride. http://newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/travel/article163994.ece