Imagine finding a statue of a Black Madonna in a cave high up on a mountainside: a relic from a time past, with a story to be sure. Some believe The Virgin of Montserrat – The Black Madonna was carved in the early days of the church, others say as late as the 12th century.
Montserrat reaches 1236 metres above sea level and is popular with hikers and rock climbers. The trails lead you to different lookout points through forests. We saw many cyclists make their way up the steep mountain road, looping back and forth until they reached the top.
Why is the Virgin Mary portrayed as black? Some believe it is a copy of the Egyptian Isis and Horus, an identical story of a virgin with son from thousands of years before Christ; of course Egyptians have darker skin. Others believe during the medieval period, all the art, even the paintings, had the same dark faces, like a fashion or style. Most statues are made of wood and may have discoloured over the centuries but some are made of stone. There are over 450 carvings in Europe alone, all located in Catholic areas and dating back between the 11th and 15th centuries.
The legend goes: the Benedict Monks could not move the Virgin statue so they decided to build their Monastery around her, housing her in a room at the back of their house of worship. It is now decorated in gold: with Mosaics of beautiful Saints line the passageway up to meet her. Pilgrims from around the world visit her each day.
At 13:00, the Escolania de Montserrat Boy’s choir sings (sadly we discovered excluding holidays). It is the oldest music school in Europe started in the 13th century. The boys aging from 9-14 years, cover elementary and secondary studies while learning to sing, play the piano as well as a second instrument of choice. They participate in the prayer of the sanctuary as well as sing for masses of pilgrims. The choir has gone on tour around the world and since the twentieth century the boys have become quite famous through CD’s. Many go on after to have musical careers because of their strong start.
Not an overly religious person, I’d call myself a spiritual seeker rather than a faithful Catholic. However, just knowing that this spot was touched by so many pilgrims before me, I thought about who might come here. Some people make the trek looking for answers, while others come to wish for something. Many may come to ask for strength, healing or to find their way. It gave me a sense that this spot is very special, no matter what religion or walk of life you come from. A feeling of connectedness to all people before and to follow flowed through me as I touched her hand. We search to make sense of this world, with the same questions of why are we here. How many travelers have been to this very spot just to take in the view and accidentally came to the same realization on top of this mountain?
I love how the honour system plays out here. Moneyboxes for candles are left unattended for people to put their payment in. Elaborate white Communion dresses hang in a shop, with books and statues along side to buy, set up in the same fashion with price tags and boxes. No cameras. No guards. Just trust. I guess, if you cannot trust the people visiting high up a mountainside visiting on pilgrimage, whom can you trust?
Catalonians and Spanish from the region have a coming of age tradition of climbing the mountain to spend the night and watch the sunrise over the mountain. Pretty sure sunset would be spectacular too.
The food needs to be mentioned. Travelling throughout the world, you would expect a place heavily visited by tourists in such an isolated spot would serve expensive crappy food, knowing they will never see you again. Montserrat Monastery serves inexpensive food, cafeteria style to fill the pilgrims before they depart. I like this train of thought.
Talking about trains, you can get here by train, bus or car. We managed the winding roads in less than 45 minutes from Barcelona. The road up is nearly as fun and interesting as the destination. The views are striking, as the jagged peeks meet the sky. And then you simply happen upon your destination, park and walk the rest of the way.
Another tick? off my 40 before 40 list.