TRAVEL GUIDE: CYCLING THE MAGIC OF MONTSERRAT
If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, then the Black Madonna of Montserrat is the face that launched a million pilgrims. For over a thousand years, Benedictine monks have lived high up in the serrated mountains to welcome people to her shrine.
Legend has it that one day, late in the 9th Century, shepherds cited an ethereal glow coming from a cave in the Montserrat mountains. The glow came every night, until a vision of the Virgin Mary commanded that they investigate, which they did, and discovered a small statue of the Virgin and Child. Whether you believe the tales of ‘glows’ and ‘visions’ or not, there is evidence to suggest that after being hidden from the Moorish invaders in 718, the statue was discovered all alone in the caves in the 9th Century. Documentation of the first monastery in the area coincide with this (888AD), and in the years following the discovery, there are countless records of miracles and mysterious happenings in the mountains of Montserrat.
Naturally, this kind of story was right up our alley and so, like millions before us, we made the pilgrimage to visit the affectionately named La Moreneta (The Little Dark-Skinned One) of Montserrat.
There are a few ways you can get to Montserrat Monastery from the little town of Montserrat below. If you want to get there relatively quickly and painlessly, there’s a cable car or funicular. If you like being active and are ready to kill your legs, there are beautiful walking routes. If you’re bloody bonkers and fit beyond belief, you can cycle. We fit somewhere between the first and the third option, so we made sure Yolanda and Jacob’s batteries were fully charged and headed on up.
It didn’t take long until the magic of Montserrat took hold. As you ascend into the mountains you literally feel like a little cape of serenity has been draped over your shoulders (even as we huffed and puffed our way through some of the steeper, craggy parts of the path - pedal assist does NOT mean the bikes do all the work for you!). The enormous, glabrous fingers of stone pulled our eyes (and our wheels!) upwards, upwards, upwards. Pockets of peaceful green cast a gentle glow over the peaked landscape, warmed by the spring sun. It is easy to see why a spiritual place would be founded here, even without a miraculous statue. Here, nature itself is the miracle. You know what else is a miracle? The cyclists we past who were doing this trek on regular bikes...O.M.G.
At last we came to the monastery nestled in the palm of this great, rocky Montserrat hand. The area surrounding the monastery is almost like a little town itself. There are beautiful paths to walk to discover mountain views, a couple of cafes, a museum, an enormous courtyard designed for soaking up the sun, and of course the Basilica, which houses La Moreneta.
If you want to visit La Moreneta (and you should), you will need to line up at an entrance beside the Basilica - you may need to wait for quite a while, as they only let a few people through at a time. Once you get let in, you will pass through the side chapels of the church, each housing shrines to different saints. They are nice to look at, but you are kind of stuck in a conga line headed for the statue, and despite the signs asking for respectful silence, like most popular religious sites, people are noisy and eager to push forward to get their selfie. La Moreneta in a room of her own, high behind the main altar. You will climb the stairs to get to her and find yourself in a little gilded chamber. She is encased in protective glass, looking out a small window into the rest of the church, with her right hand poking out holding a sphere (which symbolises the universe). You have a moment to absorb her beauty (and she really is beautiful) and touch or kiss the sphere, before moving on. Despite the tourist hordes jostling you from behind, and regardless of if you are spiritual or not, it really is a beautiful moment when you find yourself alone, face to face with her. There is an electricity in the atmosphere, if only for an instant, and then you shuffle down the stairs to rejoin the conga line.
There is a small room behind where La Moreneta is kept, for people to sit and reflect/meditate following their encounter if they wish. Almost no one goes in there (there’s not really anything worth taking a photo of!), but we enjoyed having some quiet time here to consider the stories behind this beautiful place and this beautiful statue (you can still see her from here, just from behind). Then you can leave through the side door of the basilica, and re-enter into the peach-coloured courtyard to enjoy the sunshine.
When you’ve had your fill of Montserrat mountain, the journey down is wild fun. All that upward climbing is worth it, and you can sail down the path at a million miles an hour while the spectacular scenery whips past like daylight fireworks, bringing you back into the present. Once you’re back in the little town of Montserrat, it’s worth having a bit of an explore, before settling down outside one of the quaint bars with a jug of Sangria and a good book.