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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Making the Most of Majestic Montserrat

There's more to Montserrat than meets the eye... here are our experiences and resources so that you can make the most of your trip!
The View From the Top Cable Car Stop
When we visited Barcelona last year, we did not have time to see Montserrat. We did, however, see Montjuic. Because they both have "Mont" in the name, and because I had not been to Montserrat, I kept getting them confused. Now that I have been to Montserrat, I can promise you that I will never mistake one for the other again!

We left last Friday on the train to Montserrat. A great website to guide you on how to get there is Barcelona-Tourist-Guide. They have instructions for everything that has to do with Montserrat travel. The link above is for traveling there by train as we did. It's worth noting, however, that you can of course rent a car or go with a tour group as well.

We left from Plaza Espanya and found the area for R5 (heads to Manresa). It was very crowded and confusing. Luckily, there was an attendant actually standing at the ticket machines to help us. These ticket machines are just for Montserrat, and there are several options. We wanted the "Trans Montserrat Ticket" with the cable car option. This covers your train ride to Montserrat and back as well as other travel options if you want to explore the rest of the mountain (and not just the monastery), and includes some metro passes as well. You must choose between the Cremallera (funicular/train) and the cable cars for your actual ascent up to the monastery when buying your ticket, so ask for help if needed. We chose the cable cars, and the ticket was 24,25 euros each (the prices have changed a bit since they were last updated on the Barcelona-Tourist-Guide site). It was totally worth it.

The cable car looks so tiny!
Our train stopped at the Aeri de Montserrat station (those with Cremallera tickets will get off at the next stop according to the website I linked above). The cable car trip up to the monastery was no more than 5 minutes or so, but you do have to stand the whole time. Despite not being such a big fan of heights, Will did just fine with this. It was crowded in the cable car, and there is no air conditioning, but the views were breathtaking!
Don't look down!

From the cable cars you will be able to see quite a bit as there are windows all around you. Pay close attention, and you will notice houses in the mountains. I won't complain about walking home from the grocery store anymore!

Once you land, you will be at the monastery. We actually did see a monk escorting somebody who seemed to be famous to one of the funiculars (people were lined up to meet him and they were recording it). You can go inside the basilica and see beautiful statues, wall decorations, and architecture. There is an audio-visual space that your ticket covers, but it looked to be under construction when we went. Of course, you can also stand in a huge line that will wind it's way through the church and take you to the Black Virgin of Montserrat ( La Moreneta) and through a lot more of the building.
Mountains surrounding the monastery

Before we did any of the other activities on this level of the mountain, however, we trekked through the gift shop and checked out an artisan fair that boasted many booths which looked to have the same goods, mostly cheeses and what looked like fruitcake. We didn't buy anything since we didn't want to carry it around with us, and most items on the mountain were very expensive. As we walked, it started raining. It was very windy, and there was quite a bit of lightning. The rain didn't last long, but the wind kept on for what seemed like forever. We had packed our lunches, so we ate outside of the cafeteria  (away from the monastery, toward these columns above) at a table that was a little more sheltered as we watched the mountains during the storm. There is also a great circular lookout point with Romanesque columns, and further down you can visit the WC and additional lookout areas with a crypt beneath the column lookout point if my Catalan is correct.
View from below those columns

Afterward, We headed back to the monastery to see the Black Virgin and waited in line for a VERY long time. The inside of the building was extremely beautiful.

We did not get to hear the choir as they were on holiday. They are well-known and often one of the most talked-about aspects of a trip to Montserrat from what I have read. I guess we will just have to make a return trip soon!

Sadly, we did not visit the museum due to being low on time. I know that it costs extra, but I cannot attest to if it's worth it or not.

After leaving the church area, we set off for the Saint Joan funicular to the top of the mountain (covered in our trans-Montserrat ticket). These do not have air conditioning either. With glass roofs and windows (venting just slightly), you will feel like you are cooking!

Once you get to the top, there is a nature room, but I could not find it! There were two trails that we saw immediately to choose from. One was over an hour long and the other said it was not (but it was!). We chose the second trail, the "shorter" one. At first, there was some uphill walking, but surprisingly, most of it went downhill afterwards. It actually takes you back to the level of the monastery once you come to the end. Some people were walking up this trail. To that I say (in the words of Mr. T.), "I pity the fool...".

There were smaller trails that fed into our larger trail, and on occasion we opted to check them out. The views, of course, were spectacular. We are pretty sure we could see Barcelona from the highest point in our trail. Be careful not to buy too much wine or beer at the restaurant because the railing is scant to none! We also nearly got knocked off the mountain by a van as it came around the corner, so again, do be careful!

There was a cross that was far out on what appeared to be the edge of the mountain. It's not on the main trail, and it was pretty far out. This time, we did not take the road less traveled by and opted to press forward on the main trail.

St. Michael's trail will take you to the cross, b
ut the cross I mentioned above is not this one.
As I said, the trail goes down the mountain. After we reached the monastery level once more, we opted to take the funicular down part of the way to the Santa Cova trails that have religious art work by famous Catalan artists/architects, including Gaudì. This was also included in our ticket - and it's worth adding - that nobody was ever really in the ticket booths at these funicular stations. I commented to the funicular driver that it didn't seem very busy since we were the only ones on the funicular. He mentioned that it had rained and seemed to think it scared people away. Score one for us!

Again, no looking down!
We were really on a time crunch at this point. The last funicular back up to the monastery was in about an hour, and the last train back to Barcelona about an hour after that (keep in mind we would still have to take the cable car back down to the train station as well before getting to the train). Once we arrived at our stop, we turned to the trail on the right. There was another trail to the left, but we did not have time to explore. The trail we took had a lot of up hill craziness, but it went to Santa Cova. We arrived around 1715hrs if I am not mistaken. We got to go into the church part of the way, but from what I have read on Rick Steves' site, there is also a cave (hence, Santa Cova) where the Black Virgin was originally). Unfortunately, it was closing as we were entering, so we were only able to explore the outer post parts of the chapel area.

The statues/scenes on the way were of religious nature, and the subject was Jesus. They were all very beautifully detailed, and there is a sign in the funicular station to Santa Cova that describes which artists worked on which of them.

So, after a full day of walking, we got back to the funicular in time to catch the second to last trip to the monastery level...barely. Yes, we were on time, early even, but those few stairs to the platform were killer by that point as our exhaustion reached maximum levels tolerable by normal-although-slightly-out -of-shape Americans.

We then bee-lined it for the cable car. We waited in line for a while since it wasn't yet due to leave. Some people in front of us had tickets that looked like ours but found out that they weren't valid. I was getting nervous. However, their ticketa were for the cremallera, and apparently they didn't want to wait for the next train (I had overheard some people saying one of the trains didn't leave for an hour, but I couldn't hear very well). So, a lot of the people seemed to take the cremallera up, but took the cable car down; however, they had to pay extra for that ticket for the cable car. The cremallera return ticket was included in their original trans-Montserrat pass.
View on the way back down
We arrived at the Aeri (reminds me of the Eyrie from Game of Thrones) platform and boarded the first train that was going to Barcelona. Oddly enough, after a few stops, a train employee came aboard and told us we all had to get off. So, we did, and we waited for the next train to Barcelona. I'm not sure what happened there, maybe they found an issue with the train or had to take it out of service for some reason, but it scared me a little. After that, it was smooth sailing back home. We actually had to wake up a gentleman behind us since he fell asleep! Keep in mind that with trains in Barcelona, you need to keep your ticket to exit the platform.

Here's the sweetest part of the deal with our tickets...

The next time I hopped on the metro, I found that I had 4 metro trips on the card! I used two during the weekend, but when I tried today (now Wednesday) it was invalid. I'm not sure if there are really only two trips on it, or if they expire after a very short time (since the counter said four).

I hope that you enjoyed this longer-than-normal guide blog! Please don't hesitate to ask questions in the comment section below, or to follow if you want to show your support and stay in the know. There is also a poll on the left side of the main blog page where you can vote on what topics you would like to see next. Of course, you can always leave a comment on the blog to tell me if there is a specific subject that you want me to cover.

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