Category: Spain


Magical Montserrat

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

What to do with one day yet in Barcelona before the cruise weighs anchor? There’s plenty of ground yet unturned in the city, but there’s also an intriguing day-trip site of a completely other flavor that begs to be on a Barcelona short list.

The Monastery of Montserrat – also called the Abbey of Montserrat or Santa Maria de Montserrat – sits at the edge of the Pyrenees about 30 miles from Barcelona. Founded by the Benedictines in the 11th century, it’s tucked into a mountain of the same name that rises to more than 4,000 feet.

Since tour bus service from Barcelona is non-stop and everything at the other end is very walkable, it makes sense to sidestep car-rental-and-parking-spot-search and grab an uninterrupted chance to enjoy the great scenery.

Pyrenees foothills near Montserrat, Spain

The ascent starts gently, but it’s not long before rock formations begin to sprout. These are not the sharp-toothed mountains of Colorado or the Alps, but weathered monoliths on which the angles are all now worn to curves.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

As the bus approaches, the monastery grows picture postcard perfect out of the mountain not as much perched upon it as embraced by it. The architecture here is Romanesque, and buildings including a basilica and belltower are arrayed around a classic courtyard.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

The “Santa Maria” part of the abbey’s name comes from a Madonna-and-child statue carved in dark wood that’s the centerpiece of the basilica. She is one of only about 500 Black Madonna artworks to survive the Catholic Church’s remake of Christian art in a European image, and she is known affectionately among Catalonians as La Moreneta… the little dark-skinned one.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

Paradoxically, Ignatius Loyola laid down his arms at the icon’s feet before founding the Jesuits and in 1881 Pope Leo XIII declared her the patroness saint of Catalonia!

There’s more to Montserrat than worship, though. This monastery was a productive community that provided for itself and was very engaged in the world around it.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

The Benedictines have been printing books here since 1499, and the monastery houses one of the oldest continuously operating printing presses in Europe.

 

 

The celebrated Montserrat Boys Choir – the Escolania de Montserrat – sings at least once daily in the basilica and on select dates gives more extended performances.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

The basilica museum houses sculptures and paintings by artists including works by El Greco, Dalí, and Picasso.

Did I mention that wine’s been made here for centuries?!

Courtyard market, Monastery at Montserrat

Wherever there’s traffic there’s a market, and Montserrat is no exception. Here the merchants here all looked like mothers and grandmothers. Everything for sale looked to be both was homemade and edible; there was not a Montserrat T-shirt or baseball cap in sight!

Tram at Montserrat, Spain

The funicular’s upward and downward trams share the same mountainside track, and those with an inclination can hike further up to a lookout point from which it is claimed that the island of Majorca is visible on a clear day.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

As the tram descends and the monastery grows ever larger, it really sinks in that in medieval Europe there were a lot worse jobs than being a monk!

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

See my related post on Barcelona here, and join me on the cruise when the ship departs Barcelona for the south of France on my next Europa post.

Barcelona beckons

Street scene, Barcelona, Spain

I might never have seen Barcelona had a cruise to Rome not begun there, and that would have been a travel tragedy.  Barcelona is not only a different flavor of Spain and a distinctive take on Europe, but a feast of sights, sounds, and tastes that will provoke your thoughts and lift your spirits.

Abraham Centre, Barcelona,Spain

Barcelona is full of contrasts that will surprise and delight, beginning with a skyline dotted by grand scale sculptural architecture in cutting-edge Euro style.

Microwave tower, Barcelona, Spain

This is, after all, the birthplace of painter/sculptor Joan Miró (there’s a museum) as well as Picasso’s childhood home (you can visit it).

Beach near Port Olympic, Barcelona, Spain

The window of my high rise hotel right on the coast in the Olympic Village affords a great view of the city.

Street scene, Barcelona, Spain

Street scene, Barcelona, Spain

It is the door to a walking time machine that will take me back 1,000 years within 45 minutes.

 

Barcelona is a different flavor of Spain because its history as an independent Cataluña far pre-dates its Spanish nationality.

 

Beginning with the fall of Franco, the Catalan culture has experienced a renaissance to the extent that the Catalan language appears on maps and street signs.

 

The walk from the Olympic Village (’92 Summer Olympics) toward the city along the shoreline begins with a mammoth marina that’s liberally sown with seafood restaurants and bars.  (Dinner begins late here, and it’s not unusual to see a family with children sitting down to order at 10PM.)

Barri Gotic, Barcelona, Spain

 

In the Barri Gòtic, the oldest part of Barcelona, narrow streets are scaled to pedestrians or one-horse carts and buildings for walk-up.

 

It’s easy to get turned around in its Byzantine street plan, but you’re never more than a few blocks from the twenty-first century.

Roman ruins, Barcelona, Spain

 

Barcelona is the product of cultural overlays beginning with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans.

Roman ruins, Barcelona, Spain

 

Subsequent overlays have erased most architectural evidence of them, and the few that remain are treated like antiques under glass.

Montjuic cable car tower, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

Montjuic is a low mountain that is not only a Barcelona skyline signature, but an important milestone in the city’s past and an integral part of its present.

 

This large, wooded park takes its name from its centuries-old Jewish cemetery, and is home to a collection of sites well worth a visit.

 

Most notable are structures built for the 1929 International Exposition including the Palau Palace and the Spanish Village, a hamlet of streets each representing a different region of Spain.  It can be reached from the city center by cable cars that pass over an Eiffel-vintage tower on their way up and back.

Catedral, Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona’s Catedral is a medieval masterpiece and startling contrast with the Catedral Sagrada Familia.

Catedral Sagrada Famillia, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catedral Sagrada Famillia, Barcelona, Spain

 

Sagrada Familia is the unfinished masterpiece of native Antoni Gaudi, whose strikingly original architecture reshaped the face of Barcelona at the turn of the last century, and it’s easily the city’s biggest single attraction.

Gaudi devotees are continuously raising money to complete it and work continues to this day.

 

The place is thick with tourists from Japan, where Gaudi has acquired cult status.

Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain

 

Gaudi’s residential architecture may be smaller in scale, but equally original and instantly identifiable.

 

Gaudi's Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain

Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

For anyone whose appetite for Gaudi remains unsated, his work at the Parc Güell garden complex will completely fulfill.

La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain

 

If Sagrada Familia is Barcelona’s heart, then La Rambla is Barcelona’s soul.

 

The origins of La Rambla pre-date the Roman occupation.

La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain

 

It’s the Champs-Elysees without auto traffic, an urban promenade that lets you crisscross the boulevard at your own pace.

 

Here among the throngs you’ll see mimes, street musicians, and a great slice of Barcelona life.

Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

 

Don’t miss the Mercat de la Boqueria, a great open market in the finest European tradition where you can find everything from fish to flowers. The Mercat fronts on La Rambla.

Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

 

You haven’t experienced Spain unless you’ve had jamon Serrano.

 

Great historical and cultural sites, and engaging coastal setting, and delectable dishes make Barcelona a lot of bang for a single port-of-call, and it will lead you to agree that Barcelona IS the most European of Spanish cities.

Tomorrow I travel into the Pyrynees to the magical monastery of Montserrat.  Click here to come along!