Montserrat: a land of visions, hermits and serious hikers

Alex Leith engages with his spiritual side on the holy mountain of Montserrat

From the top of Sant Jeroni, the highest peak of the holy mountain of Montserrat, you are promised the best 360-degree view in the whole of Spain: the sight of Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida in one turn of your head; beyond the Pyrenees and into the Mediterranean; a glimpse of France.

It's an hour-and-a-half's trudge from the nearest cup of coffee, but it's meant to be worth every step. On a clear day, they say, you can even see Mallorca. On a clear day...

The day I choose to visit Montserrat is not a clear one. The cable-car ride up the mountain to the monastery complex - which our guidebook has enthused about - has been a disappointment because, though it's been fairground-scary, it hasn't offered much of a view. It's raining, you see - the sort of cold, dispiriting, top-of-a-mountain drizzle you get when you're sitting in the middle of a freezing cloud.

I had no fewer than seven reasons to visit Montserrat: (1) I've seen pictures of it and it looks amazing. It is an outlandish-looking sandstone mountain which has 10 or so bulbous - occasionally phallic - limestone peaks. (2) The Benedictine monastery hosts a 12th-century wooden statue of a black Madonna and child. People queue to see it and they make a wish as they touch the statue. (3) Pilgrims have been visiting Montserrat for more than 1,000 years. Hermits used to live in the many caves in the mountains. (4) The mountain was an anti-Franco refuge during his dictatorship. (5) Montserrat is still the most common name given to Catalan girls; it is traditionally shortened to Montse. (6) The location is easy to reach, just 40km and an hour's train ride inland from Barcelona (see box). (7) That famous view.

I buy a more detailed guidebook in the crowded bookshop (background music: Gregorian chants) and a khaki floppy rain hat in the crowded souvenir shop, and visit the Gents. Here, I meet a serious, muddy man who is washing his feet in one of the basins. I decide to chat to him.

"Long walk up?"

"Two months."

His fringe is tied into a plait. His face is weather-beaten. He's about 40. "No, I mean how long did it take to walk here."

"Two months. I came from Asturias."

That's over 400km away. I feel a surge of admiration for the man. "Good luck," I say as I turn to leave.

"I don't believe in luck..." he replies as the door starts closing behind me... "I believe in..."

I don't catch the end of the sentence. But whether it's "God", "self-reliance" or "never using public transport" doesn't matter. The meeting has brightened my mood. And as I set out to the basilica to join the crowd to see the black Madonna, the drizzle has finally stopped.

The black Madonna is so interesting I queue up twice to see her. You follow a couple of graphic signs (a black face under a Madonna-style head-dress), walk through a corridor of frescoes and gold mosaics and come to a little chamber above the altar in the apse of the basilica. And there, in a bubble of glass, set on an ornate silver throne, is a Madonna and child statue. The mother has a long, thin Caucasian nose and a small mouth, and the child looks like a mischievous shrunken middle-aged man. They are both unequivocally black in colour, yet the explanation of their pigmentation is a subject of some debate. The in-house theory it that they were once white, but that the wood has changed its colour with age. A more radical (but believable) theory holds that their colour is representative of their Middle-Eastern stock. I touch the orb in Mary's hand, poking through a hole in the glass, and make a wish. Just in case.

The basilica had to be rebuilt after Napoleon's troops blew it up in 1812, but escaped the church-burnings by the anarchists in the 1930s. Around the corner there's a little chapel with a sign, "A place for prayer", in five languages. It is full of people praying. But there's too much happening on the brickwork for me to be able to concentrate on inner peace, and anyway, I'm not a believer. After 10 minutes' contemplation of the incident-filled frescoes, I creep out. I'm very aware of the squeak in my shoe.

The rain has held off but I am still in the middle of a cloud. We set off on a short stroll, aiming to get away from the tourists. I follow a path and come to a crossroads, with four different arrowed signs. One of the options says camino del los ermites (hermits' path). I decide to follow that one. Pretty soon I am wandering up stone steps away from the monastery, into an oak forest, occasionally aware of the massive limestone blocks looming above. Things are looking up.

It is the look of the people returning the other way that alerts me to the possibility that I might be going for more than just a short stroll. They are in groups of four to six, wearing cagoules and hiking boots. They have healthy red cheeks. They smile kindly as they pass, and say "hola". One woman is carrying ski sticks.

In my city shoes and tourist hat, I feel out of place. And, after three-quarters of an hour I haven't a clue where I am going... or how to phrase a question to ask someone. I come up with, "is it far to the end of this path?" The reply comes with a smile. "To Sant Jeroni? Quite a way. Less than an hour. More than half. But it's worth the bother. It is definitely worth the bother."

This confronts me with a dilemma. It is approaching four o'clock, and the last cable car down to the train station leaves at 5.45pm. The guidebook says that Sant Jeroni is the highest peak in Montserrat. But continuing up will perhaps force the agonising decision that I will have to turn back before reaching our destination. It brings the possibility of still being on the mountainside as it turns dark. And it will mean missing some of the attractions that I have come to see - the boys' choir, an art gallery containing works by Picasso, Dali, El Greco, Matisse, Caravaggio. What's more it will turn a leisurely stroll into a race against time.

I decide to press on.

It's funny when you're climbing up a mountain how often you think you have just about reached the top, when really you are nowhere near it. My legs tire. It seems to be getting darker. I realise that I will be the last up, that there will be no-one behind. I consider turning back. I come across a closed-up chapel in a clearing, and decide, again, to go on. Then, turning a corner, I see the rounded top of a mountain peak, right in front of me. The famed peak of Sant Jeromi, and the best view in Spain.

I can hardly see in front of my nose for the freezing fast-moving cloud that nearly blows me off the side of the rock as I hurry up the last steps. A sufferer of vertigo, I'm absolutely terrified. But I feel a rare sense of elation as I reach the top of the holy mountain. View? There's no view. I'm an unbeliever in a Catholic shrine, a myopic in a place of visions. But, as I grip the handrail and look out into the thick swirling vapour, occasionally catching a glimpse of the massive rock formations all around, I feel a surge of the unbridled power of a superior force. Nature.

I will never know what the muddy hiker believed in instead of luck, but I have thought about it a lot in the days since I returned from Montserrat (I caught the cable car, despite being delayed by a vicious-looking black-and-yellow lizard on the way back). I've often wished that I'd talked to him afterwards and told him that I didn't believe in luck, either, or in wooden statues making your wishes come true, for that matter. But that coming to the holy mountain had reinforced two beliefs that I do strongly hold. I believe in climbing every mountain that I meet. And, what's more, I believe in recognising a spiritual moment when one comes my way.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

First, fly to Barcelona. BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and its alliance partner, Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com), fly from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester; Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) flies from Manchester; easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick, Newcastle, Luton, Stansted, Liverpool and Bristol; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford.

Barcelona airport is 12km south of the city centre. To reach Montserrat from the airport on public transport, first take the Airobus to Placa de España, price €3.60 (£2.60). From here you can get the train (which leaves every hour) to Montserrat Airi, the "base station" for Montserrat. The fare of €12.60 (£9) return includes the price of the cable car. The cable car operates from from 7.40am to 6.30pm. The basilica is open from 7.30am to 8pm.

Jack Seymour

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