Sunday, September 20, 2015

Montjuïc to Montserrat -- Exploring Outwards and Upwards in Barcelona

On the morning of our second day in Barcelona we decided to explore outwards and upwards. 

Stretching between the port and city center, La Rambla is a broad, tree-lined avenue with a central walking arcade. La Rambla takes you into the heart of the city, but its southern terminus also spills you out to the port. La Rambla was easily accessed from our accommodation in the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), and we strolled past many flower shops, cafes and souvenir vendors that were just opening around 8am on a Friday. We had several hours ahead of us before an afternoon excursion to Montserrat.

La Rambla

First stop was the statue of Columbus, on a pedestal towering above a roundabout at the southern terminus of La Rambla. True to form for a man who thought he'd found a shorter route to Asia, Cristoforo is pointing in the wrong direction, south. Perhaps he's showing all the new immigrants to Spain the way back? There are sculptures on the base, with historical scenes depicting newly reverent indigenous Americans gratefully welcoming their benevolent colonizers.

"Go south, young man," says Columbus, "to Algeria."

Beyond the Columbus statue, Rambla de Mar leads across a small lift bridge to a mooring for yachts and a complex of shopping and entertainment, including an iMax theater. We just strolled around, taking in views of the harbor. It was already sweltering, so we didn't linger in open areas, where it was cooler to move than stand still. A couple times we came across women draped head-to-toe in black robes, with only their eyes exposed. Suffering husbands walked before them, forced to endure the glaring sun in shorts and t-shirts, risking skin cancer.

Barcelona has more than the summer heat in common with the other great cities of Europe. There are also the numerous public fountains with free drinking water. Don't buy any water unless you don't like the taste. Barcelona's tap water, though completely safe, isn't known for its taste. But it's always good for a dunk over your head on a hot day.

Overlooking the city and dominating the skyline from the port was the hill of Montjuïc, dotted with sites dating from the 1992 Olympics. In the distance we could see a cable gondola and what looked like an old fort. We were determined to visit. The park-covered hill is a maze of switchbacking roads that would make the Minotaur proud. After about 40 minutes of wandering, following nearly a half-hour navigating our way to the hill with a sweat-smudged map, we finally settled on skirting the northern edge of the park until roughly in line with the gondola, then zigzagged up to the Telefèric de Montjuïc.

Looking towards Montjuïc from Rambla de Mar

Round-trip fares were €11.50 per adult, but the price was compensated by magnificent views of the city. The ride to the top lasted about 8-10 minutes, and I was thankful for occasional breezes captured by window slats at the top of the car. The fort we had seen, Castell de Montjuïc, is worth the €5 admission. Self-described as the Bastille of Barcelona, the 17th century fort (which underwent periodic remodeling through the 18th century) and ad hoc prison has a history of repressing the separatist notions of the local population as much as of defending against seaborne attack. My 14-year old son could have stayed longer at the fort. It was one of the most enjoyable side trips of our father-son Mediterranean adventure. There are the excellent views and a museum that can be digested in reasonable time.

There are excellent views of Barcelona from atop the Castell.

The Catalan flag flies prominently now from the fort and elsewhere. I don't know that I ever saw a Spanish flag in Barcelona. After centuries of technology that bring us ever closer together, we fish of Babel still yearn for smaller ponds.

We were back at our home base at Hotel Catedral shortly before 1pm, which allowed sufficient time for a leisurely tapas lunch nearby before our 3pm departure to Montserrat. Paella may be the quintessential regional dish, but we loved tapas. The Spanish may have invented the world's best system of eating. It's like a sushi bar, but with no strict definitions of what's on the menu other than that it must be finger food. Prices are normally between €1.75-2.00 per piece; My son and I would pick four or five pieces individually and decided where to go from there. I had to eat a lot to balance the alcohol in a generous, fruit-filled sangria. Probably only the tourists drink that, but with enough time the blurred lines of memory will make it local. There may be a thousand good tapas restaurants in Barcelona; we had great meals at the two we tried in Barri Gotic (the Gothic Quarter), Bilbao Berria on Placa de la Seu and El Pintxo De Petritxol.

After lunch, we navigated our way to the Julia Travel office near Placa Catalunya in the center of the city. The motor coach ride to Montserrat is about 45 minutes, passing through the modern industrial area of Barcelona, including auto manufacturing and cement plants. On the way out of town we passed the local futbol stadiums, which might be the real cultural centers of Barcelona today. The size and attendant facilities were a reminder that the major European soccer franchises rival or exceed the largest American sport franchises in value. But Europe doesn't have the "world's champions" of American football.

Leaving the city, the massif of Montserrat lay before us, dominating the Catalonian countryside. It's Catalan name is appropriate, meaning "serrated mountain" in English, due to its similarity to the many close-fitting, sharp teeth of a saw. Its geology is that of a congolomerate of eroded rocks that dates back to the end of the age of dinosaurs, cemented by limestone. It is not altogether different  in form than Uluru or other clastic sedimentary rock massifs of Australia's Red Centre.

Montserrat is an appropriate name.

There are several ways to the top of the mountain and the Monistrol de Montserrat, including a winding, two lane road and a cable-suspended gondola (telefèric). Our excursion fare included the option of a cog railway. Luckily we chose seating in the left-hand side of the train while going up; the right-hand side had only a close-up view of the mountain wall. The 20-minute climb offers spectacular views, even through summer's haze.

We slowly climbed to an elevation of 725 meters (2379 feet), where it was notably cooler than in the coastal plain below. The higher peaks of Montserrat reach over 1200 meters (3940 feet). The sedimentary rock layering is obvious from this distance .

The monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat is new in the European sense. French soldiers respected the Catalan people about as much as the Spanish or Moors did, and the original site was razed during the Napoleonic wars. But the 19th century construction befits its spectacular setting amidst spires of 50 million-year-old conglomerate. I've seen a lot of beautiful stained glass windows in my life, but those of the chapel behind the main church at Montserrat (and behind the Black Virgin) are arguably the most beautiful. Even the short walk through a gate and looking suddenly upon the church façade itself is inspiring; I had a sudden sense of how Petra in Jordan may have appeared to the ancient traveller stumbling upon it through a slot canyon, in the days when it had life.


Montserrat's Benedictine monks used to concoct a slightly bitter liqueur from 15 ingredients, mostly herbs, Aromes de Montserrat. The heady liqueur and its variants is still produced produced by a private company, some of it on the grounds using the monastery's original stills. Today the list of ingredients is down to 12; perhaps each herb represents an Apostle? More likely, the brothers didn't wish to completely divulge their secret recipe. The monks first produced the drink as a digestive aid. I tried tastings of Aromes and several other liqueurs at the gift shop, La Botiga. Green bottles of Aromes sell for €12, though I bought a bottle of local olive oil instead. We didn't see any monks during our visit to Montserrat. It is possible they sample their merchandise on Fridays.

There is also an audiovisual presentation attached to a small historical museum that was paid for as part of our €53 per person excursion fare.

But it is La Moreneta, the Black Madonna, who has made Montserrat a place of pilgrimage for millions, on its own a reason to see her. The Romanesque statue is located in a sanctuary at the rear of the chapel, surrounded by an altar of gold. What history, to look upon the same face that was venerated by war-weary St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1522, before he founded the Jesuits. Many miracles are attributed to the shrine, but the main miracle may be that the little statue was not razed with the rest of the sanctuary during the Napoleonic invasion. The Madonna holds a globe* in her right hand, polished smooth by countless hands, which apparently I was supposed to rub for good luck. Next time.

Our next stop was Marseilles.

*The globe is meant to represent the Earth. If so, the 12th century Moreneta is further evidence that Columbus didn't prove the world is round in 1492. Like George Washington's cherry tree, so many of my cherished childhood notions are debunked.