National Geographic : 1933 Jan
MONTSERRAT, SPAIN'S MOUNTAIN SHRINE BY E. JOHN LONG AUTHOR OF "OxFoRD, MOTHER OF ANGLO-SAXON LEARNING," IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE HARDLY out of sight of the smok ing factory chimneys and scarcely out of hearing of the noise and bustle of Barcelona, busiest and most rest less city of Spain, a medieval Benedictine monastery clings to the face of a fantastic stone peak that rises boldly from the brown foothills of Cataluia (Catalonia). It is Montserrat, the Nation's holiest shrine, to which thousands of the Spanish faithful make pilgrimage each year to pay homage to what is called the Black Virgin. The prosperity, modernity, and political activity of Barcelona trampled my illu sions of a Spain of castles, balconies, cas tanets, and guitars. The city had, to be sure, a bull ring and toreadors; but these, I was informed with much shrugging of the shoulders, are for the crowds.* Con sequently, after I had admired the fine view from Mount Tibidabo, Barcelona's Hollywood Hills, I was ready to go on to other parts of Spain. ONE MUST SEE THE BLACK VIRGIN "Ah, but, senior," remonstrated the hotel manager, "have you seen Montserrat? It is Spain's most sacred shrine. It is very quaint and old, and the Benedictine monks will let you live with them in the Monas tery for three days! It is not far from Barcelona. You should see the Black Vir gin, and the view from the Monastery is magnificent! You will change your opin ion of Catalufia," he added with character istic Catalan pride. Spain's most sacred shrine! I tried to recall others. There was the Escorial, near Madrid, where royalty was buried.t But no, the common people, the peasants, seldom went there. And the birthplace of El Cid, Spain's national hero, in Burgos. El Cid, however, was a popular figure, like Robin Hood or a motion-picture star. People talked about him, but they did not worship him. Live in a monastery with the monks! Why hadn't some one mentioned this be * See, also, "Barcelona, Pride of the Catalans," by Harriet Chalmers Adams, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for March, 1929. t See "Madrid Out-of-Doors," by Harriet Chalmers Adams, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for August, 1931. fore? I had included Barcelona in my itinerary because it lay conveniently on the route from southern France to the beauty spots of Spain-the Alhambra at Granada, La Mezquita of Cordoba, and the Alcazar and the Giralda of Sevilla. 1 Montserrat, I learned, is the name of a strange mountain, and also of the Monas tery, which clings like a swallow's nest halfway up its precipitous cliffs. The Black Virgin, a wooden image darkened by age, is not the only reason why it is a place of pilgrimage. Montserrat, inCatalan tra dition, is the Monsalvatsh or Monsalvat of the Middle Ages, site of the castle of the Holy Grail. The Arabs called it Gistaus, or the stone watchman. Here Ignatius of Loyola, a wounded soldier, knelt in prayer. and went away to found the Society of Jesus. In more recent years the Montser rat choir school has become celebrated. HOSPITALITY EXTENDED TO ALL I inquired of the hotel manager if one must be a Catholic to stay in the Monastery. "Oh, no, senior," he replied. "The Bene dictine fathers are most hospitable to all, whether one comes to pray, or atone, or meditate, or just to see. And there is no charge for lodging, although one is ex pected to leave a small contribution for holy work." Montserrat is accessible to Barcelona by both railway and road. One way is as picturesque and as spectacular as the other; for, while the highway climbs to the Mon astery in a series of hairpin turns and horseshoe curves, the last few miles of the 35-mile railway journey may be made on a narrow-gauge rack-and-pinion line or in the bobbing cage of a new aerial cableway. Being in no hurry, I chose, at the rec ommendation of my host in Barcelona, the railway and the rack-and-pinion route. Once clear of the spreading suburbs of Barcelona, the main-line railroad strikes boldly out into the beautiful plain of Sardafiola. How much the countryside here resembles southern California! There are green fields with angular irrigation $ See "Seville, More Spanish Than Spain," by Richard Ford, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for March, 1929.