I stumbled upon Montserrat when I was in the final stages of planning our Barcelona itinerary. Montserrat usually flies under the radar of most Muslim travelers because it’s located an hour away from the city, but I was immediately enthralled by this unique mountain and the mysterious monastery built atop.
Montserrat, which means “serrated mountain,” is a mountain with multiple jagged peaks that look like they were sawed off (hence the name). For hundreds of years, this mountain has also held religious significance. At first, it was the site of an ancient temple honoring the Roman goddess Venus. Then, the discovery of a seemingly supernatural statue led to the construction of a monastery dedicated to its worship, which still operates today.
Reasons to visit Montserrat
Montserrat attracts two groups of people: nature lovers and curious pilgrims. Nature lovers flock to this mountain for its distinct beauty and the views it offers of the surrounding valley. Curious pilgrims visit this mountain to pay homage to the venerated statue now known as “The Black Madonna of Montserrat.”
Saad and I went to Montserrat because I have a deep affinity for mountains; their stillness, strength, and splendor beckon me to their midst, and we were also a little intrigued by the monastery and its mystical Black Madonna... So I guess we were “curious nature lovers.” Wondering what we learned about the statue and the powers it’s said to possess? Or if the view from the mountain is really worth it? In this post, I’ll demystify everything about this day trip from the city of Barcelona into the Spanish countryside where Montserrat lies.
Spoiler alert: the view is 1000% worth it
Getting from Barcelona to Montserrat
Montserrat isn’t too far from Barcelona - it’s about 40 miles (or approximately 65 kilometers) northwest, but getting there involves a couple of steps: step one is getting to the base of the mountain and step two is going up to the summit.
If you want to go independently (i.e. without a group), the best option is to take the R5 Manresa train from Barcelona’s Plaça d'Espanya station. This train leaves every hour and it will take you to the foot of the mountain. Get off at the Aeri de Montserrat stop if you want to take the cable car up or, stay on until the Monistrol de Montserrat stop if you want to take the funicular to the top. You can buy combined tickets at the ticket booth at Espanya station.
Travel tip: If you’re planning on going ALL the way to the summit (past the monastery to other parts of the mountain), I’d recommend getting the Trans Montserrat Ticket because it covers all of the transportation (up, down, sideways) at a reduced rate. There’s also a ToT Montserrat Ticket, which includes admission to the museum and a buffet lunch, but the museum is nothing special and the food isn’t great (not many halal options). Eat breakfast beforehand or dinner afterward at one of these amazing restaurants in Barcelona.
By tour bus
The train, ticket, and timing situation can be a bit tricky, so we decided to go to Montserrat with a tour company to make our lives easy. And by “easy,” I mean we literally booked the Easy Montserrat tour with Catalunya Bus Turistic. They gave us a central meeting spot in Barcelona where we boarded a large, comfortable bus and then took the funicular (a.k.a. rack railway) up. The higher the funicular went, the more incredible the landscape looked.
The view from the funicular on the way up the mountain
The main advantages of doing a group bus tour is that all of the logistics are handled for you, and you’re accompanied by a guide who narrates the story of the monastery and shows you around so you don’t have to google it on your phone. The downside is that you’re bound to the tour’s timetable.
Travel tip: The Easy Montserrat tour usually runs from 10 am - 4 pm. This may seem long, but it includes travel time, a guided tour, and free time to explore the mountain. Within this window, we had enough time to walk through the abbey, go inside the basilica, take a hike, and even grab a snack at the outdoor farmers' market. It was just the right amount of time to do everything we wanted without feeling rushed or getting bored.
What to do at Montserrat
The scenery at Montserrat is so breathtaking that you just want to sit on a bench, inhale the crisp mountain air, and soak in the view. However, there are a few more must-see things here, and they all happen to begin with the letter ‘M’: the monastery, the Madonna, St. Michael’s cross, and the market.
The monastery on the mountain
We started our day on Montserrat by visiting the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey. An abbey is a type of monastery used to conduct religious activities associated with Christianity. It’s kind of like a church with one big difference; while a church is a public building for worship, an abbey consists of several private buildings for worship. The Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey is a complex that houses 70-80 Benedictine monks in residence who have devoted their whole lives to their Roman Catholic faith. The monks live here full-time and the abbey is self-sufficient, meaning they cook their own food and provide intellectual and musical education on their own premises. Is there a Muslim version of this kind of training for husbands men? Asking for a friend 😜.
Travel tip: During certain hours, the abbey does allow visitors. The best time to go is when the monastery’s world renowned Boys Choir (the Escolania) sings - usually at 1:00 pm and 6:45 pm Monday to Friday. The monastery is also open on the weekends (we went on a Sunday), but the Boys Choir does not perform.
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey
The legend of the Black Madonna
Okay to be honest, the architecture of the monastery isn’t remarkable. What makes this monastery worth visiting is the history and location. We didn’t wander around looking at buildings, we marveled at the view next to them. Then, we went inside to the abbey’s basilica to see the famous statue of the Black Madonna.
The Black Madonna is a representation of Mary with her child Jesus (peace be upon them), carved in wood. Mary’s body is thin and her face is elongated. She is holding an orb of the Earth in her hand, while Jesus sits in her lap with his palm raised in a traditional blessing. The strange thing about this statue is that both Mary and Jesus’ skin is completely black - but it’s not because the maker thought Mary and Jesus were African. When the statue was created in Jerusalem during the early days of the Christian Church, the skin was much lighter. Over time, thousands of people lit thousands of candles in front of it and this prolonged exposure to smoke caused the color to change. Officially, the statue is called "The Virgin of Montserrat." Commonly, the statue is known by the nickname, La Moreneta or "The Black Madonna of Montserrat." “Black” because of her appearance and “Madonna” from the Italian word “ma donna” meaning “my lady.”
Interior of the monastery's basilica, where the statue of the Black Madonna is enshrined
The statue was eventually given to the Bishop of Barcelona, but when Spain was invaded in the 7th century, a group of citizens removed the statue from the city and hid it in a cave on Montserrat for safekeeping. According to legend, the statue was lost for a century until shepherd boys from a nearby village saw glowing lights and heard singing on the mountain, which led to the re-discovery of the statue. Then, a small church was built - and later the infrastructure for the monastery - to worship the Black Virgin Mary of Montserrat, who is now Catalonia’s patron saint. People believe that if you kiss the hand of the statue, she will bestow fertility on a couple longing for a child.
Travel tip: The Black Madonna is enshrined at a gold altar above the chapel. There are two lines to get into this area: one line to enter the basilica, and one loooong line to get up close and personal with the Black Madonna for any wish-granting requests. Since Saad and I are good practicing Muslims, we were satisfied with seeing the statue from afar. Make sure you get in the right line because the line for the Black Madonna can take hours!
The hike to Saint Michael's cross
My favorite thing to do at Montserrat was hiking. There are a bunch of trails on the mountain with varying levels of difficulty, but of them, the one I’d recommend is the hike to Saint Michael’s cross. At an elevation of 2,500 feet, this area offers the most picturesque view of the monastery nestled in the mountainside and the valley.
The hike only takes about 30 minutes each way, and ends at the cross on the edge of the rocks in the photo below. Doesn’t look too bad, right?
Let’s zoom out…
BAM. Intimidated? Don’t worry, the hike looks more daunting than it is. Heck, if I was able to trek to that cross in sandals and a sundress (which according to Saad is pretty-but-not-practical attire), then you can too. Luckily, the path to St. Michael’s cross is wide and semi-paved so I didn’t struggle... too much.
The path to St. Michael’s cross
This hike begins behind the Santa Cova funicular, from the sign marking St. Michael’s path. We followed the trail all the way to St. Michael’s cross, without taking any detours to the hermitages or the Santa Cova cave where the statue was originally found. The uphill walk on the way there was harder than the walk back, but the whole route was very scenic. Once we got to St. Michael’s cross, we were greeted by the most spectacular, panoramic view from this little lookout. I’m always left in awe when I venture up into the clouds to be in the company of mountains.
St. Michael’s cross lookout on Montserrat
Our postcard photo from Montserrat, showcasing his vs. hers hiking attire
Travel tip: Another popular activity on Montserrat is the hike to Sant Jeroni. This is the highest summit of the mountain, standing at 4,055 feet above sea-level. You can access the trail from the top entrance of the Sant Joan funicular. On a clear day, you can see almost all of Catalonia and even spot the island of Mallorca, but the view of the monastery isn’t as impressive as it is from St. Michael’s cross. Remember, Montserrat is a mountain so the temperature is about 10 degrees colder than what you’ll experience in Barcelona as you’re getting ready for your day trip.
The farmers' market
Hiking is bound to work up an appetite, but like I said earlier, the food at the food courts on Montserrat is subpar, so after our hike to St. Michael’s cross, we headed to the farmers' market outside the abbey to grab a snack. And that snack turned out to be CHEESE, lots and lots of delicious, creamy, and fattening flavorful homemade cubes of cheese. Cheese is one of the specialities of the farmers and they’ll gladly hand out samples that will definitely entice you to buy some cheese, which will make for a fun and totally not nauseating bus ride back down the mountain. It’s not the healthiest post-hiking snack, but the cheese is sooo good. I’d also recommend perusing the fresh baked breads and the varieties of honey.
Honey and cheese at the farmers’ market
Travel tip: There are a few sculptures outside of the abbey near the farmers’ market. Next to the Mirador restaurant is the Stairway to Heaven. This sculpture consists of a stack of concrete blocks that look like a spiral staircase ascending into the sky. Idiots Influencers used to climb these blocks to get an Instagram picture, but obviously this is dangerous and not role model behavior so now, the Stairway to Heaven is enclosed behind a fence. The right angle and some editing may make the Stairway to Heaven look mesmerizing, but in reality this sculpture isn’t that cool. There’s a nice, open circular courtyard with arches next to the parking lot, which is a better (and safer) way to get pictures of yourself with the mountains in the backdrop.
South to Seville
Montserrat was off the beaten path from Barcelona, but it was a wonderful detour that allowed us to escape into the peace of nature from the commotion of the city. Although the architecture of Barcelona is fascinating, there is no artist like Allah. The mountains silently exalt the majesty of God’s creation.
After our day trip to Montserrat, we flew south to Seville to see the grandest traces of Spain’s Islamic legacy.
About Annum Munir
I’m a twenty-something Muslim blogger who’s guilty of falling in love with every place I visit. I’m always planning the next trip in my head and missing the last one in my heart. When I’m not off discovering new parts of our beautiful planet, you can find me happily immersed in an art project.