Tag Archives: Vall de Nuria

Travels in Spain, Montserrat and the Black Madonna

Montserrat 02

After a day of modernist architect Antoni Gaudi and another one in the medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter of old Barcelona the plan today was to leave the city and take a train from Barcelona and travel thirty miles west to visit the Monastery of Montserrat.

So, with rigor mortis fingers clutching our wallets and our valuables we descended deep down into the metro tunnels and began our journey.

It took about an hour to arrive at our destination and then another thirty minutes on the funicular railway to reach the top of Catalonia’s Sacred Mountain. This is a place of pilgrimage where apparently every Catalan visits at least once in their life to watch the sunrise over the Serrated Mountain (Montserrat).

I have to start with another rather unlikely religious yarn.

The history of Montserrat began in the year 880 when a small group of shepherd children (these stories generally include young children – Knock in Ireland, Fatima in Portugal and even Joan of Arc) saw a bright light descending from the sky in the mountains and heard angels singing and instead of being shit-scared the music filled their hearts with a radiant joy.

The children ran home to frantically report the experience to their parents. They were sceptical but were persuaded to go to the place where the children had experienced the visions to collaborate the story and lo and behold they experienced the visitation as well. Next to come along was a local Priest who, surprise, surprise witnessed the same.

Black Madonna

The visions occurred in and around a cave which was explored by the religious elders of the community where miraculously they found an image of the Virgin Mary. This is the Black Madonna, considered to be one of the most celebrated images in Spain, which is believed to perform numerous miracles and attracts millions of visitors every year from all over the world.  People queue a long time to visit the Black Madonna, about three hours on the day that we were there, and when they get to the front of the line they get just about five seconds to make a wish before it is all over.

An interesting issue about the Madonna is that she is black and so is the infant Jesus which is just one of those pieces of evidence that some scholars rely upon to support the theory that Jesus wasn’t a sort of blond Nordic type that we all imagine him to have been in the west but rather more like a dark skinned man from the Middle East. Rather like an Arab.  If Muslims believed in Jesus and were allowed religious portraits then I am certain he would be black.

Jesus Black or White

Seems to work well both ways I think but that surely is the point, Jesus can be whatever you want him (or her) to be…

Another interesting fact is that in 1493 Christopher Columbus named the Caribbean island of Montserrat after the Virgin of Montserrat.

Not content with the dubious story of the Black Madonna, some also claim that somewhere in a cave in these mountains is the Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ and in previous times Monks used to live in the caves whilst they searched for it in-between prayer sessions.

Many places claim to be the likely site for the Grail (it is good for tourism, after all) but my favourite story is that it is currently in Fort Knox in the USA where tourists can’t go.  The legend states that there is a special room somewhere deep inside the vault that stores not just the Holy Grail but also the Ark of the Covenant and the True Cross, complete with the dried blood of Christ.  I expect Indiana Jones found them all and handed them over to the US Government for safe keeping!

Safe because the main vault door is twenty-two tons of steel and can withstand a direct hit from a two kiloton nuclear warhead.  I don’t believe the story of the Holy Grail but for certain the Depository has housed a copy of the Magna Carta, the Hungarian crown jewels including the Crown of St. Stephen, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and various other historical documents from all over the world.

Montserrat 03

After visiting the church and the Benedictine Abbey and catching a brief glimpse of the Black Madonna from about one hundred yards away we left the monastery complex and took another funicular ride to the top of the mountain.  Well, almost the top because after the train there was a steep climb and we didn’t fancy slogging our way right to the top.  It was too hot!

The Monastery of Montserrat is about 4,000 feet high and isn’t even the highest in Catalonia because this is nearby Vall du Nuria which is about 7,500 feet high.  By comparison the highest Monastery in the World is the Buddhist Rongbuk Monastery near the base of the north side of Mount Everest at 16,350 feet above sea level.

Building Monasteries as high as possible is rather like building churches as high as possible to try and get closer to God.  Rather like the Bible story of the Tower Of Babel  (Genesis 11:1-9) …

Tower of Babel

Some people thought it was a good idea to build a tower so high they could get to heaven and prematurely meet God to see what he looked like (was he white, black or woman).  God didn’t like that idea so he invented different languages so that no one could understand one another and they couldn’t complete the construction.  Maybe this is why God allows natural disasters such as earthquakes to destroy Cathedrals like Christchurch in New Zealand, the Great Fire of London to burn down old St Paul’s or terrible wars and people like Bomber Harris whose job it was to destroy German Cathedrals in World war Two.  Just a thought.

I didn’t feel especially close to God I have to say but I did enjoy the views and when we had had quite enough we took the train back down to the Monastery, stopped for a drink and then took the return journey all the way back to Barcelona.  It had been a good excursion and I had enjoyed it.

Montserrat 01

Catalonia, The Pyrenees and Vall de Nuria

Vall de Nuria Rack Railway

Ribes de Freser is a pretty little town which is famous for spa water and paper manufacture and a number of redundant stone mills are squeezed into the valley of the river Freser where even in July the melt waters from the Pyrenees made it fresh and lively as the agitated water danced over rocks and surged across gravel beds as it swept the surplus water away.

We walked along the river and came across a young couple who had obviously made the same timetable mistake as me and were now engaged in a blame share conversation that was becoming quite heated and increasingly blue!

And so we dawdled through the streets, Kim wasted some time in a shop while a spotted a poster for a dancing festival that would start tomorrow – the day after we had gone and then we found a table in the sun and ordered some beer.  Nearby was a group of young people with a massive dog and I took no particular notice because it was lying peacefully in the sun and not annoying anyone. Not that is until it sniffed my pheromones and sensing my acute cynophobia stood up, arched its back, bristled its hairs and started to bark madly in my direction.  I really hate dogs and they clearly hate me, I had done nothing to provoke this act of aggression and the owners had to apply a muzzle, try to calm it down and failing completely, pay up and leave. Oh boy, I really hate dogs and they really hate me!

The two hours passed surprisingly quickly and we made our way back to the train station, purchased our tickets and waited for it to arrive and leave.

The Vall de Núria Rack Railway is a mountain railway line that connects Ribes de Freser with the mountain town of Queralbs and then finally Vall de Núria. As Queralbs is the highest point in the valley that can be reached by road, the rack railway is, except for the old footpath, the only way to reach the shrine and ski resort at Núria.

The line is twelve and a half kilometres long and the first half of the line is operated by conventional rail adhesion but then it becomes so steep as it rises through one thousand kilometres that the remainder of the line is operated as a rack railway using a system of cogs that interlock with the track to ensure necessary traction to negotiate the gradient.

The journey took forty-five minutes as the electric engine purred its way along the river valley with wonderful views of forests, rocky cliffs, bubbling waterfalls, river beds strewn with sharp boulders and fallen trees and narrow mountain passes which was once the only way that pilgrims made their way into the valley and to the chapel and sanctuary at the top.  Eventually the track levelled out and the train passed through a long dark tunnel before emerging into the sunshine once more and into the sanctuary of the Vall de Nuria.

This place was apparently once a favourite of General Franco and his pals and it is not difficult to understand why.  Beneath the craggy peaks where black walls of bare rock were separated by gullies still streaked with winter snow are lush alpine meadows where fat dairy cows gorge themselves on emerald green grass, where bubbling streams tumble down the mountain side through rocky gorges and under stone bridges and in the centre of the valley is a blue lake where fish swim and leap out of the water and it all reminded me of that American folk song ‘the Big Rock Candy Mountain’.  I liked it here, it was peaceful, it was gentle, it was tranquil and it was out of the way and off the beaten track.

There was a cable car ride to the very top where at two thousand three hundred metres the views in all directions were quite stunning, too stunning as it happens for me to be able to describe and then, as it was cooler at this elevation, we choose to walk back down and make several detours to enjoy the countryside, the waterfalls and the crisp mountain air.

Actually, the only thing that spoilt it was the hotel complex building which reminded me of Battersea Power Station on the River Thames and whose design didn’t seem to especially complement the natural surroundings but there were a couple of good displays inside about the history and the technology and we visited the sanctuary chapel and suddenly after a couple of hours it was time to go back down.

On the drive back to Campdevànol we stopped and purchased some wine and then there was a decision to be made about evening meal.  The hotel restaurant had a café feel about it but Kim was confident that it would be fine so we reserved a table and after a rest and a couple of beers we returned down stairs to a restaurant that was overflowing, that was bulging, that was struggling to cope with the number of diners and we interpreted this as a very good sign.  And Kim was right because the meal was exceptional and the staff, unaccustomed to English guests had gone to a lot of trouble to make us feel welcome even to the extent of translating the menu into an amusing English version just for us, which I thought was a very nice touch!