Did you ever try to maximize a short stay in a country by throwing in a bunch of day trips only to find them disappointing? Or that it took way longer than you anticipated to travel to them?
Now imagine the exact opposite experience. A day trip that exceeds your expectations. One that isn’t a huge, complicated mess to get to. A place so stunning it makes you forget all about where you came from. Could there be such a place?
There could, actually. And that place is Montserrat.
Located about 45 kilometers northwest of Barcelona, Montserrat is a (not so) hidden mountain gem – and the mother of all day trips from Catalonia.
Before delving into the logistics of planning a day trip to Montserrat, I wanted to give you a brief history of the area and its famous monastery.
Montserrat mountain has been religiously significant since pre-Christian times. Although it’s not known exactly when monks first came to Montserrat, it’s believed that four of the chapels were built there at some point in the ninth century. Today, only one of the chapels remains. In 1025, Benedictine Abbot Oliba, the Abbot of Ripoll and Bishop of Vic founded the Monastery of Montserrat.
Later, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a Romanesque church showcasing a carving of the image of the Mother of God was built in Montserrat. At this point, pilgrims began journeying there.
Montserrat’s importance grew over the years, until 1811-1812, when it was destroyed by Napolean’s army. The Monastery later lost its property and all but one monk with the 1835 Land Acts, but restoration and reconstruction started up in 1858.
Then, in the twentieth century, the turbulence of the Spanish Civil War forced the monks out of the monastery, killing 23 of them. At the end of the war, the monks returned yet again to continue with the reconstruction.
Today, the monastery stands strong as a symbol of the Catalan fight against oppression, and many tourists come to marvel at its beauty each year.
Traveling to Montserrat from Barcelona is a comfortable, totally manageable day trip. By train, you’re looking at an hour to an hour and a half journey, and about the same by car.
My aunt and I hired a private driver and we were quite pleased with our decision, as it allowed us to take in the beautiful scenery in semi-private comfort. It’s hard to say exactly how long it took us, as we did stop off at a winery on the way to Montserrat, but it was just about an hour, give or take.
And let me just say, the scenery along the way was show-stopping to say the least. As you slink and slither up the winding roads, you become enveloped in mountains. A great rush of excitement and anticipation washed over me, similar to the start of a roller coaster ride. As a total heights junkie, my heart was beating with anticipation and my pupils were definitely dilating!
Please excuse the cropped video… I now know I need to shoot in landscape on my phone!
That said, if you’re bad with windy turns or heights in general, you may have a little difficulty with the steeped landscape. One of the ladies in our van was actually uneasy, so I tried to lighten the mood by joking that we’d be going ziplining once we reached the top! (She laughed in spite of herself, although I don’t think she was entirely amused.)
The train trip is a bit more involved, but only marginally. By train, there are two separate options for reaching the monastery: a cable car ride or the Funicular Cremallera Train. If you do decide to travel by train, you can check out the travel details and timetables here.
In my opinion, all of Montserrat is a must-see sight, but in particular, the monastery is definitely worth visiting. You’ll likely have to wait in line for entry (we waited in March, so I imagine it would be a longer line in the busier months).
Once inside, you’ll see enormous ceilings and the star of the show, the statue of the Black Madonna, Patron Saint of Catalonia, who sits atop the high altar in the basilica. There’s actually a staircase that will take you directly to her, and from there you can look down on the entire monastery, a pretty spectacular vantage point.
However, I personally found the most spectacular sight to be the rock formations themselves.
What we see today as the base of the mountain was once the delta of a river that came from the Balearic continent and flowed into a larger lake in Catalonia’s center. At the bottom of the lake were sediments, and when the Balearic continent submerged, it left a dry lake and an uncovered delta. This mass was vulnerable to the elements, and over the past ten million years, climate changes and erosion formed it into the rock masses of the current day.
Our tour guide actually said that if we hiked we could find seashells from when the formations were underwater!
Although I so would have loved to have that experience, sadly it was raining and we had limited time there, so we didn’t do any serious hiking. However, I would definitely recommend hiking for those who have the time and ability.
Although we were staying in Barcelona at the time, we were pleasantly surprised to find that you can actually book rooms right on site at the Hotel Abat Cisneros!
If I ever return, I’ll definitely stay on site so I can really take advantage of hiking – not to mention catching some gorgeous sunrise views! I would highly suggest staying on-site if you’re looking to get away from the chaos of Barcelona.
However, whether you decide to stay or just come for a day to escape city life, you won’t be disappointed. I know I wasn’t!
I hope you found this Montserrat guide to be helpful. Save it to your pin boards for later!