This article is part of a paid series that I’m writing as a brand ambassador for Michelin Guides.
Serrated stones dominate the arid mountainside reminding me of the rock formations in the Chirichaua mountains of Arizona. The peal of church bells echo against steep mountain walls, as Alan and I wait to hear the angelic voices of a boys choir in a church with a golden altar that surrounds the sacred statue of a black madonna. This certainly isn’t Arizona. No, we’re exploring Montserrat and the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, near Barcelona, Spain.
Tucked into a rugged mountain chain in the Catalonian countryside about 40 miles west of Barcelona, Montserrat is the home of the Black Madonna, La Moreneta (thought to be black because of the soot from candles), and one of Europe’s oldest music schools, which has trained the voices of young boys in the Escolania Children’s Choir since the 1300’s. The oldest publishing house in the world, Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, published its first book here in 1499.
According to Michelin’s Mustsees Barcelona guide, the original monastery was founded in 1025, although hermit monks had been living in caves on the mountain since 900 AD. Napoleon’s forces destroyed Montserrat in 1811, stealing most of the riches except the Black Madonna which had been hidden away in a nearby village. The current buildings date from 1858.
Funicular de Saint Joan—with a 65% grade, it’s the steepest funicular in Spain—climbs from the abbey to the top of the mountain. Visitors enjoy spectacular views, access hiking trails that spread over the mountainside, explore chapels scattered around the mountain and view the hermit caves.
Down below at the monastery, farmers display local goods in an open air market, while monastery stores sell religious icons, boys choir CDs and an especially good brand of brandy made by the monks. Art lovers will enjoy the Museum of Montserrat, which houses a collection of paintings and artifacts. And the Black Madonna holds out her orb, waiting to be touched or kissed by visitors willing to brave a long line that snakes through one side of the church eventually arriving behind the golden altar in the center of the sanctuary. Of course the boys choir is the major draw, performing twice daily during the week and at Sunday services.
Alan and I explored Montserrat on a Silversea Silver Shore Collection cruise excursion ($259 each, which did not include admission to the museum or tickets on the funicular) when our ship, Silver Spirit, called on Barcelona for two nights. The longer stay gave us time to enjoy an independent walking tour on La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous pedestrian avenue one day, and join the 7-hour trip to Montserrat for the second day in port.
Silversea Silver Shore Collection excursions are higher priced excursions offering small group sizes that include exceptional experiences such as meals featuring local products and wines.
During the 45-minute bus ride to the train station at Monistrol, a guide educated us about Barcelona and Catalonia with just enough information to be interesting but not so much as to overwhelm us. The excursion included a ride on the Montserrat Rack Railway (cog railway) up the mountain to Montserrat.
Unfortunately for us, the timing on this Montserrat cruise excursion was a bit off due to some changes in the abbey’s hours on that particular day. Instead of leaving at 9 a.m., our tour departed at 11 a.m. By the time we arrived at Montserrat, explored the farmer’s market and walked up to the church, we were left with time to kill before the concert but not enough time to do anything of significance like riding the funicular to the top of the mountain.
The highlight of the trip was listening to the golden voices of the young boys. The church was filling up by the time Alan and I entered. An elderly woman with a cane seated at the end of a pew allowed us to squeeze beyond her to a couple of empty middle seats. A low hum of an expectant audience permeated the large space as we pointed our cameras here and there to capture the sanctuary’s grandeur.
Our elderly seat mate turned a stern gaze to a group of school children who had been directed by their teacher to sit on the floor against the wall of the aisle. She called the teacher over for a brief discussion in Catalan. If only we could speak the language. It appeared to us that the children, dressed in navy blue uniforms and bright yellow scarves, were behaving better than we would have expected.
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When boys, robed in white and red, marched into the choir stall, the audience hushed. Visitors to the Black Madonna continued to file in front of the statue, stopping to touch or kiss the orb in her hand, as the sweet sounds of a Gregorian chant reverberated through the sanctuary. Although we couldn’t see much, it didn’t matter. The music was what we came to hear.
Afterward, the Silversea excursion group enjoyed a lunch at Restaurant Abat Cisneros, which is only a few steps away from the church. We sat under a stone barrel ceiling as plates and plates of tapas accompanied by red and white wines were served. A main dish of veal or fish and dessert of cream catalonia or chocolate mousse completed the lunch.
Once the leisurely meal had been completed, we were left with too much time to browse the shops but not enough time for a more active adventure like riding the funicular to the top of the mountain. However four of our group weren’t daunted by the short schedule (they obviously have not read My Itchy Travel Feet’s Cruise Excursion Etiquette article). While everyone else arrived in the bus parking lot at the appointed time, the four fellow cruise guests made the group wait for 15 minutes. Okay, I admit it, I was secretly hoping the bus would leave them stranded.
If you arrive late at a group excursion meeting point, apologize profusely rather than acting defensively. Your ride back to the ship will be much more pleasant.
What we liked about this cruise excursion:
The small size of the group meant lots of room to spread out on the bus. The guide was excellent, especially with his handling of the late cruise tour guests. Montserrat was a spectacularly scenic location, the boys choir sang beautifully and the Catalonian lunch was delicious.
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What we didn’t like about the cruise excursion:
With a price of $259 each, tickets to the museum and the funicular should have been included. And a shorter, less elaborate lunch would have allowed more time to explore, especially considering the fine meals we were experiencing on board Silver Spirit. However the change in time was not Silversea’s fault. It was just our bad luck.
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Disclosure: Michelin Guides has paid me to write this article as part of my Michelin Ambassador duties. And Silversea provided a portion of the fee for the Silver Shore Collection cruise excursion to Montserrat.