What the summit of Montserrat, Cataluña’s most sacred mountain, reminded me of had been bugging me throughout the entire journey up there. I had heard the chain described as ‘saw tooth peaks’, but another image was gnawing away at my mind as the thankfully air-conditioned coach headed west out of Barcelona. It was the first time I’d been out of the city in two months and I was relishing the prospect of seeing the landscape from a different perspective.
Montserrat is many things. A mountain, clearly, but also a monastery, shrine, home of the much venerated Black Madonna (a wooden statue that now sits behind protective glass), a prestigious school for choirboys, a site of pilgrimage and a spectacular spot for hiking, rock climbing and other such physical pursuits.
Its name in Catalan literally means ‘serrated mountain’, which made me think of the word jagged, which in turn prompted Alanis Morissette’s lyrics on jagged little pills to come to mind. Just at that point I grasped the image my mind had been groping for…those long fungal fingers reminded me of the white asparagus stems they sell in jars here, all clumped together in white knobbly extremities. (Or quite possibly, a bunch of knuckles.)
So, with Alanis’ plangent wails in my ears and the taste of vegetable brine in my mouth, we ascended.
History has never been my strong point, but it might be useful to give you a wee bit of background on the place and its cultish status.
Apart from the sheer beauty of the natural setting, and the unusual formation of the stone monoliths, the main focal point of Montserrat has always been the Benedictine abbey, called Santa Maria de Montserrat. Monks are still very much in residence, and their ages range from 25 to 95 (although the average age is around 65). It also houses one of the oldest printing presses in the world (the first book was published in 1499), which is still going strong today. This is despite the intevention of Napolean’s troops, who saw fit to burn its entire output at the start of the nineteenth century.
The Virgin Mary is said to have put in an appearance in what’s now a grotto just down from the monastery, in the ninth century, and her likeness is reified in the statue of ‘La Moreneta’ – the Black Madonna. The little dark one is held in extremely high regard by Catalans, and it’s said that most locals have made an overnight pilgrimmage to the site at least once in their lives. (Obviously I intend to interrogate all future Catalans I meet to find out how true this claim actually is.) In the mid-nineteenth century the then Pope declared that the Virgin of Montserrat should be the patron saint of Cataluña, and she still shares this honour with Sant Jordi.
What I find intriguing, much more than the spectacle of people prepared to queue in the roasting sun for two hours to touch the statue’s glass case, is what this mountain retreat has come to symbolise within the Catalan psyche. The whole aura of the place is one of defiance. Napolean’s troops may sack it, but some plucky monks spirit away the precious statue. More than a century later, Franco’s henchmen lurk in the foothills, but leading Catalan thinkers take refuge in the lunar-like landscape. And even in the absence of political persecution, hermits have sought out its crabbit crags for centuries – in what constitutes the ultimate snub to society.
In a sense, even I am embodying this spirit of defiance, in my staunch refusal to be moved by anything other than the frankincense. Maybe Alanis was right. It’s a jagged little pill.