Spain Travel – Monserrat

By as much as Barcelona seemed a big, bustling, heartless city, by so much we fell short of learning to love it, and speedily betook ourselves away from it to the highlands of the open country on an excursion to which we had long been looking forward. This was the journey out to the isolated monastery of Monserrat, which proved, as we had expected, the culminating point of all our Spanish travels. And as such I can hardly choose a more fitting relation to close this narrative than the tale of our pilgrimage to that lofty shrine.

One is tempted to enter first of all upon an elaborate invocation of the muses, lest the whole narration fail. For Monserrat is not lightly to be de-scribed. It is a spot of stupendous grandeur and enormous sanctity, entitled to rank among the most holy retreats of Christendom. After the hallowed soil of Gethsemane and Calvary, Nazareth and Bethlehem, what place more worthy of reverence than the age-long hiding-place of the Holy Grail? Or, since we are in Catholic Spain, what spot more worthy of visitation than that which marked the institution of Loyola’s erudite Jesuits? All these things is Monserrat to the true believer ; and of the work of Ignatius Loyola, at least, there can be no doubt. One may question whether the deep valley in the midst of this wonderful mountain was really rent in the rocks at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, but never the inspiring grandeur of this shrine, or its fitness to have harbored the Grail as a priceless relic.

Monserrat — the serrated mountain — is well worthy the name. Seen from afar it overwhelms one with astonishment. Is it possible, one exclaims, that such a rock can exist outside the realms of dreams and fanciful pictures? Imagine, if you please, a ghostly apparition of gray rising far into the clouds out of a stupendous valley, isolated from every other height, yet attaining the grand proportions of a mountain. And such a mountain ! For its top is no single peak, but a hundred gigantic pillars, some alone, some gathered in clusters, all standing mistily mysterious against the back-ground of the sky. It is like a gigantic organ of granite, with rank on rank of lofty pipes. Here and there are groups of titantic fingers, raised as if in blessing. There and yonder are stern, inexorable rocky thumbs. One, at least, looks to be a colossal idol, rudely carved. Seen from far away across the plain, this array of rocky saw-teeth produces a sensation of awe. Seen from close at hand, at the very bases of these inaccessible columns, their awfulness is magnified a thousand-fold. I know of no place more unreal to all seeming than Monserrat, when first seen by the unsuspecting voyager from a distance. It is as if a gigantic conflagration had suddenly been turned to stone, just as its flames were leaping skyward. Small wonder that tradition has made this a spot most dear to God, as the ancients held Mount Ida and the glens of Delphi to be. And little imagination does it need to identify this desolate rock of a hundred spires with Wagner’s ” Monsalvat.” The grim turrets of the mountain might well be the battlements of Klingsor’s en-chanted castle !

Now in the older days it was the dream and desire of every pious Spaniard to get him to a monastery in the decline of his years, and to pass the remainder of his days in prayer, fasting, and flagellations, to the undoubted glory of God and the hopeful remission of his own sins.’ The more fortunate and less sincere were probably those at Poblet. The less luxurious and more genuinely repentant sought such hermitages as the crags of lonely Monserrat afforded, and the nooks and crannies of that mountain came to be filled with their huts, — for it was very near to God, and the associations of the place were, as we shall see, indicative of wondrous holiness. It was to the monasteries of the mountain that Ignatius Loyola, weary of war and lamed by a chance shot in that most cherished of his bodily vanities, — his shapely legs, — dragged himself to pass a long period of penitence. Already he had passed many months of pious meditation and prayer at Manresa, and his soul had yearned toward those misty towers of Monserrat, which he could descry as he looked down across the tremendous bowl of the valley. And now, disabled for further earthly valiance, he came to Monserrat to found there a novel army, and to vow his remaining years to arduous service of the Virgin, — for Monserrat was in high favor with the Virgin, too.

When St. Peter came to Spain, — for let us be very well assured that he did come shortly after the tragic close of Christ’s ministry on earth, — he brought with him one of those black images of the Virgin carved in wood which tradition so universally ascribes to the workmanship of the versatile St. Luke. In some way it came to be hidden in the sacred fastnesses of Monserrat, as the Grail was, to keep it out of the grasp of the Moors. In A. D. 88o its whereabouts was accidentally discovered by some peasants, and they set out joyously to bear it off to Manresa. The image, however, steadfastly refused to be carried down the mountain ; and when they had managed to carry it as far as the turn of the road that faces the north, it “held itself immovable.” This could mean but one thing, — the Virgin deemed this to be holy ground, and must not be removed from it. Whereupon a nunnery arose there in a cleft of the colossal rock, just where the for-bidding pillars spring toward the sky, and Monserrat came into being. In time this gave place to a monastery of Benedictines, —men of rare ability, it would seem, for they practiced the arts and crafts with high skill, and possessed one of the first printing presses in Spain. They adorned their great church with much gold. Immense buildings arose as the tide of pilgrimage began to sweep up in increasingly ample waves, against this giant cliff. Queen Violante is said to have climbed the mountain barefoot, and Charles V, half monastic already, came nine times to the shrine of Our Lady of Monserrat.

What stands there now is all of later construction, however. The invaders of the early nineteenth century took pains to ascend and despoil Monserrat, even hauling their cannon to the heights over the ancient road. But the celebrity of the site has ‘ revived, — if indeed it was ever interrupted, — and pilgrims today make the shrine of the Virgin an object of deep veneration, sometimes coming by thousands in the week to a monastery that is really a colossal mountain hospice adjoining a gigantic mountain church.

Fate ordained that our own distant views of Monserrat should be had only as we left it behind on our way homeward. On the showery morning of our approach, its summit was discreetly veiled in a dense bank of clouds. The railway climbed slowly from the meadows by the sea into a rocky upland until we were evidently skirting the rim of a prodigious valley. We knew Monserrat lay in its midst, and we could easily see its mighty base ; but of its incredible skyline we had no hint. It was simply a huge gray mass capped in cloud, rising like a boss out of a gigantic concave shield. Had it not been for rifts here and there in the cloud which showed little patches of blue, we should have been disheartened indeed.

As the train drew into Monistrol, however, we discovered that the fog had begun to lift a trifle, and that the buildings of the monastery were to be seen halfway up the gray side of the mountain, although the cloud hung nearly to the roofs. Between us yawned a river valley, traversed by the winding Llobregat, in the midst of which vale the town of Monistrol made itself manifest —a gray patch on the green. Along the face of Monserrat a faint, indefinite mark indicated the course of its wonderfully engineered but wholly incongruous funicular railway, which makes the present pilgrimage so easy.

The funicular train stood waiting at the same station as that of the regular line. It proved to be a very ordinary rack-and-pinion affair with the usual inclined seats — highly desirable on the face of the mountain, but incredibly uncomfortable on the levels. We endured them, however, for the breadth of the valley where the road instead of ascending actually went down grade and finally crossed the river on a bridge of iron ; but when it had led us up to the second station of Monistrol, — the one that serves the village and is more accurately called ” Monistrol Villa,” —we alighted and let the train go on without us. We had no intention of being borne to Monserrat on flowery beds of ease. We intended to walk, as beseemeth pilgrims. However, when the train had panted out of sight up the now rapidly ascending line, we could see no sign of a road. It was known to exist, and the books all spoke highly of it, varying only as to the date of its construction. One rashly ascribed it to the year 1859, another said it was the work of monks, and a third that it was built in the Middle Ages, and over it Napoleon’s marshals had dragged their impious cannon.

Seeing no other course open, we plunged boldly up the line of the railway in the direction taken by the train, which, although now out of sight in the curves of its ascent, was still stertorously puffing and waking the echoes with its busy noise. Then appeared a short but dripping tunnel, through which we scampered in imminent fear of being caught there by a descending train, — and at last the carriage road was found, crossing the line at grade and seemingly leading in exactly the wrong direction. At any rate, when we swung off into it we turned our backs upon the mountain for a space, as the highway, always ascending at a gradual pace, wound in long spirals around outlying shoulders of the mountain mass. It was a splendid road, hard and white and beautiful, — and it seemed never to head directly for the mountain itself. It gave us constantly changing views of it, however, as it curved now this way and now that, always and ever tending skyward. The gray mists that had enshrouded it in mystery now began to break and drift in, filmy veils that only half concealed the majesty of that forest of rocky pinnacles, opening and shutting en-trances to deep clefts in the mountain’s colossal side, magnifying its grim sentinel pillars, and intensifying the immanent awfulness of the impending mass of rocks. For now they were directly over-head, and, what was worse, they leaned outward now and then as if they might be threatening to fall in one prodigious, world-crushing avalanche.

One or two automobiles buzzed by us as we walked easily along, traveling up the mountain-side at speed, — so the gentleness of its grades may be easily guessed. Now and then peasants would pass us going down — but not many, for these know the short, steep cuts, and scorn the circuitous windings of the highway. Occasionally, also, we met trim tartanas wending their way to Monistrol. As we neared the upper portion of the mountain, where the columns and pillars had their bases in the solid rock, we began to see that while the lower part of the mountain is seemingly precipitous, it is not really so, but is terraced by nature sufficiently to enable the clinging of much herbage and many trees. Now and then there were small gardens. Even above, where the mountain began to be very sheer and awful, there were places where trees hung desperately to crannies in the titanic wall, and vines and bushes flourished wherever there was the faintest chance. In the main, however, everything was bare gray rock, — a species of conglomerate, which formed the whole body of the mountain.

From the very edge of our road as it wandered upward through the upper ranges of the trees, towered the pillars and columns that seemed to support the cloudy firmament. Some were slender, others of prodigious girth. Some stood alone like the solitary surviving members of an ancient temple. Others clustered in groups like giants at a conference. The mists had largely vanished under the warm forenoon sun, and the detached clouds that remained drifted like stray bits of down through the huge fingers of the mountain. At every step the aspect of the fantastic skyline changed. We had lost the railroad completely, now, — for it lay below our feet hidden in the slope clad with dense poplars. Now and again we heard faintly the puffing of an engine as a train stole cautiously up or down, and occasionally the echoes of the rocky glens gave back the shrill reverberations of the whistle. But in the main all was still. The road, which had at last turned straight toward the vast bulk of the mountain, rounded the gigantic shoulder and began a slightly steeper ascent straight along the face of the cliffs, the trees below, and the vertical precipices of gray rock above. Habitation there was none, save for an isolated building here and there which gave evidence of being used as an inn during Monserrat’s congested season. At this early day all these were closed.

Viewed from this point the mountain was magnificent. Above our heads and stretching down the distance to the south strode a battalion of rocky giants, captained by the grotesque Caball Bernat, —a solitary pillar with head fantastically carved, which might easily have done duty as a colossal idol. To the west, where the rocky wall turned the corner, the mountain rose by sheer cliffs to a distant dome, — the Turo de San Jeronimo. It seemed perfectly inaccessible, and little realizing that we spoke no more than absolute truth, we jested over scaling that distant eminence on the morrow ; for of all the amazing array of saw-teeth before and above us, this seemed easily the most insurmountable.

The prospect below, while less awful, was no less grand. The valley of the Llobregat spread out in a prodigious bowl on every side, save to the far east-ward, where the river forced a passage in the mountain wall and glided in a tortuous but shining ribbon to the sea. The Mediterranean gleamed like a sheet of silver far away. Behind and to the north the drifting clouds began to reveal the tumbling masses of the Pyrenees, indigo giants capped with gleaming ice. Manresa showed like a patch of gray and tinsel on the distant verges of the tremendous basin in the centre of which we stood. The white roads of the country stretched their limitless miles through the undulations of the river bottom. And at last we came to the deep cleft that makes into the heart of the mountain, where the monastery loomed just above us, and the great stone cross marked the halting-place of the sacred image. It was duly inscribed with the statement that here the statue of the Virgin stuck fast (se hizo) when the shepherds tried to carry it down.

The railroad emerged from a tunnel under our feet, and at the little station just ahead stood the train we had abandoned so far below. Directly over it the mountain reared its most impressive fingers and thumbs, gray against a sky from which the morning winds had swept every cloud. Just at the right the buildings of the settlement began and swarmed up the steep to the esplanade where stood the immense church and the monastery proper.

Inspired by the guidebook’s advice to lose no time in registering for rooms, we sought the office, but we need have been in no such haste. There were, as we subsequently discovered, something like five thousand rooms in the great cluster of tall dormitories that lay all about, and in Monserrat that day there were not more than twoscore people. Nevertheless we did, register forthwith, and were introduced at once to the most delightful primitiveness. A yokel in overalls shouldered sheets and pillow-cases and led us away, jingling enormous keys, to the apartment inscribed with the name of Santa Teresa de Jesus, where we clambered up two flights of stone stairs to a row of tiny cells. Two of these the taciturn lad flung open, cast the bedclothing on the waiting mattresses — and disappeared from view. We sat down to await developments, but none came.

A pleasant-faced Englishwoman — we after-wards learned she was a most determined suffragette — came to our rescue, enchanted to find opportunity to be of service and to speak her native tongue. ” You do all your own work here,” she explained. “You will have to take those things and make your own beds. The pitcher and the jug you will have to fill for yourselves at the spigot below. You can get a candle for that candlestick at the provision shop next the office. If you must have hot water, you get it at the restaurant yonder. And if I were you I would n’t leave my key lying about, or they ’11 take it back to the office. When you go away you take the key back to the office and pay what you like, — or at least that ‘s what they say. But I believe there ‘s some sort of tariff, and if you don’t pay quite enough they’ll tell you so.”

We made our beds, filled the jug, and sought out the fonda for luncheon. It was not a very good fonda, but the only one the place afforded. On the first floor above the ground there was a meal being served at three pesetas ; and if one cared for some-thing grander, there was a five-peseta lunch to be had on the floor above that. Before we had done with Monserrat we had tried both, and felt but little enthusiasm for either.

The great shrine of Monserrat is set on a shelf of rock less than a hundred yards in width just against the sheer columns of the summit. A dark gorge runs back from it into the mountain, narrowing to a gloomy cleft between the cliffs, and it is popularly believed that this rent was made by a convulsion of nature at the moment when Jesus yielded up the ghost. At the present time the tiny esplanade, or parador, where carriages draw up is surrounded by immense buildings devoted to no other purpose than the housing of guests. The rooms are all alike, containing two beds in a tiny alcove cut off from the rest of the cell by a brilliant curtain, and only the barest necessities for other furniture. As a result a great army of pilgrims can be sheltered at a given time ; but lest the hospitality of the place be abused, the ” heffy” of the family receives a notice that he is expected to remain no longer than eight days. It is probable that most remain for much less, — the excursion tickets of the railway being limited to six. When we were there more monastic hotels were being put up, for the tendency to make pilgrimages to the shrine has no whit abated, and it is now so easily reached that the multitudes coming here almost rival those who clambered up in the palmy days of Spain. Not that all who come to-day are swayed by religious awe, — for many come quite as much to be impressed by the handiwork of nature’s God as by the Santa Imagen, and some commentators have said that they found pious native couples honeymooning in Monserrat.

The monastery proper, which is hardly more than a school of music to-day, we found to consist of tall buildings hemming in a narrow and very cold courtyard, save at the end where the façade of the church filled the entire space and looked rather trim and new. The latter we found closed until evensong, and for the present we were forced, not unwillingly, to explore the outer precincts and the nearer mountain paths. The chief of these latter byways led down to the depths of the ravine and across it to the farther bank, where it branched to a number of isolated hermitages and chapels. The ultimate one was a tiny building set on the site where the image was first discovered, and flattened against the face of the cliff to give it a foothold. Higher up was a jutting promontory of the mountain from whose outlook the view over the valley was superb. Other faint trails led to old caves and haunts of holy men – notably to the hermitage of Garin, a pious Spaniard who atoned for a lifetime of sin and debauchery by an old age of frightful austerity here. All the path was lined with ugly statues sadly disfiguring the noble mountain, but placed there by pious hands to mark in a colossal procession the stations of the cross.

In the opposite direction from the monastery, running along the base of the cliffs to the northward, is a path to the ” Degotalls,” — a mossy grotto with a spring. It is a pleasant path through low growths of box and ilex, and when one has reached its end there is a wonderful view back at the Pyrenees and the sunsets which Monserrat herself can never see. For in Monserrat the sun sets early, – say at about three in the afternoon. The vertical heights above soon cast enormous shadows over the huddled buildings, and with the shadows comes the cold. At the Degotalls, how-ever, the last rays linger late and give one a welcome opportunity to get warm again, after the dank chill of the courts has penetrated all one’s marrow.

We came back from the grotto in season for the oraciôn. It was not a nipping air, but one depressingly clammy and cold, that permeated every nook and corner of the monastery buildings. As in all Spain, people went shrouded in great cloaks, coughing and snuffling with what we had long ago learned to call the “Spanish catarrh.” To make matters worse, the clouds returned, drifting in long, filmy streamers through the jagged tops of the summit, then thickening, lowering, and growing more and more dense until they were but a few feet above the lofty roofs. The church, when we entered it, was dark and the worshipers were but few. A solitary sacristan was lighting with great difficulty the myriad tapers of the altar and the Virgin’s elevated shrine, but in the great nave of the church there was no light at all, and we stumbled noisily over the benches in the gloom. After an interminable wait a bell clanged in a tower without, and priests and boys came clattering through the adjacent corridors for the evening service of which we had heard so much.

It was an interesting service, too, despite the monotony of the singing. The sanctuary adjacent to the high altar was filled with lads whose high, clear voices rendered the Ave Maria in a sustained chant which had a most indescribable, elusive charm. But between the insupportable cold and the unvarying recurrence of the chant we grew weary of it long before the service was done and sought the outer air once more, thoroughly benumbed.

Outside the fog had shut down in earnest. The lamps of the village shone but faintly through the dense mist, and the way across the long and narrow square to the fonda was an uncertain one. The last train came shrieking through the tunnel, and night shut down on Monserrat. I have never felt more absolutely out of the world than on that isolated peak, curtained in cloud.

All night the wind howled dismally through the draughty corridors of Santa Teresa de Jesus, and down the deep glens of the mountain. But it at least swept away the clouds, and when morning broke it was a perfect day. We found a guide — a red-eyed, taciturn fellow – whose cap announced him to be accredited to the San Jeronimo route, and started for the summit. Another time I think I should go alone, once having found the way; but to those unfamiliar with the mountain it is much better to have company, especially as there is al-ways the chance that clouds will come and envelop the entire peak in a blinding fog. Besides, the trails are not always clearly marked, and the road to the heights of Jeronimo is a long and devious one, first skirting the southern shoulder of the mountain and then returning to the deep vale that leads up through its midst. It proved, however, to be any-thing but a difficult climb, inaccessible as the summit looked from below. For the most part it was a pleasant woodland path, lined by fragrant trees, the earth under foot spangled with hepatica and well clothed with green. I shall never snuff the fragrance of box hedges again without instantly recalling that ramble to the summit of Monserrat and its mingled odor of ilexes, myrtles, and shrubs.

Monserrat is really much like an enormous crown, the periphery of which is formed by the giant spikes, flutes, organ-pipes, pillars, pinnacles, and standing giants that fancy has dubbed ” guardians of the Grail.” Inside their vast circle the mountain harbors a deep and well-wooded valley that slowly grows less and less deep and less and less shady until at last it culminates in the rocky dome where the old convent of San Jeronimo still has its being. Up through this vale we walked with our guide, to whom we slowly warmed as his taciturnity thawed out and his bleared eyes began to beam more kindly. He carried our sweaters, — uncommon courtesy on Monserrat, — and struggled to force his tongue to speak in despised ” Castilian.” He waited obligingly when we insisted on stopping to look, or rest, or snap pictures.

The path had its ups and downs, and once it ran directly beneath a leaning tower of rock as huge as Pisa’s. We hastened our steps here, for although the isolated giant had been patiently waiting there erect since the Crucifixion, or since creation even, we had an uncomfortable feeling that he might grow weary like the saints in the doors of Salamanca cathedral and abandon his post with disastrous results to those beneath. And finally, after a sharp scramble up the last ascent, we came to San Jeronimo, and had the world at our feet. The actual summit overlay the little building of the monastery, but it was a simple matter to climb to it over an improvised zigzag path, — the old injunction as to “caution ” now being quite needless.

From the little house erected at the very top it was seen that all the rocky columns were now below us. This was the loftiest of all. The valley lay open in its great bowl all about us. The Pyrenees, stripped of every cloud for the first time in many days, rolled in a majestic line across the whole north. The drop from our feet to the valley of Monistrol was thoroughly and unqualifiedly stupendous. The railway was a hair-line of rust. The buildings were far less than Lilliputian. By a merciful good fortune an iron railing lay across the edge of the gulf, or I am certain that nothing could have re-strained me from casting myself down headlong into that awful abyss that yawned from our very feet!

They served us a huge tortilla for lunch and some wine that was neither red nor white, but rather a faint pink, — in spite of which it was highly invigorating. The red-eyed guide ate with us at the same table, quite as one of the family. On this point there had been some debate, which was finally decided by a citation from Hare which related how an Englishman who denied his guide that privilege was either abandoned on the mountain or pushed off a precipice — I have forgotten which — in the guide’s indignation. We decided not to invoke any such wrath, in view of the fact that precipices seemed to be distressingly common in that vicinity and the visage of the courier was one that sorted well with deeds of violence. He sat gravely by my side, and demanded his dole of bread and meat, as well as his fourth of the vast tortilla. But of the wine he would have none.

From the funicular late that afternoon we had our last glimpse of the pavilion that crowns the height of San Jeronimo. It was but a tiny speck directly above our heads as we steamed into the station of Monistrol Villa, and that we had stood there not three hours before seemed incredible. None of us spoke a word, but leaned from the windows, gazing back on that enormous granite pile towering into the sky, awed and exalted by its majesty. We could see it in all its grandeur as we journeyed back down the long valley to Barcelona, its mighty spires purple against the departing glory of the evening gold. Its mystic presence attended us almost to the gates of the city, and as the train rushed on it lost its semblance of a mountain and became a huge cathedral, roofed, like Milan’s, with a forest of statuettes and Gothic pinnacles, whose myriad shapes showed airily against the paling west. And with this parting glimpse of the Grail mountain for a benediction, we bade a sad farewell to Spain.