Montserrat: The Abbey Ain’t Where It’s At

We bought our train tickets from a vending machine at Placa Espanya station that morning. The ticket included a choice for the tram or the funicular up the jagged mountain to the abbey. We chose the tram for the WOW factor. When the train arrived, we rushed on board to grab a seat as other tourists pushed ahead.

I always feel a level of discomfort before getting on a train. It is evidence of my anxiety and OCD tendencies and is difficult to dispel completely. Is it really the right train? How do we know for sure, aside from constant assurances from signage and everyone standing there waiting to go to the same place, that it is the right train? Not until it is well underway and heading to our destination do I feel like, yes, dammit, this is the correct train. Sometimes I take out my phone to briefly watch the comforting blue circle making progress across the map. I then settle back, watch the villages pass by, and think about what we will have for lunch. I come from people who always anticipate what will be eaten next and how this will be accomplished. I liked listening to the sounds of the train and the many languages surrounding us, and I grew sleepy with the soft rocking.

When we arrive at the mountain’s base, we get in line and wait for the yellow tram to pull up, positioning ourselves in the front with a full view of the mountain ahead. The tram lifts us gently, swaying up the mountain in a stomach-dropping ascent. It is stunning and terrifying in a good way, leaving our knees shaky when we disembark. Up top it is the total commodification of the Benedictine history and worship. A shop sells expensive cheeses, meat, and bread for picnickers, and a cafeteria fuels a steady line of tourists wishing to spend big bucks on sandwiches and cake. We stand in line for our sandwiches, and other Americans around us demand to know where we are from. No matter what we tell people, they always seem unsatisfied with the answer. “Arkansas, huh.” “Wisconsin, huh.”

Saint Jerome in Meditation, Caravaggio c. 1605

Signs advertise the best painting hanging in the abbey museum. “Oh shit, they got a Caravaggio,” I say. “You want to see it?” my husband asks, but I don’t when I see the line into the museum and the additional 32 euros for us to enter. I’m not cheap, but I get sick of paying for everything I witness at a certain point. Plus, we have been drifting in crowds, craning our necks to see things all week, and my calves ache from standing on tiptoe. With regret, I release this Caravaggio from my needs. We go to the church to see if we can take a peek inside, but this is an additional 6 Euros per person. I don’t recollect it being this crowded or every building having a price tag when I was here 14 years ago. Still, memory is selective and consistently inaccurate. We decide against the 24 euro to see the house of god.

“The monks and priests were the original gangsters,” I said to my husband. “Look at all they built and are still raking in based on soul shakedowns.”

The view from the mountaintop is stunning with the valley furling out below. You can take a funicular up to the very top for a fee, of course, or go on foot to one of the many stations of the cross ringing the mountain. We look around and head for a cross erected on a rocky outcrop. The in-laws opt to go part of the way, and I walk ahead with my husband. Here people push baby strollers uphill and pause to take pictures of different statues and seating points. A figure of a nun looks at us in disgust; her face is sour and darkened with time and weather.

I struggle to catch my breath. The effects of Long Covid and lungs mottled by the infection. I have a second CT scan scheduled in two weeks, and I am tired of feeling tired and gasping, but I love this walk. It is beautiful here beneath the pines. People always relax as their numbers dwindle. They smile as they pass, and soon we step out onto the point where the iron cross stands. A few parents with strollers are trying to get their babies arranged for photos. One man balances his baby near the base of the cross. Another holds his baby with a view of the abbey behind them. We stop short of the cross for our photo opportunity, and I present the abbey in the distance with a Vanna White flourish of my hand.

Behind curtain #1 – Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey

The iron base of the cross is ringed with locked declarations of love, fluttering ribbons, initials scrawled in paint or marker, and stickers. Everyone has to leave their mark on everything now to show they have been there. Looking across the valley, I think about what it was once like to come up this mountain on foot and what people hoped to find at the top. If they knew how to spell, I’m betting they still scratched their names in the dirt and stone.

We all have the impulse to underscore our existence through children, deeds, or a rusted lock with our lover’s initials.

We head down to find my in-laws waiting on the path and return to the tram station. We are all tired and looking forward to a long nap in our hotel rooms’ chill, sterile darkness. On the descent, we are alone except for two young Japanese women who stand nervously at the back. My father-in-law teases them, and they smile and laugh politely at his jokes about the height, the swaying tram, and the old cable until my husband tells him to can it. I brace myself at the front of the tram, staring into the abyss. Far beneath us is a river and a resort with a swimming pool. Cava tours are popular here, and I wish I was in that pool now with a chilled glass.

Before we get back on the train, one thing that is the same as my last visit 14 years ago is the small garden shed serving drinks near the tracks. Vines twine over our heads to make a roof permeated by sunlight that dapples the worn plastic chairs and tables. I have a beer, my husband a Tinto de Verano, a kind of adult Koolaid for hot days. Then we go to the platform to find a calico cat picking its way across the tracks.

Tagging, stickers, and locks of love on the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.

When the train arrives, we are ready. My husband was unsuccessful in befriending the cat, who treated us with natural suspicion. On a half-filled train, we return to Barcelona, getting sleepier with the hour. This is our last night with his parents, and we are on to Valencia the next day where we once dreamt of moving. I don’t know how many more times I will return to Montserrat, but I hope next time it is with stronger lungs and better sandwiches.


  • Plan on a hike and pack a picnic.  The views are worth it.
  • You don’t have to tour every building or exhibit there. The real beauty of the place is the scenery and vista.
  • Tinto de Verano – half red wine, half Sprite and a slice of lemon. Chuggable on a hot day.