It’s often said that the Camino begins at one’s own front door… that the first step to making a pilgrimage is taking the decision to do it.
Catalan Camino marker
However, for me, the moment of actually setting foot on an ancient pilgrimage path marked the real beginning of my understanding of the Camino experience. The first stamp in my credencial, dated 19 May 2012, is definitely as much treasured as the one which I received six weeks later when I walked into the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago de Compostela.
My pilgrim’s passport was stamped for the first time at the Basilica of Montserrat, near Barcelona, in Catalonia. I feel that this was where my Camino started – on a 25 kilometre walk with my son along the Catalan Camino, or Way of St Jaume. (A few days later, I took the train to Pamplona to walk the Camino Francés.)
In April/May 2012, Ben and I were living in the Spanish village of Odena, near Igualada, a small city about 1 ½ hours west of Barcelona. I had arranged a 5-week home exchange to enjoy a taste of Spanish culture and practise my basic language skills, before setting out to walk to Santiago. It was quite special to share this experience with Ben. But of course we learned very quickly that in this part of Spain, the people are fiercely proud of their Catalonian culture, and the language they speak is Catalan not Spanish!
Above Montserrat Basilica
From the balcony of our village house we could see the great saw-toothed mountain of Montserrat in the distance. Part of the Pyrenees, this unique geological structure of strangely-shaped crags was formed more than 25 million years ago. With its Benedictine monastery dating from the 11th century, and a magnificent basilica cradled among the rocks, Montserrat is both a holy pilgrimage shrine for Catholics from a round the world, and – inevitably these days a popular day trip for tourists from Barcelona. Its museums and art treasures, spectacular views, hermitage caves, walking trails, rack railway and cable cars provide something of interest for everyone.
Mist at Montserrat
Ben and I had made our first trip up the mountain, quite by chance, on one of the two key Spanish pilgrimage days of the year, 27 April, when crowds of the faithful flock to see the Basilica’s Black Madonna and receive a blessing. Being neither Spanish nor Catholic, we hadn’t realised the day’s significance until we drove up the mountain and found ourselves surrounded by dozens of tourist buses. But Montserrat is big and there’s plenty of space to walk around – and there was even an added bonus on that day. Entry to the magnificent monastery Museum was free! So, in addition to enjoying the physical beauty and wonder of the whole place, we were able to feast on the extensive art collection, icons and antiquities in the monastery collection.
More importantly, however, we also learned during that visit that pilgrims on the path to Santiago de Compostela are welcome to stay free for one night in the monastery, if they have a pilgrim passport. We immediately made plans for a return trip by train so that we could stay on the mountain overnight and walk back down to Igualada along the Catalan Camino, or Way of St Jaume.
The Catalan Camino links with the Jacobean routes. It follows a path from Barcelona, passing through Montserrat to reach Lleida in Aragon, before joining the Camino Francés at Logrono. Its history is shrouded in myth and legend. Some believe Montserrat to be the site of the Holy Grail, and St Peter is said to have visited the mountain only fifty years after the birth of Christ. There are also claims that St James preached along this Way in Barcelona, Lleida and Saragossa. Whatever the truth, Montserrat is a surreal and beautiful place where pilgrims still come to worship and venerate the Black Madonna, a 12th century statue of Mary and Jesus which is kept in the great Basilica.
Ben and I made our second trip up the mountain on 19 May by train, just a few days before he returned to Australia. This train ride is a thrill in itself. The little rack railway clings to the side of the massive rocks as it hauls itself up. And the views in all directions are stunning. Most special of all though, was being able to stay on the mountain after all the tourists had gone for the day. Although neither of us regards ourself as religious, we both felt an intense sense of peace and spirituality in this beautiful place in the early evening twilight. With the bells of the monastery ringing and mist swirling around the silhouetted rocks and holy crosses, we knew this was an experience we’d never forget.
The room we were allocated in the visitors’ hostel at the monastery was more basic than any of the albergues I stayed in subsequently on the Camino Francés. But a bunk bed and blanket, wooden table and chairs were all we needed. There was also a communal bathroom and simple kitchen which we had to ourselves as there wasn’t another soul around all night.
To obtain permission to stay at the monastery, pilgrims need to visit the admin istration centre during the day, have their passport stamped and pick up a key. We were asked to drop the key back to the tourist hotel on the mountain next morning. We could have stayed overnight at this up-market and expensive hotel, of course, but we were much happier to be in the monastery hostel, feeling that we were in the presence of monks and fellow-pilgrims from days gone by.
Church of Santa Cecilia
Ben and I walked together for only one day on the Catalan Camino, but we had a strong sense of following in the footsteps of the first recorded Catalan pilgrim, the Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, who made his journey to Santiago in 1059. The whole experience of staying on the mountain, and walking down, proved to be one of the highlights of our time together in Spain. For me, it was also a great introduction to the life of a modern-day pilgrim, and a good preparation for my walk on the Camino Francés.
View from Santa Cecilia
The start of the Catalan Way is close to the bus park, café and other facilities on the mountain. We had no difficulty finding it, or in following the path down the mountain for the rest of the day.
It begins as a quiet, leafy path wandering past many little shrines and plaques decorated with scriptures and holy art, but it soon emerges onto the road and follows the roads ide for several kilometres. With very little traffic early in the morning we found it quite safe, and we could revel in the superb views over the surrounding countryside. The route was well way-marked with the familiar scallop symbol and golden arrows, or sometimes simple dots of gold paint on trees and rocks.
To Sant Pau de la Guardia
The first point of interest along the Way is the little church of Santa Cecilia, part of a former monastery dating from 900AD. Looted and ravaged many times over the past millennia (including during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s), this simple Romanesque church has now been eclipsed by the big monastery at Montserrat, but it remains a peaceful little place.
The rack railway
Much of the remainder of the walk down the mountain is on rocky paths, though forests and farms, but it also passes through the small towns of Sant Pau de la Guardia and Castelloli before reaching Igualada. We found a very welcome rural inn and restaurant about halfway down, popular with other walkers and mountain-bike riders.
The small city of Igualada is an industrial centre now sadly feeling the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. The outskirts are not particularly attractive, but there is a pilgrim hostel in the old part of town, along with several churches, cobbled plazas and a wide range of shops, bars and restaurants. Ben and I came to know it well during our 5 weeks living in nearby Odena – though we were fortunate to have the luxury of our own village house to return to at the end of our day’s walk on the pilgrim path.
The Way down the mountain
My message to any fellow pilgrims visiting Barcelona is to take the time to visit Montserrat. It’s an easy day-trip by local train and mountain railway. The tourist offices can provide maps and directions. But, if possible, why not take the opportunity to stay overnight at the monastery, have your credencial stamped, and walk down the mountain the next day? From Igualada, it is very easy to take a bus or train for the return journey to Barcelona – or you may want to continue on the path all the way to Santiago…
An excellent guide book to the Catalan Camino can be downloaded from the internet web.gencat.cat/ca/inici/ It provides a wealth of information about Montserrat and the Way of St Jaume.
‘Buen Camino’ to anyone who walks the Catalan path!