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28
Dec 00
Thu

Montserrat

I grossly underestimated the number of computers in easyEverything last night. We asked the cashier and it turns out there are over 400 computer terminals housed in this building. That’s just crazy.

Today, we visited Montserrat: a mountain, monastery and general sacred place which resides about an hour out from central Barcelona by train. Montserrat the mountain, standing about a thousand metres above sea level, was formed as a result of tectonic activity eons ago. The ocean used to cover the surrounding land, but gradually the land was pushed upwards to form the mountainous region Montserrat was part of. Also, as a result of this, Montserrat was considered sacred, and some ambitious people decided to make the long trek up the mountain and stick a monastery up there in the early 11th Century.

These days, pilgrims to the monastery, which houses an icon called “Black Mary” (Mary is the patron saint of Montserrat) have it easy. You can trek up mountain trails, or take the funicular – otherwise known as a cable car (especially characterised by simulataneously ascending and descending cars which counterbalance each other). Although the journey up and back down is a rickety one, diagrams advertising the funicular’s six independent, fully working braking systems served to reassure nervous travellers. However, the chain smoking controller guy at the top of the mountain destroyed this impression when we saw him dispose of a cigarette by chucking it into the gearworks of the funicular’s machinery.

The mountains around the place have some strange rock formations comprising of smooth “bubbles” poking up to the sky. The most prominent of these formations, popularly found on many Montserrat postcards, is decidedly phallic. I guess that’s why it’s features so popularly. Montserrat was about 5 degrees colder than Barcelona, but the killer here was the wind which whipped around us ferociously at the mountain top – so much so we feared that Yvonne would be blown clean off the dirt paths. Another group of tourists asked me to take a photograph for them, and when I took my hands out of my pockets, my hands instantly froze.

The monastery/basilica itself is an ornate, ill-lit Catholic building. Not very austere these days, but it is not hard to imagine monks from ages past enduring the dark, the cold and the hardships of a life without pleasure in the same corridors we were walking. Above the main altar, in the centre in an alcove on the second level of the basilica, is an icon of the aforementioned “Black Mary”. A sinister looking statuette where an ebony Mary holds an orb, with a small child on her lap, him too holding a smaller orb. She is encased in a glass case, except for the orb she holds which protrudes. Catholics pilgramage here to touch and kiss the orb. This is followed by a brief prayer before they move on to a prayer area. Although Christian myself, I do not understand the stock they place in Mary. Given the central position she has in the basilica, you would almost think that they are placing her above Christ Himself.

There is also, of course, the customary giftshop where Black Mary has been replicated hundreds of times in minature form so that tourists can take her home with them. It was an interesting visit. There were very picturesque viewpoints upon the mountain which looked down onto the Catalonian plains, dotted by small villages and fields, surrounded by hills which poke above the low cloud level.

We have a reservation in an overnight train tomorrow which will pass through France and wind its way North-East to Switzerland. Ah, Switzerland, the land of fine chocolate, neutrality, a 400,000 men strong standing army and the place where I will be on lookout to buy a nice Tag Heuer watch. But more on that later.