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Spain & Portugal - Day 4

Today is an extremely exciting (and somewhat jittery) day for us. It is so call the start of our journey, primarily in the northern part of Spain where the St James Route runs.

By now, we were quite sure we weren't be getting any good driving map (not even from Hertz) to guide us through our travel. Knowing that fact got us nervous but it also enabled us to do some last minute preparation, i.e. getting the hotel concierge to print some maps from Google Map for us. At this juncture, we're grateful for whatever details we can get, even an overview is better than not having any!

Armed with that extra confidence, we set off on a light-hearted mood to Barcelona for some last minute shopping of post cards and to collect our rental car.

We had a leisure walk from our hotel to the Metro station to relax our senses and to get ourselves familiarized with the familiarize?? Yep....we were pretty familiar getting around Badalona on foot but not on wheels. When is it ok to drive on the pavement? Which road is legally shared by cars and pedestrians at the same time? It is on this "familiarization" trip that we discovered that although we had been walking the same route for the past few days to the Metro station, strangely, we had never notice this interesting building until today.

Nothing unique about the was the creepers that interest us. Well, for readers who have four seasons in your country, this may be an ordinary sight every Autumn. But, for those of us who stay in a tropical country, especially a country near to the equator, having creepers in a hue of vibrant red, orange and green adding exciting colours to a building is a rare sight. In fact, it is a sight we never get in our country!

We were outside Barcelona tourist area and without a proper map it took us some time before we finally found the Hertz office and later the car which was parked in another building. With a timeline to meet (we need to get back to the hotel by the checkout time to avoid being charged for another day), all these headless walking around really got on our nerves! However, we were ecstatic when we got to the car reserved for us....a Mercedes B180 that runs on Diesel (and in our favourite colour).

Woohoo! Cost-saving and that means surplus on our travel budget. Our prayers were answered! We were so overjoyed that we almost forgot the timeline we were supposed to meet.

Getting use to the car or rather the road and finding our way back to the hotel without a map before the timeline was challenging. It was suppose to be a 15 to 20 minutes drive back yet we took slightly more than an hour to reach our destination. That one over hour drive was nerve wrecking.

First, it was a working day so there were a lot of rushing vehicles and pedestrians. Trying to gel in with the traffic condition there on our first day was stressful and naturally attracted quite a fair bit of honing from impatient drivers.

Second, we realised that the road in Spain was slanted. If you notice the pictures that we took on Day 1 - 3, the buildings were somewhat slanted. Unlike when we drove in other countries e.g. Australia, USA or Germany etc; keeping within our lane and driving straight when we first drove in Spain was challenging. And we learnt to stay really focus the hard way.....we hit onto the side of a bus just 20 minutes into driving. Luckily, nothing happened. Phew!

Despite all the excitement and adventure, we managed to reach our hotel in time to checkout, load a few bottles of mineral waters and fruits into the car at the nearby supermarket and moved on to our next destination happily.

Like we said previously, Spain is not a road sign friendly country, even with the locals. We lost about 45 minutes of precious time trying to find the right direction to La Roca Village, a shopping village where a large number of the top fashion names sells their stuffs at heavily discounted price. If not for a Spanish couple who were also heading towards the same place but got lost by the misleading road sign like us, we would never had found our way there. We were on the verge of giving up when miraculously both our cars met on a small road asking the same shop for direction. They were our first angels on this blessed journey.

With almost an hour wasted and more that morning when we took the car, we were left with only about 2 hours to shop the many stores. photo of La Roca Village to share.....too busy shopping....we even skipped lunch to make up for the lost time! But, it was worth it. We got some really good bargains. It is the must go place if we visit Spain again. Oh, by the way that place was really packed. So, if you are not leaving Barcelona as yet and do not want the hassle of finding that prized parking lot, then take the shuttle bus that La Roca Village provides for a fee. Check out La Roca's website for the different alternatives.

Reluctantly, we left La Roca Village and head towards our main destination, Placa del Monestir on top Montserrat. The distance was longer than expected as the map did not indicate that we had to drive around mountains.

Can you spot the roads?

Despite making some miscalculation, surprisingly and luckily, Montserrat was easy to find and we were able to reach Placa del Monestir by evening even though we drove at a relaxing pace and with some photo-taking stops along the way. These rock formations are so interesting....just have to take them....

These were just two of the many. After all, Montserrat which means "serrated mountain" is an impressive mass of rock with peculiar shapes and jutting peaks rising with unusual force between Bages plain and the costal depression.

Driving around mountains of artistic rock formation and being enveloped by them, it felt like we were entering into the world of angels and saints.

Our favourite picture

Placa del Monestir is the main activity hub. There are payable surface parking lots for visitors and hotel guests (hotel guests enjoy discounted rates) with security pretty safe, 2 -3 cafes, a canteen, the  Montserrat Cremallera funicular, Montserrat Shrine, a Benedictine Monastery and the starting point of the many walking trails. Of all, the most prominent feature is the Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat and the Benedictine monastery which were founded in 1025. It  has been a major pilgrimage destination for Catholics and a spiritual center of the first order.

Placa del Monestir.
The center building with a protrude facade houses the Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat while the rest belongs to the monastery and is home to 80 Benedictine monks. Monastery is closed to public.

Because of some miscommunication that arose mainly because we were the ONLY Asian staying at the Cel.les Abat Marcet (Monastery Apartment) and not the one and only 3* Hotel Abat Cisneros that tourist group stay, after checking-in and loading our luggage in our room and parking our car at the designated lot (a MUST), we were left with just enough time to check out the remaining last 2-3 stalls at the small Saturday market (similar to the one in Barcelona) before they close for the week (or month)! Still, we bought some extremely delicious snacks....regret....should have bought more....sooooo yummy.

All the restaurants and cafeteria are closed by 7pm (5pm on Sunday). Thereafter, visitors staying on the mountain can either dine at the hotel (expensive); take the funicular to Monistrol de Montserrat - a small town at the base of Montserrat that is full of hostels, hotels, motels and cafes; buy a light snack at the vending machine or fast for the night. We were lucky to barely make it in time to grab 2 sandwiches from the cafeteria for dinner that night before they close. We didn't like the sandwiches at all, but it was fun.

After dinner, we had a stroll around the compound. It was a chilly night. Being on top of a 4000 ft mountain and somewhat isolated, it felt like we were protected from the crude reality of the outside world. It was heavenly and we immediately fell in love with Montserrat. Had it not because of the cold, we would had lingered around for a while more to enjoy the cold fresh air and the darkness.

Unwilling to return to our room (it's only 8pm), we explored the basilica and had an unexpected reward. We experienced the most beautiful and heavenly night Vesper ever. The nightly Vesper was led by the benedictine monks in Gregorian chants. We were so enchanted by it that we ensured that we do not miss it on our second night there.

Front facade of basilica

Main altar. It is really magnificent....unfortunately it is too dim and our camera was not powerful enough to capture its grandeur. Can you spot the Black Virgin?

The Black Virgin is much more visible in this close-up picture. Find it?

Though the nightly prayer has ended, the entrance to the Virgin's Throne (i.e. the Black Virgin at the center of the altar) remains open for another half an hour.

Entrance to the Virgin's Throne.
The carvings on the wall are breath-taking and awesome!

Passageway to the Virgin's Throne. We were momentarily lost in this glittering passage of art.

The original Black Virgin that was found in Santa Cova (The Holy Grotto)

The boy sitting on the Virgin's lap is of course child Jesus, and both mother and son are holding on to a soccer ball each (that's why Spain won the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010). NO, of course! Read about the Holy Image from my next blog post Spain & Portugal - Day 5.

Exiting the Virgin's Throne, we were instantly mesmerized by the long trail of candles lighted by the faithful; that lined the long walkway until the exit of the basilica. Of course, we too lighted our candles.

This is just a fraction of the long trail of candles. So magical isn't it?

Besides lighting of candles, for faithful Catholics, there are daily Mass and Liturgy of the Hour recitation in addition to the nightly Vesper. At 1pm, visitors are treated to a choir performance by the 50 member The Escolania, one of the most renowned ancient boys' choirs in Europe, singing the Salve Maria and Virolai hymm in the basilica. This is a highlight of the monastery. During the nightly Vesper, the choir will also sing the Salve Montserratina.

Unfortunately for us, due to the Pope's visit to Barcelona to consecrate the Basilica of the Holy Family on that Sunday (i.e. the very next day), The Escolania was away to perform at the consecration ceremony. Not only that, the Sunday mass was also cancelled as all the priests were away attending the consecration ceremony. We planned so hard to be in Montserrat on a Sunday so as to attend Sunday mass there and yet our plan was totally crashed. We were utterly utterly disappointed.

Nevertheless, the beautiful and angelical night Vesper more than made up for the loss. Till now, we couldn't forget the wonderful Vesper of Montserrat. It has definitely captured our hearts.

Side note - Getting to Placa del Monestir from Barcelona:
Driving is the easiest but not the only option to get to the monastery.

For drivers, they may park at the car park at Placa del Monestir for a fee (hotel guests enjoy discounted fare); OR the guarded car park at Monistrol Station for free (ticket for the rack railway - Montserrat Cremallera Funicular includes the parking fee). Why not check with your place of lodging if they offer complimentary track train rides...we were offered but we didn't utilise it.

For visitors who are not driving, they have 2 options:
Option 1: take a train from Espanya Station* in Barcelona to Montserrat, then take the cable car to Montserrat Aeri Station.

Option 2: take a train from Espanya Station* in Barcelona to Montserrat, then take the rack railway.

And there you are...the Placa del Monestir!

Visitors staying in Montserrat can get a resident card which enables them unlimited use of the rack railway during their stay.

* You need to decide which option to take when you buy your train tickets at the Espanya Station as the train tickets are packaged with either the cable car or track train rides. Same cost for both options. So, if you are not acrophobia, we recommend the cable car ride....the view is spectacular! At the Espanya Station, do beware of pickpockets. It is a daily affair because of the long queue to buy tickets.

This post first appeared on Carefree And Off-the-beaten Tracks Travels Around The World, please read the originial post: here

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Spain & Portugal - Day 4


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