Note No. 20

June 26, 2009

Approximately three hours after setting off, we arrive at our final destination, Montserrat. Not bad, considering the last time I came here it took me 17 hours to cover the 58 kilometers (36 miles) walking all night in two different pairs of shoes, after which I collapsed with the other 400 or so other people in the middle of the sunny square, dozing for a few hours before stumbling back down the stairs to a waiting car that miraculously took me an hour back in the city, almost to my bed, where I slept for 15 hours straight and then spent the rest of the week hobbling about in recovery mode.

The time before that, it took I-don’t-know-how-long but probably about five hours, during which I got extremely lost and finally ended up where I was supposed to be but with only enough time to snap a few photos and ride the train back down in the sunset.

This time, I arrive in style, the full package: all train travel taken care of, admission to the museum and lunch included. We get there late morning, our gaze automatically drawn upward as we exit the cogwheel train station, the massive U of mountain peaks directly in front of us, protectively guarding the tall, majestic cathedral and her surrounding walls. The rock structure is almost grotesque and ironically phallic, considering it houses a monastery.

It also houses a first class art museum with pieces from Picasso, El Greco, Monet and among others, two Catalan artists that I have come to love during this trip: Santiago Rusiñol and Ramón Casas. Two hours later, our energy spent on culture, we make our way to the cafeteria for a self-service lunch, where I cannot pass up one of my favorite local specialties: butifarra. Speaking of phallic, this one translates on menus as large Catalan sausage and it is meant to be dipped in alioli sauce.

Not long after, the digestion process barely under way, I wonder if it was my sacred last meal. We have hopped on the seemingly innocuous funicular train for what I later find out is a 727-meter, 65%-grade climb that spawns visions of our death as the brakes give out and we careen to the bottom, exploding the barrier wall into a million pieces and launching out into the wide open nothingness of the air that separates us from the bottom of the valley, oh so far below.

I don’t think that coffee after lunch did my nerves any favors.

Apparently, though, I am not the only one with such thoughts. When those eternal seven minutes are over and we reach the top, there is a mini exhibition on the funicular and its renowned safety record, due to its six-part braking system and the weighted pulley mechanism that is in synch with the other cabin going in the opposite direction. That might explain why it seemed that we passed that other car just seconds from a head-on collision.

Despite the just-shy-of-vertical ascent, there is still work to do when we reach the summit. About 20 minutes later, visions of that all-night hike two years ago coming back to me, we reach another high point and find ourselves with a view comparable to that from an airplane.

“Is that Barcelona?”

“I think Barcelona’d be that way.” I point behind us, then squint ahead again. “No. Wait. That might be it. Are those shadows or is that the sea?”

“Well, where’s the sun?”

We look around, scanning the cloudy sky. “There is no sun.”

Back down the mountain, the return trip considerably less scary, we stand in line with the other 100 people here to do the same thing: touch the Black Madonna who is kept in the recesses of the basilica, winding back past the altar and up a few flights of stairs. Past the signs begging silence, where my dad famously bellowed for everyone to be quiet when he and my mom came here three years ago, we inch ever closer to the statue until finally, it is my turn to touch her exposed hand and orb, the rest of her enshrouded in protective glass.

Three times here it has taken but I have finally completed the pilgrimage to Montserrat.

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