About equidistant between Andorra and Barcelona is the renowned Montserrat. It would be easy to visit as a day trip from Andorra; as it happened, we stopped by on our way back to Barcelona. Erik asked me, "So what is this place?" I'm not sure he was thrilled with my answer of, "I don't know, but everyone talks about it." And they said things like, "Oh, you must see!" And my Barcelona guidebook listed it as a top day trip to do from there. It just seemed there was a lot of hubbub around it, and I put it on our itinerary on that flimsy knowledge alone. I didn't research it beyond reading it was a place of pilgrimage for some, and that there was hiking involved in seeing it. I just noticed it was directly on our route and figured I would be silly not to stop by, at the very least so I would know what it was!
In our ignorance, we also had some confusion about where to go once we got off the highway and where to park our car. But we decided to just keep driving up and up the mountainside that rose abruptly and dominated over the plains. Imagine our pleasant surprise when we discovered Montserrat for ourselves. Now, some might call me a poor traveler for being so ill-informed. But this method of travel is a lot of fun, oh detractors, for the thrill of discovery. With no expectations, mediocre sites are cool, and amazing sights are overwhelmingly awesome and joyful to explore. Plus, there are no expectations to turn into disappointments. And so I present to you our happy trails around Montserrat.
Upon arrival, you see the Benedictine monastery nestled into the imaginative rock spires and shapes of the mountain ridge. It's like Mother Nature cupped her hands just to hold this work of man.
We decided we should do hiking first as it was already afternoon when we arrived, figuring we could see the inside of the monastery as the last thing in the day, needing neither sunlight nor warmth to enjoy. When we discovered the next funicular (yay! love funiculars!) up to the trails at the top was arriving in the next 10 minutes, we decided to head straight up, disciplining our growling tummies to have a bit of patience while we exerted ourselves. The tummies weren't overly thrilled with our decision, but we managed. At least we had a water bottle!
There are trails all along the ridges and cut into the sides of the mountain. It reminded me of visiting Huashan in China, with it trails along its five peaks and occasional hermitages for its Taoist monks to engage in spiritual contemplation. Here, a little church-like hermitage perches, kind of lonesome, on a ridge ... sandwiched between overlooking a vast plain and loomed over by a vast sky of clouds.
Paths cut into the rock are fun to walk along.
Making our way across the paths and up through the crevices in the rock -- which, to be honest, were a little arduous and slippery heading straight up the natural cuts in the rock -- rewarded us with some spectacular views. For a sense of scale of the mountaintop rocks themselves, notice that the two little colored dots on the rock directly below are people. (open any pic in this post in a new tab to see at larger size)
Inside the courtyard of the monastery ... one of those shots that took some patience to grab in the couple seconds in which there were no people in it. Even though I'm no professional photographer, it's still fun to pursue one's own idea of the photograph they want to get. Patience paid off.
And more patience inside the church ... Fortunately, worldwide, people tend to clump into herds at tourist sites, so almost always there will be a break between clumps if you can just wait it out. Pretty much the only word that comes to mind for most of the tour around the sanctuary is "gold gold golden gold." OK, if you've been there, you'll call me out on the fact you're not supposed to take photos inside the church. But you know, when you are surrounded, literally, by people snapping pics on their cell phones and cameras, you almost feel like a chump for being the only person sporting a camera around your neck who's not using it, just letting it hang there like a dead chicken. So .....
One day from our mountain base in Andorra we decided to strike down into Spain to see what we could find. Our only real destination in mind was the city of La Seu d'Urgell which is the home of the Bishop of Urgell, who is the co-prince of Andorra, as explained in "Ambling Through Andorra." We knew this wouldn't take the whole day, so we remained open to any sights that caught our eye to explore spontaneously. This day, Erik was the champion at noticing fun activities. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, he noticed a sign along the road that said "Castellar de Tost." Seemed to us indicative of a castle, perhaps, and Erik was particularly drawn to it on account of it sounding like "toast" ... we have to check out the castle of toast!
So up the exceedingly narrow and twisty road we drove until we came to a lovely ruin, which though not a castle, we had all to ourselves. It reminded us of some of the ruins we explored in Ireland, just lying around so casually and randomly in our modern landscape. Such ghosts. Such fairies. You heard -- fairies. We're not new-agey people who see spirits and nymphs and angels and whatnot, but Erik will swear he was surrounded by a swarm of fairies at an ancient ruin we were given secret directions to on a napkin from a guy we got drunk with at a pub (see "Passenger" in my travel essays section for more on this). Anyway, the ivy-covered lonely ruins of Castellar de Tost gave us a distinctly similar feeling, though we did not actually see any supernatural critters. Yet, we did get an odd craving for a piece of butter-slathered toast.
By now we had learned that in this region, restaurants close by 3:00pm until about 6:00pm. So there is no such thing as a late lunch. We learned this, of course, through lessons the hard way. So as we were getting close to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik noticed the car's clock and had the astute and timley realization that if we didn't pull over at the nearest restaurant, we'd be going hungry. Fortunately, there was a huge restaurant kind of randomly just off the highway. Looking almost like a truck-stop, but it was just a large restaurant ... there were cars in the parking lot -- a good sign. We rushed in the door practically wringing our hands with anxiety wondering if we were too late. Nope, we were seated and menu-ized; we chose one of the lunch specials, which included appetizer, main course, dessert, and a bottle of wine (each) ... for a stupendously reasonable price, considering it's Western Europe. We kind of expected truck-stop quality food for such a price. But the appetizer alone was as large as a main course ... I had a delicious meat and bread tray that was so overwhelming, I can't even remember now what I had for the main course even though I did, in fact, stuff one down my gullet. Along with a bottle of wine. At 3:00 in the afternoon.
Then on to La Seu d'Urgell. A nice town in a wide, high valley among the Pyrenees.
There wasn't too much to see in the town, mostly I was interested in seeing where the bishop lived and ministered, since he is the co-prince of Andorra. I expected that the cathedral and abbey where he resided would be really opulent. I don't know why, just somehow having the additional secular power with his religious Catholic power, I envisioned a place of luxury. Like how popes, although leaders of a religion that teaches piety, live among one of the largest treasure troves on the planet in the Vatican. But no, his digs are very modest indeed.
The skies started to cloud over and we decided it was time to head for our home base in Andorra. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik had noticed a go-kart racing track along the highway. He said that on our return home he wanted to stop there, and I was all game. In Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) we had a blast riding 250cc karts on a track, and that's what they had here. Though the people didn't really speak English, and we no Catalan, we managed to understand each other on the important points through Spanish, hand signs and our familiarity with the basic process. Fortunately, we accepted the option to wear rain suits, because on our second race it starting raining vigorously. This ended up being a good lesson in how severely wet roads can adversely affect your vehicle. The first few laps in the rain, I was convinced there was something wrong with my kart. I beat Erik in the first race and now I was pulling the wheel the same way and yet spinning out left and right, and crashing into the median while Erik zoomed past me. It took me awhile to figure out what was causing the kart to behave so differently and then to learn how to compensate for the wet pavement. So, we did two races and split the wins. It was a lot of fun.
Here are a couple window shots from the car to give you an idea of some of the landscape we drove through.