Vincent Lowe Photography - images of Montserrat, Spain
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Montserrat is a huge massif that rises out of the low hills of the Catalan countryside.  Home to the region's Patron Saint, La Moreneta (Black Virgin), and a place of pilgrimage for nearly a millennium, this strangely-shaped mountain is the spiritual heart of Catalonia.  In English its name means 'serrated mountain', an apt description of the rounded peaks that make its top look like a saw from a distance.  The Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat, nestled among the bulbous peaks of the mountain, is still a pilgrimage site, but it's also one of Catalonia's top tourist attractions and handles more than 2.5 million visitors each year.

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Be sure to visit the 15th-century Basilica, and walk up the stairs behind the altar to the wooden statue of the La Moreneta, though you may have to join a long queue.  According to legend, young shepherds found the dark-coloured Romanesque statue of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the mountain.  The Basilica is always most crowded at 1 o'clock, when the boys choir sing.  The monastery museum is supposedly worth a visit, especially for fans of Catalan modernist art, but after five days in Barcelona we'd had enough of museums by then and wanted to head for the heights, especially as the weather was perfect.

Indeed, the true beauty of Montserrat lies in its incredible natural environment.  Its unique peaks were formed by erosion after the softer land that surrounded this mass of rock sunk into the ground, leaving Montserrat exposed in all its jagged glory.  Trails ramble throughout; the most accessible trails start near the monastery itself or from the Sant Joan funicular.  Numerous chapels, most of them abandoned and in ruins, surround the monastery and make for good hiking destinations.  The on-site tourist office has trail maps but it might be better to get one before you go if you possibly can - when we were there they had run out of the English version.

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