Difficult Day Trips: Rascafría

Difficult Day Trips: Rascafría

(Continued from my post on Consuegra.)

The most famous monastery in the community of Madrid is, undoubtedly and deservedly, El Escorial—the grandest monastery in the country. Though impressive, El Escorial is, however, no longer a working monastery. (I have since found out that this is not true, and there are still monks there.) Indeed, its primary function was never to be a home for monks, but a seat of power. To see a proper monastery without leaving the bounds of Madrid, one can go to Las Descalzas or La Encarnación, two historic and lovely monasteries in the center.

More impressive than either of these, however, is El Paular, which is located near a small village, Rascafría, in the Madrid mountains. Getting there on public transportation is not easy, especially on the weekend. Bus 194 leaves the Plaza de Castilla every Sunday at 8 am. The trip lasts well over two hours, mostly because the indirect route travels over local roads, making frequent stops. And since the only viable return bus leaves Rascafría at 6:30 pm, going there is an all-day commitment. (Admittedly there is a return bus at 3:00 pm, but if you visit the monastery and take the tour you won’t make it.)

Let me pause here for a linguistic lesson. When we wish to make a compound word out of a noun and a verb in English, we normally put the noun first and add “-er” to the verb. Thus we get “skyscraper.” Spanish follows the opposite procedure, with the verb first and the noun second, which is plural. The word for “skyscraper” in Spanish is rascacielos (lit. “scrape skies”). Learning this principle was invaluable to me, since it makes trips to hardware stores infinitely easier. Can-opener is abrelatas and pencil-sharpener is sacapuntas. At first glance the toponym Rascafría follows this principle, rasca being from “scrape” (although “fría” as a noun isn’t known to me). This appearance is entirely illusory, it seems, since the name derives from rocas frías, or cold rocks.

The bus deposited me in this cold and rocky place at around 10:30 in the morning, on a chilly November day. The walk to the monastery took about twenty minutes. I arrived in time to be there when the gates opened at 11:00. Before going inside, I retreated a little from the entrance so as to see the monastery amid its surroundings. The best place to see El Paular is from the Puente del Perdón, a picturesque stone bridge (built in the 1700s) that runs over the river Lozoya. From here you can see the monastery’s tall spire presiding over a square building, adjoining a series of domes and semi-domes on the right. With the looming mountains serving as a backdrop, the monastery is quite a quaint sight.


El Paular was founded around the year 1390 as a Carthusian monastery, a purpose which it served until, in 1835, like so many monasteries in Spain, it was confiscated by the state. Bereft of purpose, the monastery suffered the effects of time and neglect. In the twentieth century there was an ineffectual attempt to incorporate it into the national park of the Guadarrama Mountains. Later on, the monastery was converted into a sort of artist residence for landscape painters—a task for which, due to its surroundings, the monastery was admirably well-suited. Finally, in 1954, the monastery became, once again, a monastery, this time for the Benedictine order; and it remains so to this day.

I paid the entrance and went inside. They were having mass in the church when I entered, so I proceeded directly to the cloister. Here I discovered an unexpected delight. Lining the walls of the cloister is a series of 52 oil paintings by Vicente Carducho, a contemporary of Diego Velazquez. These paintings tell the story of the Carthusian Order from its founding to the present day. Thus the series begins with the Carthusian founder, St. Bruno, and ends with the closure of the monasteries during the English Reformation. Individually, these paintings are masterful works of Golden Age realism, telling stories of miracles, martyrs, and myths with a dynamic flair worthy of Carducho’s friend, Lope de Vega. (Indeed, the two of them can be seen in one of the paintings.) But together they have a cumulative effect that goes far beyond their technical merits.

Lope de Vega is the grey, bearded man on the left; Carducho himself is immediately to the right of the writer.

And we must count ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to see the series all together, since after the monastery’s 1835 confiscation the paintings were acquired by the Prado, and for many years were loaned out to various museums around the country. During this time two of the paintings were lost (there were originally 54) in the confusion of the Spanish Civil War. It was only in 2006 that they were restored and finally reunited in their original home.


Once I finished appreciating the paintings—which took the better part of an hour—I wandered over the entrance of the church for the scheduled tour. Mass soon finished; and about a dozen people, mostly elderly, shuffled out of the elaborately decorated church door. A short, rotund man wearing a monk’s habit—a plain dark robe in this case—appeared and shepherded us inside. The church itself is a plain, clean, white space, mostly devoid of elaborate decoration. The exception to this is the magnificent main altar, which contains 17 Biblical scenes in finely detailed alabaster.


In a jovial and bouncing voice, the monk explained all about the monastery and its history. Then we moved further into the monastery, passing through the vestry and the chapter house, while the monk rapidly rattled off the dates, styles, and provenance of the art work to be seen. Finally we reached the Capilla del Sagrario, or the Chapel of the Sanctuary.

This chapel is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of Baroque art to be found in Spain. The colors are regal and soothing: silver, pink, and sky blue. Every surface is covered with extremely intimate ornament, in a style the monk called “Churrigueresque,” a Baroque manner of decoration native to Spain. Floral designs squirmed up the walls; silver curled and bloomed; columns twisted and angels burst from walls. The chapel comprises several separate nooks, each one dedicated to a different saint. In the central chamber a hexagonal tabernacle rises up several meters off the ground, constructed of colored marble taken from all over Spain. It is an extraordinary work. Even the floor is impressive, made from interlocking triplets of diamonds that, together, form the image of a cube.


The monk then led us to the refectory, where the monks eat their meals in silence, while somebody reads scripture aloud. Finally we reached the church and concluded the tour.

I now had about three hours to kill before my bus left back to Madrid. Thankfully, aside from the monastery, Rascafría is itself a lovely place. Madrid’s northern mountains provide some of the best hiking in the country. Rascafría is no exception to this. Even on this chilly winter day the place was full of men, women, and children in windbreakers carrying pointed walking sticks. I joined them, crossing the Puende del Perdón and turning to walk alongside the river Lozoya. Unknowingly I had entered the Bosque finlandes, or the Finnish Forest, an attractive natural park formed by importing trees and vegetation from that Scandinavian country. Though at the time I did not know this, I did notice that the trees were strikingly tall and straight.


I walked on, passing by ruined farms, masticating cows, and once again over the shallow river. Eventually I came upon a sign about the local trails. There was a short caption about an old legend pertinent to the area, which told of a beautiful Moorish girl who fell in love with a young man, and every day washed her face in the river while waiting his return (from where, it didn’t say). It is said that she waits still in a cave somewhere. Well, I certainly did not find any beautiful enchanted lasses, Moorish or otherwise, on my walk; but I did take some nice pictures of the scenery. Eventually I wandered onto the route of the Cascada del Purgatorio (everything seems to have a religious name in Spain), named after a nearby waterfall that the hiker can visit.

As the hour of my departure neared, I went back to the town to eat something. Though small, Rascafría is itself a charming sight, with the Artiñuelo Stream passing its center. There are also many attractive restaurants, though they are strangely expensive, due to the many visitors of the trails and the monastery, I suppose. I ate a delicious chocolate cake with raspberry dressing and then got on the bus, to doze during the long ride back to Madrid.


Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

This is Part Six of a projected seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

The monastery of Montserrat, situated about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, is understandably one of the most popular day trips for visitors to Barcelona. But before I tell you about that monastery, allow me to take a detour to the Poblet Monastery—comparatively little visited, and yet the only monastery in Catalonia (which has three famous Cistercian monasteries aside from Montserrat) to earn the distinction of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.


The UNESCO designation largely rests on Poblet’s status as the royal burial site of the Kings of Aragón. Every king and queen of Aragón since James I (1208 – 1276)—save one—is buried in an alabaster tomb in the monastery’s church. The exception is the last king that Aragón ever had, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516), who married Isabel of Castile and thus merged their kingdoms—incorporating Aragón into Spain as we know it. Ferdinand is buried in Granada, a city that he “reconquered” from the Muslims, along with his wife. (With few exceptions, every monarch since this marriage—henceforth, kings of Spain—has been buried in El Escorial, in Madrid.)

My plan was to take a day trip from Tarragona to visit the Poblet Monastery. But I made a fatal error: I had waited until Saturday, when the buses aren’t running. My only option was to take a commuter train to a nearby town, Espluga de Francoli, and walk about an hour to the monastery. The problem with this plan was that, due to the train schedule, I would have to turn around as soon as I reached the monastery in order to catch the only train back to Tarragona. This was clearly not desirable. But, lacking options, this is what I did.

Luckily, the train ride to Espluga de Francoli was itself worth the trip, skirting around the edge of the Prades Mountains. Even Espluga de Francoli was a charming sight, sitting atop one of the range’s foothills, like so many villages in the area. And though I did not have time to appreciate it, I enjoyed the town’s Moderniste wine cellar, designed by Pere Domènech i Roura. The walk to the monastery quickly drew me through the town, however, and into the surrounding agricultural fields. It was winter and nothing was growing, though the hills in the distance were still green.

The monastery hiding behind a sunbeam

I arrived at the monastery with barely ten minutes to spare. But this was enough to go inside and take a look around. This Cistercian monastery is built somewhat like a fort, and for good reason. Like the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, it was founded when there were still frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus a strong wall surrounds the outside and there is a second layer of defense within. But it turns out that the monastery had more to fear from disenchanted Spaniards than from Muslims, since it was during the Mendizábal confiscations, in 1835, that the monastery was taken from the church’s hands and then destroyed by angry, anti-clerical mobs. In his youth Gaudí wanted to rebuild the monastery and turn it into a sort of religious commune; but this didn’t happen. Instead, the monastery was rebuilt later, starting in 1930, and began to house monks again in 1940. At present there are 29 monks living in the monastery.


But I had no time to dwell on any of this history. Indeed, I barely had time to rush through the church’s Baroque portal, walk down the nave, and peek at the royal tombs beside the main altar (designed by Damià Forment, who also designed the even more impressive altar in Zaragoza’s El Pillar). After that I had to speed away back through the farmland towards Espluga de Francoli, where I caught the train back to Tarragona. Thankfully, my trip to Montserrat went more smoothly.

Poblet’s main altar and, to the left, the royal tombs


As I said above, Montserrat is about 50 km (or 30 miles) from Barcelona. Getting there from the city center is easy. A commuter FGC train departs from the Plaça d’Espanya every hour: the R5 towards Manresa. You can hardly miss it: the ticket machines at the station are constantly swamped, and there are attendants on standby to help tourists buy the correct ticket. This train will, however, only bring you to the base of the mountain. There are two options for going up: a cable car and a rack railway. The second is slightly cheaper and the first has a slightly better view; but in the end it hardly makes a difference in the time or the experience.

Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain,” and the name is well-chosen. As you approach, its form looms up above you like a giant stone saw. The surrounding countryside is a deep pine green, so the greyish brown rocks that appear look as though they are slicing through nature herself. The monastery complex is nestled between these sawtooths, overlooking the surrounding countryside. From up close, however, the sharp edges of Montserrat look swollen and bulbous, even vaguely alive. They could have been designed by Gaudí himself.


Unlike Poblet and other two famous monasteries of Catalonia—Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges—Montserrat is Benedictine, not Cistercian. Its origins are somewhat unclear, and legend has extended them far into the past; but what is certain is that by the 12th century it was taking shape. The monastery grew steadily over the years, with Romanesque and then Gothic additions, until the 19th century, when it was struck by two blows. First, Napoleon’s invading troops burned the monastery in 1811 and 1812; and then it was taken by the government during the 1835 Confiscations of Mendizábal (which affected so many of the Spanish monasteries I have seen). Unlike Poblet Monastery, however, the Monastery of Montserrat was reopened less than a decade later, in 1844.


But this wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 the monastery was closed and confiscated by the Catalan government, the Generalitat. The wave of anti-clerical violence and persecution that took place during the war years resulted in the deaths of over twenty of the monastery’s monks. After the war’s conclusion, however, Montserrat was returned to the church. During Franco’s reign it became (like everything else in Catalonia, it seems) a symbol of Catalan nationalism, serving as a refuge and a place of protest. At present over 70 monks are still living, praying, and fasting within its walls.


Though many buildings make up the Monastery of Montserrat, the most impressive, by far, is the basilica. You cannot see it from the outside, since it is enclosed in a rather plain and unremarkable square building. But once you enter this through the front portal and stand in the enclosed plaza, you can see the basilica’s façade. This actually of quite recent date, having been constructed after the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless its fine sculptural friezes and decoration are perfectly in keeping with the place’s long history, as well as with the mountain itself, since the architect Francesc Folguera used stone quarried on site. The inside of the basilica is absolutely radiant. Numerous lights and candles illuminate the gold that seems to cover every surface. The vaulted ceiling, the walls, the altar—they all emit a regal glow.


In a space above and behind the main altar is the famed Virgin of Montserrat. Sometimes called the “Black Virgin” because of her dark skin, this is a statue of the Virgin and Child enthroned. According to legend it was carved by Saint Luke himself and discovered by some shepherds in the year 890 or so; but in reality it bears the clear marks of a Romanesque work. In any case, kissing this Virgin is supposed to bring blessing and good fortune, and so people line up for hours to do so. The expectant smoocher passes through an elaborately decorated doorway and ascends a staircase, at the top of which the Virgin patiently awaits—as she has done for centuries. For those in search of additional benediction there is a narrow passage in the space between the basilica and the mountain’s rockface, where for a small fee one can light a candle and place it on a metal rack. These candles are housed in colorful glass cups that glow attractively in the shadowy passage.


At this point I felt hungry and began searching for something to eat. Montserrat is well-stocked with restaurants, cafeterias, and vending machines. But they are uniformly overpriced. And since being stuck on a mountain is like being on an airplane—in that there are limited options—vendors can charge whatever they like for quite ordinary food. I bought a sandwich from a machine and scuttled away, unsatisfied. Heed my advice and pack a lunch.

Next I wanted to explore the mountain itself. Montserrat is full of walking paths, ranging from a quick stroll to mountain climbing. There are also funiculars for those who would prefer not to climb up any steep hills. The Funicular de Santa Cova takes one down to an important shrine in situated in a cave; the Funicular de Sant Joan takes one upwards, giving one a panoramic view of the compound. But I had just spent several weeks in city centers, surrounded by grey asphalt, so I wasn’t interested in either of those. I was aching to lose myself in nature; so I chose the longest path, up to the top of San Jeroni, the highest peak in the area.


The beginning stretch was the most difficult, leading up several steep staircases that had been carved into the mountain rock. After the first half-hour, however, the trail levelled out somewhat. Still, the constant pumping of my legs as I rushed ever upwards quickly had me panting. The scanty trees seldom provided any relief from the glaring sun. But the mountain spurred me on like a mystery story, gradually revealing itself in a series of twists and turns, each one bringing more of the whole picture into view. The undulating curves of the mountainside were covered in emerald bushes and spotted with the bulbous grey of rocks, like the scales of an enormous reptile.


Nearly an hour and a half had elapsed before I reached the top. The clouds hung lower and lower as I rose. The vegetation dwindled and finally disappeared, leaving only the swollen, jagged stone of this enchanting place. As often happens, there are many small cairns near the top—piles of stone that serve as miniature monuments to former climbers. Soon the whole surrounding landscape came into view; and the sight was well worth the exertion. The distant horizon faded into the atmospheric blue of faraway. The shadows of small clouds darkened the landscape below, where roads and towns looked like mere patches of dirt. But for the most part the view is a gently rolling sea of green.


So concluded my trip to Barcelona’s iconic mountain monastery. Now I must move on to another of Catalonia’s great cities: Tarragona.