Travels in Spain before Covid: Barcelona Day 11

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November 7th 2020
Published: November 7th 2020
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OCTOBER 30, 2019

Since we hadn’t bought coffee for our coffee maker we decided to go for an early morning walk before today’s tour to look for a nice cafe. Cafe Zurich must have been calling us. We sat outside at a little table near Plaza Catalonia watching the city come alive, feeling very European and tres chic all while enjoying great coffees and to die for pastries. A little Switzerland in Spain? You bet. It was later in the morning so we did not suffer the lines of the Coffee Rush. Our waiter brought our Trenza and Muffin Xocolata pastries and coffees to the table. Yes, it took a little time, but nothing to complain about, we were on vacation soaking up the atmosphere, the reason we came here!

At 10am we met our van to take us on our half day tour of Montserrat and the Benedictine Abbey. I had researched so many different tours that I couldn’t be sure which one I actually booked but ended up glad I chose this one. The van took us to the railway station where we boarded the rack railway train, the Funicular de Saint Joan, taking us 3,280 feet up the steep, jagged mountain range (Montserrat literally means jagged mountain) outside the city. We craned our necks to the views of steep sheer rocks above and the Catalonian countryside far below as we slowly chugged higher to our destination which ended very close to the museums and the monastery.

Our Viator guide collected us at the top and gave us an overview of the events of the day. With time to explore on our own Dave and I chose to visit the Museum of Montserrat which surprisingly holds an impressive collection of more than 1,300 works of art from artists such as Picasso, Dali, Monet, Rusinol, Caravaggio and El Greco. This tiny but notable museum on top of the craggy mountain was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

The Benedictine Abbey, founded in 1025 by Abbot Oliba of Ripoll, still functions today as an abbey of the Order of St. Benedictine with about 79 monks in residence. Located high in the craggy mountains of the Pyrenees this is a spiritual symbol and religious center for Catalonia and Catholic pilgrims. “According to tradition” in approximately the year 890, near a hermit monastery, shepherds noticed a “dazzling light” coming from a cave, accompanied by an “angelic melody”. The shepherds discovered the miraculous statue which, according to Fr. Andre, was carved in wood by St. Luke around 15 A.D. and later brought to Spain by the Bishop of Barcelona. In 718 the statue was hidden in a cave in the mountains to protect it from Saracen infidels. Eventually the Capella de la Santa Cova was built around this statue becoming the monastery and place of worship it is today.

Inside the basilica is a long nave decorated by numerous artists and sculptors including a young Antoni Gaudi. The altar is carved from local rock and decorated with enamel and silver. The famous Virgin of Montserrat, locally referred to a La Moreneta, little dark-skinned one, or the Black Madonna, is located just above the main altar, visible from the seats in the congregation. She has been the patron saint of Catalonia since 1881 and as such, attracts many devout pilgrims.

The Throne Room, or Chamber of the Virgin, which stands above the altar, is decorated in silver and gold that is lit by lamps to make the room and the seated Black Madonna, draped in gold, shimmer in the light. Surrounding the virgin and leading to and from this room is a series of magnificent gold and jeweled mosaic tiles covering the walls and ceilings depicting biblical stories. I would have liked the opportunity to spend more time absorbing the atmospheric beauty but the crowd pressed on.

To get to the Throne Room we stood in a long line outside in the del Abat Argeric courtyard and slowly, filed through one by one on the right side of the church. From there we went up the back stairs around a narrow passageway to an alabaster portal. The entrance and room was decorated in various beautiful biblical scenes, but there is no time to explore because finally, briefly, we passed in front of the iconic virgin, said a prayer, touch her hand that is holding an orb extended through a Plexiglas protection, took a photo and proceeded back down to the nave.

The Escolania Boy's Choir is one of Europe’s oldest boys choirs, originally dating back to the 14th century. Along with their religious and regular academic lessons, these choirboys receive a high level of musical training. As a result of their reputation, they have traveled extensively giving recital tours, but hearing them here, inside the basilica was a really special treat. We had wanted to time our visit to hear this choir and also see the Black Madonna, there was very little time to do both. We ended up sacrificing good seats for the choir to see the virgin first but I think it was worth the effort. The angelic voices, accompanied by the deep resonance of a pipe organ, filled the church and brought a heavenly hush to those in attendance. I bought a CD of one of the boys’ choruses but I don’t think it comes close to the sounds echoing inside the vaulted dome of the church honoring the Virgin Mary. Catalan poet Werdaguer wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary: “The mountains were cut by angels in order to build a palace for the Virgin Mary among them”. This hymn is sung daily during services in the monastery.

With little time left and not much instruction, we grabbed a some sandwiches to go for lunch on our own in one of the many inside stalls selling products made by the monks and local people behind the abbey. I picked up some jarred delicacies of the region to bring home (if they make it that far). There was no place to sit down with our lunch so we brought it along intending to eat on the van during the winding 30 miles descent back to the city.

We returned to Barcelona from our tour of Monserrat and began walking to explore a little more of Catalonia which conveniently took us to Catalonia Plaza and my favorite department store in the world, Corts Ingles. And yes, I had to find some more treasures here including amazing jewelry, the best food court and grocery you could ever find in a department store, clothing, pottery and, where I finally got my Sim card (you have to have your passport in hand to do this, and mine was always in a hotel safe). Like many grocery stores, this one had samples of a variety of foods but I found I could not pass by without tasting (more than once) the Turron turf de fresas con nata, an amazing concoction of sweet white chocolate, strawberries and cream in a fudge bar. I bought the bar, and it was so sweet it took me several delicious months to finish.

On our way back to the apartment we passed Churreria Laietana. The owner and his daughter were painstakingly making the churrerias, visible in the shop window. What a great sales tool, it brought us in! We watched the creations first hand and, curious to see if these were better than what we had in Madrid, we went inside soaking up the smell of bubbling fat (not my thing). But chocolate is my thing so we felt compelled to do a taste test (as if we needed more to eat). I have never been a fan of fried dough but I am a fan of anything chocolate and despite the overwhelming fat smell, that was good chocolate! We stuffed them down and afterwards, on a sugar and fat high, somehow dragged ourselves home and collapsed before getting ready for our big night out, eating again!

After settling in for a convenient nap for Dave and a chance to organize for more upcoming tours, we began to prepare for our much anticipated dinner at the acclaimed Restaurant 7 Portes. It was located only a few blocks from our apartment so in the fading light we took our bearings for the return at night. The restaurant takes up a large portion of the building with two sides facing the street.

Once inside we were transported back in time when luxury and elegance were the norm. We were ushered to our reserved table, previously occupied by Robert de Niro (all the tables in the room had names from previous diners, across from us sat the King of Sweden). From one of the spacious rooms nearby we could hear the soft sounds of piano. The large orange hanging lampshades, a throwback to the times of Bogart and Bacall, were a perfect compliment to the black and white tiled floor, the dark wood booths and tables, and the tall glass windows. Wait staff were dressed in white jackets with black bow ties (how did they stay so clean?).

I was prepared for something special but did not anticipate the portions to be so generous. We ordered from the a la carte menu and I began with a salad with herbs and goat cheese thinking this would get me started. I was shocked at the portion size, it was enough for a main course! I had selected the Bacalao a la muslin de adios de la Sra Carme for my main course but with the delicious wine and half my salad, I was already full. Our waiter kindly, and perhaps understandingly, smiled and told me he would be happy to box up half of my dinner for later.

Dave ordered his own salad to start, which was again, quite large to be boxed up for later, and a personal sized Paella Parellada which, as far as we understood, was unheard of to get a single portion of Paella anywhere. Of course that was not what I would call a single portion, but Dave delighted by watching the waiter serve this dish next to his plate without spilling a drop. Its remainder was also boxed to go. We took our time and never were rushed but as the crowds began flowing in, the noise level increased, and we found we were ready to go. Our waiter was devastated that we were not going to try their famous Catalan Creme Brûlée. Good lord, after what we consumed there was no way!

In an attempt to walk off most of our dinner, we walked around the darkened Cathedral of the Sea and next to the church found the tall arc, Fossar de les Moreres (literally grave of the Mulberries) honoring the Catalans buried there who died defending Barcelona from those loyal to Philip V on the siege of 1714. The torch with the eternal flame was built over a cemetery, now Memorial Square Plaza, inaugurated in 2001 and is additionally lit uplighting the honored names on the wall behind the flamed torch. A truly haunting remembrance at night.

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