Friday, August 5, 2011

Entry 131 8.2.11

Entry 131, August 2nd, 2011, 12:03am (GMT +2)

Today was an adventure!

We were docked in Barcelona again and I had the entire day off (well, almost the entire day – we had a sound check at 7:30pm in the evening, which is the same time as all aboard). I decided last night to do something that I'd wanted to do for a while now – visit Montserrat, a mountain outside of Barcelona.

Why Montserrat? Well, for starters, there's a Benedictine monastery there that is more than 800 years old. It is squeezed in about halfway above the mountain and commands a breathtaking panoramic view of Catalonia. The mountain has always been the home of hermits and monks, too, so there are beautiful isolated chapels scattered everywhere. The view from the peak is supposed to be amazing as well. Finally, it is located an hour and a half train ride from Barcelona, and therefore represented quite the adventure.

I did some research last night, and it is good that I did. Getting to the monastery is no easy piece of work. Let me detail my trip for you:

I got off the boat at around 8:30am. The shuttle bus took me into town, where I walked to Las Ramblas to catch the subway. From the Drassanes stop, I took the subway to La Plaza Espanya (the place that Joe and I got off to see Montjuic). After wandering around in the station for a bit I found the R5 train to Manresa, and sprinted down the platform to catch it before it left. The train dropped me off an hour and fifteen minutes later (most of the trip through increasingly rugged Spanish countryside) at a small depot clinging to the side of a mountain and overlooking a river. From there I took a cable car straight up the side of Montserrat to the monastery station, and then hiked the last bit uphill to the monastery proper. The bells were all ringing as I came in, which I took to be a good omen.

Montserrat towers above the surrounding hills like a ship sailing through an earthen sea. It isn't one peak so much as it is a collection of rounded stone spires that jut up from the ground. Ribbons of stone tower above the countryside, leaving lots of narrow valleys that trail back into the mountain. The monastery is snuggled into one of the largest of these openings, and is about halfway up the side of the mountain.

I could have taken a cog train as well, and I think there is a road (a long and winding road). For hundreds of years, though, the place was only accessible by foot. The monastery was originally founded because the Virigin Mary was seen to appear in a small grotto nearby several times. The grotto has been turned into a chapel, but more on that later.

A small town has sprung up, clinging to the mountainside, as a result of the tourism revenue that the Benedictine monastery generates. Pilgrims and tourists come in nearly equal numbers to honor the virgin. There's a hotel, a few restaurants, a couple shops, and a police station, among other things – all of them in red stone and tile. My favorite bit was the bar right outside the doors of the monastery, presumably for the less-enthusiastic family of those making the pilgrimage. Inside the monastery is a pretty standard (for me, at this point) basilica, beautiful but full of gawking tourists.

Nearby, tucked in between the basilica and the cliff face, is a narrow road lined with alcoves bearing the images of the saints. Here burn thousands of multicolored candles, purchased by visitors for a euro or two. I bought one and left it there – I don't know the iconography of Catholicism well enough to tell what saint I was paying tribute to, but I chose an especially quiet and tranquil corner of the walk. It spoke to me. When in Rome, eh?

The candles shut everyone up much better than all the signs in the basilica reminding people to be quiet. I don't know what it is about candles, but something there strikes a chord in people.

From there I headed to the grotto. It was a half hour walk, along a path carved into the side of the cliffs. The path was lined with sculpture – I spotted one statue of St. Peter that was clearly made by the same sculptor who did the “Death and Resurrection” facade of the Sagrada Familia. I like it – it was clunky and cubist, very sparse and yet more expressive than the more ornate displays later on.

The chapel was a very powerful place. One one side, the cliff stretches up for hundreds of meters. On the other, it falls away for several hundred more. In between are two rows of trees, a narrow path, and a
small wooden door. I stopped for a minute to catch my breath (it was a steep path!) before heading in.

The grotto has been transformed into the altar of the chapel. Bare gray rock gleam in the dim light, around a table with the image of Christ and a single burning candle. The thick wooden beams underfoot have been smoothed by the passage of hundreds of thousands of feet. Eight wicker chairs face the image, and behind them is another rack filled with burning candles. A pair of small windows in the stucco walls let in the light and look out into free space; even the most casual glance reveals a view of towns tens of kilometers away. It is absolutely silent.

In short, it was the most holy place I have ever been.

I am not a religious person (at least in the traditional, orthodox sense) and am definitely not Catholic, but I felt the urge to pray. I did. I did not take any pictures. It just wouldn't have been right.

As I prayed, a few other pilgrims came in to lay flowers on the table. They left a burning stick of incense as well. It was powerful.

I made my way back to the monastery and had lunch. Feeling refreshed, I decided to climb higher up on the mountain. From the hills below, the monastery looks impossibly high up, but now that I was here I could see that the mountain just kept on going. There was a tram up to the trailhead (a “funiclar,” yet another mode of transportation) . . . but as I watched all the tourists piling on, I noticed a signpost that read:

Saint Jeroni, 1.2km”

I decided to walk the path up to the peak instead of take the tram, because I had a few hours. What could possibly go wrong?

The trip up was uneventful, if long. The terrain on Montserrat is strange – at one moment you're pushing through a rainforest, and the next you find yourself on a windswept rock face with a slender handrail keeping you from a deadly fall. Then, back into the rainforest, and then bare rock again . . . it's all due to the strange, spikey nature of the mountain and all of it's deep narrow ravines. If Gaudi had built a mountain, it would have looked like Montserrat.

At one point I passed the remains of another chapel. Reading the placard, I found that it was the “parish church” of sorts for the hermits who used to live here. Every Sunday, a brother would come form the monastery and give service. I thought about this as I continued to climb – absolutely alone, I could imagine this as the territory of solitary holy men. The winding paths and the rugged terrain would have made it ideal. It gave the mountain a bit of an aura to it.

The path was well marked in some places and poorly marked in others. Usually there would be a white stripe with a red stripe under it on the right side, painted on the rock, but some joker had come in with a can of blue paint and turned some of them into the Russian flag. As I joined the main trail, I started to run into other hikers who had taken the tram (or “funiclar”). They told me to keep on going, and that I was near the top.

Near the peak the forest began to thin out. I found a small chapel abandoned in a field of yellow grasses, but didn't stop for long. The path changed several times near the top, ending in a long concrete staircase that brought me to the peak.

The view was worth it. Unlike Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire (which I climbed last October) where the land slopes away slowly from the mountain, Montserrat juts out without warning. I know that I mentioned this before, but it is difficult to emphasize just exactly how it felt being at the top of Sant Jeroni. It felt like I could fall off all the way to the river by the train tracks at the bottom. The mountain is like a fortress, with a jungle in the center.

Clouds whipped past my feet. I stayed there for a bit, and wrote a few letters. Some other people ate lunch, though it was not crowded at the peak. I began to wish that I had brought a water bottle.

As I was about to leave, a Spaniard with dreadlocks wearing a T-shirt that said “HARDCORE” climbed over the opposite side of the rail, where the cliff fell straight off for hundreds of meters. He saw me and grunted; “Hola.” The dude had just climbed up the sheer rock wall from below. Kudos to you, hardcore Spaniard, you've earned the T-shirt.

Anyway, this where things began to get a bit messy. Climbing up a mountain is easy – just keep going up. If you get lost, you're a moron. Climbing down, though, is a different matter, especially when you're in a hurry to catch a train. I missed a trail junction somewhere and realized it about half an hour later. The trail back to the monastery was far below me, on the other side of a gully, and I was still on the ridge, on a trail I'd never heard of without a map . . . but it was too late to turn back if I was going to make the ship. I pressed on.

There were lots of footprints on the trail I was on, so I figured that it led back to the tram. I was right, but here's where I had another problem. Everyone else on the mountain had decided to leave at the same time as I did, and so I had to wait for forty minutes to catch the tram (there was no path from the station to the monastery – the closest way was to retrace my entire path to the mountain peak).
Also, they don't sell tickets at the top, as nobody is dumb enough to walk UP the mountain and then take the train DOWN . . . (cough, cough) . . . but again fortune worked in my favor. I met a young woman from New York who was on vacation from her internship in The Hague, and she helped distract the guard while I snuck on the train.

Back at the monastery, I realized that I had missed my train back to Barcelona. There was another one in an hour, and I thought about hanging around and getting some dinner . . . it would be cutting it close, and I would be late to rehearsal, but I would still make the ship. A feeling told me to head back down the mountain now, though, and so I ran to the cable car station. I was the last person on board by a hair's breadth, and we headed back down.

There at the train station I found out that I had indeed missed the train. I settled in to wait, not sure why I had come, and began reading the schedule out of boredom (I am my dad's son, after all). What's this? A different train that doesn't go all the way to Barcelona but stops at a major junction halfway there? And when is it due? The train rolled into the station right as I figured it out.

I hopped on along with a few other tourists while most stayed behind. Thinking of the Paulo Coelho books I have been reading, I began to fervently hope that he was right and that fortune did favor the courageous after all (I will write about him eventually, I promise! More to read still). Coelho says that when people take a risk in the service of what they are supposed to achieve in life, the whole universe will conspire to help them. I decided to put that theory to the test.

My fellow tourists and I conspired to decipher the schedule on board our train. It dropped us off at a junction in the middle of Spain and headed back to the mountain . . . as we figured out which of several trains would take us back to Barcelona, another train rumbled onto the track next to us. It was exactly the one we needed! Coelho is batting a thousand still at this point.

I arrived in Barcelona about twenty minutes earlier than I would have otherwise. I caught the subway and then sprinted from Las Ramblas to the ship shuttle (at this point it was 7:10, and my call for sound
check was in five minutes). There was a man in a suit standing where it usually stops, doing nothing (why was he there? No idea. Maybe the universe was helping me out again). I asked him about the shuttle, and he said that I'd missed the last one, but that I had three options: walk, take the port bus, or catch a cab. Walking was out of the question, and I know better than to rely on city buses when you're late, and so I grabbed a cab.

And of course I managed to get the one Pakistani cab driver in all of Barcelona. When looking for a good cab driver, two qualities come to mind: familiarity with the place you're at, and a ferocious appetite for reckless driving. This poor soul had neither of these things. I could SEE the ship from where we were, and yet he still didn't quite know what was going on (I mean, it probably didn't help that I was flustered and kept switching from English to Spanish without meaning to, but still!).

But I got to the ship. I threw him some money and sprinted into the terminal. God bless the security woman who saw me and rushed me through the scanners. From there it was a full-on sprint from the checkpoint across the floor, through the duty free shops, up the escalator (three steps at a time? Yes) and down the gangway. Strangely enough I met another man sprinting the other direction. He asked me if I knew anything about a tender boat . . . I shook my head as we flew past each other. He was having a worse day than I was, I think.

I was still early enough that the chief security officer made a joke instead of giving me the lecture that I probably warranted. I made it to sound check downbeat with four minutes to spare – technically late, but it was worth it.

And after sound check I felt . . . euphoric! I had gone out in search of adventure, found it, and returned safe and sound. I had faced a series of increasingly desperate challenges, yet my intuition had led me straight through them. Of course, I had to apply some sweat and physical activity to it all too, but hell – I climbed a mountain today! And my coworkers checked their emails, or went shopping.

Coelho calls this feeling the “sacred enthusiasm,” and it is the clearest sign that we are living the life we're supposed to live. It dissipated a bit (especially once I got to the mess and sat down to the usual shipboard gossip and rubbery chicken) but I won't forget. Now that I've had a taste . . . I'll be able to find it again!

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