Spread your wings beyond Barcelona

image-1Barcelona offers so much that it sometimes feels as though too much extra effort would be required to venture out into the country instead of skipping along La Rambla.

But head for the hills and towns of Catalonia, and the richness of its landscape and culture informs a much clearer picture of what influences the art and cuisine of this fiercely proud region of Spain, hugging the Pyrenees to its north and the Mediterranean to the east.

Looking outwards from the city, Monteserrat is a good place to start. Less than an hour on the train from Barcelona, if you can’t be bothered with car hire, a huge alien mountain greets you, like a badly set sedimentary jelly mold. Should you possess calves of steel, you can cycle up the winding mountain road to the Benedictine Abbey (and embrace in the courtyard, as I saw two vaguely traumatised cyclists do post-vertical-ascent), or alternatively drive up, and hop on the terrifyingly steep funicular railway to the top. The Abbey holds the shrine of Santa Maria de Montserrat, or the “black Madonna”, replicated to Knock-levels of kitsch in the gift shop. It’s also home to one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe, who perform every day in the cathedral, like angelic penguins with their white robes and high register.

You can add Montserrat to the list of places where people think the Holy Grail is located, but the real treasure is hanging in an art gallery here, which is well worth the €6.50 entry charge. Paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Le Corbusier, Miró, Monet and even Caravaggio populate the museum almost casually. The newest acquisition is an Irishman’s work: take a bow, Sean Scully.

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