Calatayud and Montserrat
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
10Trip End Apr 16, 2005
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The drive from Toledo to Calatayud was our longest yet and we were quite worn out when we finally entered the medium sized town and began our quest for accommodation. The first hotel we tried was the cheapest in town but also complemento (full). With whom it was filled we could not imagine as Calatayud is not the sort of town one would expect to attract tourists. The second hotel, hidden away down a side street, had plenty of vacancies. We deposited our belongings in a very pleasant room and strolled down the main street in search of the post office. All we found were restaurants and an amazing number of banks. The correos (post office), when we eventually found it, was closed for the afternoon.
As is common throughout Spain, everything of the slightest interest was closed until 4pm. To be brutally frank there was not all that much of interest in the town. One of the many churches near our hotel was of interest mainly because its tower seemed about to topple into the street. In desperation I took a photo of the strange trees which lined the main street, fearing that otherwise I would have no record of our visit.
While Margaret rested in our room I walked the backstreets in search of a supermecardo so that I could buy some wine. I found one not far away but could make no sense of the labels and took potluck. The bottle I selected tasted like vinegar, which is apparently the preference of the citizens of Calatayud. The cleaners at the hotels where we stay must be horrified when they empty our little trash cans, jammed as they are with empty beer and wine bottles. They might also be a little puzzled at the contents of our handbasin which usually contains a can of beer, a bottle of orange juice and a pair of Margaret's sox.
As I write: We are about to leave our room and visit a couple of churches as it is now a little past 4pm. I can't help wondering whether the small hole in the ceiling is the remnants of a light fitting or the peephole of a Spanish voyeur.
Margaret went to Mass in the evening at a church just up the street. I went with her and would have stayed for the service but the two beers I had consumed earlier were having an unfortunate effect on my bladder. I had forgotten that the church was only a few yards away from the hotel and headed the wrong way back. Trusting in my normally infallible instincts I let my autonomic nervous system determine the route home. My ANS was not operating efficiently for reasons relating to alcohol consumption and I wandered through a maze of lanes to the base of the mountain range just outside of town. Somehow I managed to find my way home, just in time to begin the return trip to collect my spouse.
Every hotel in Spain seems to have a bidet. Ideal, I thought, for keeping my beer cold when there was no fridge available. Margaret explained to me what one was meant to do with a bidet which didn't deter me at all, though her exclamations of disgust persuaded me that I would be better off drinking my beer warm.
Mass at the Colegiata de Santa Maria had left my wife uplifted. Not only was the service especially spiritual but she found that she was the youngest of an exclusively aged and female congregation. I joined the aged males of the parish waiting patiently outside the church for our devout spouses.
In the evening we walked the streets of Calatayud in search of a restaurant. We selected the town's sole pizza parlor, Mamma Mia. After climbing several sets of stairs we were refused entry on the grounds that the restaurant wasn't due to open for ten minutes. The pizzas were fine (and I'm not usually fond of the stuff) but Margaret's "wine of the region" proved to be the same vinegar we had bought earlier.
DAY 24 TUE We left Calatayud with few regrets. My obsession with avoiding tollways always exacted a price. This time we found ourselves on a road favored by large trucks. There were no overtaking lanes for its entire length and we found ourselves sandwiched inside a long convoy of slow moving behemoths. Eventually we rejoined the A2 and were able to increase our speed to 130kph. We bypassed the cities of Zaragoza and Lerida and were dismayed by the heavy pall of pollution that hovered over both cities. Our route had taken us through a large windmill farm and we found it peculiar that an effort had been made to improve the environment on the very hills overlooking the smog-shrouded cities the windmills served.
As we drew closer to Montserrat we elected to ignore my route-planner's directions and leave the A2 early. We found ourselves driving on a narrow, winding road for miles until we reached the monastery itself. We took a parking ticket from the machine and left the car in one of the few vacant spots available. It was only after looking in vain for the town of Montserrat that we realized we had confused the Monestir of Montserrat (i.e. the monastery) with Monistrol de Montserrat (the town). We drove out of the parking area, waived through by an attendant who had obviously seen confused tourists before, and drove down an exceedingly steep road right to the bottom of the valley. The stunning views made up for the terror of the descent and we arrived, relieved and a little elated, at Hostal Guillemes at the base of the mountain.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the streets of Monistrol de Montserrat and working out how to catch the funicular to the monastery. For the first time in weeks I was able to buy a cold beer which meant that I didn't have to leave it in the bidet to cool. Not that there was a bidet in our modest family-run hotel, mind you. While crossing the road on our return journey I had what could only be called a near-death experience. I momentarily forgot that I wasn't in Australia and looked the wrong way before starting to cross the road. I was milliseconds away from being rendered mere blood and bones by a large truck when Margaret screamed a warning.
Margaret has often suggested that I spend too much time relating our driving experiences and the price of beer and not enough time describing what we see. This is not true. On our way down the mountain today the road was a ribbon of moonlight, across the purple moor and the moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed 'pon cloudy shore.
Late in the evening we dined in the small restaurant attached to the hotel. It was a three-course dinner, though not the haute cuisine to which we had become accustomed. Margaret even went so far as to suggest that it had been prepared earlier in the day and reheated, a judgement I felt unqualified to dispute. We sat next to a French family which included grandmaman, maman, père and their adopted fils Leo (5 years old) from Russia. We had a long conversation and when we left little Leo gave both of us a kiss on the cheek.
DAY 25 WED After breakfast we consulted our funicular timetable and realised that the next train to the monastery left in twenty minutes. The station was on the other side of the river so we walked very rapidly (I never jog) down the hill, through the little town, across the bridge and up the steep hill, arriving with minutes to spare. The ticket vending machine was a marvel of modern technology and way beyond our comprehension. We took turns in pressing our fingers to the touch screen but couldn't understand the Spanish instructions. The train was due to arrive at any moment and we were mightily relieved when the stationmistress volunteered to help us out.
On the way up the side of the mountain we learned that this was the feast day of the Black Virgin of Montserrat. All the Spaniards who had been in Toledo for the annual medieval markets were now swarming over Montserrat like holy ants, mingling with the usual hordes of coached-in tourists to create a solid pilgrim swarm. Mass was scheduled to start at 11am so we ignored the magnetic pull of the cavernous souvenir shops and fought our way to the basilica.
The huge church was already bursting at the seams. Hundreds of worshippers had sensibly arrived at 8am rather than 10am (our time of arrival) and we were forced to settle our ample derrieres on some steps at the side of the church. And wait. For a long time. Margaret became quite indignant when a few people thoughtlessly planted themselves in front of us, obscuring our view of the altar. Her frustration was premature. Over the next hour hundreds more people jammed themselves into the basilica, totally obscuring our view. It seemed that the later you arrived, the better the view you got. I also became more than a little resentful. "Bastide!", I cried. This was not blasphemous as a bastide in France is a walled town.
At exactly 11am the introductory hymn "Come to the Water" began and a long line of priests wound onto the altar from a side door. In the rearguard was a trio of worthies whose high conical hats identified them as bishops and another whose even taller hat marked him as a cardinal. I felt an almost irresistible urge to rush over and kiss their rings.
The musical accompaniment to the service was provided by the world-famous Escolania de Montserrat, a choir made up of young boys and a few eunuchs. Apparently the group is of even greater vintage than the Vienna Boys Choir and was so super that I later bought a CD of their greatest hits from one of the souvenir shops . Margaret found the Mass very fulfilling, though I found myself counting the spots on the dress of the large lady whose bum, inches from my face, threatened to asphyxiate me. The cardinal gave an exceptionally long homily in Spanish which I rated as the best I had heard since Chiang Mai where the sermon was in Thai. Some time later Margaret threw her arms around me and kissed me passionately. Once again I had been completely taken by surprise by the SIGN OF PEACE. Fortunately the old ladies nearby only wanted to shake hands.
The sixteenth century basilica was exceptionally beautiful. Hanging from the walls were a score or more of silver and pewter lamps, each handcrafted and each different to the other. We later learned that it used to be a tradition for visiting pilgrims to donate lanterns. Perhaps the fancier the lantern, the more powerful the indulgence obtained.
After Mass we visited three of the four large souvenir shops where I bought a plastic Black Madonna. My first kitsch purchase! There were at least a dozen versions of the Black Madonna (and black child) but mine had the double benefit of being both the cheapest and the kitschiest. I don't remember what Margaret bought, though I'm sure it would have been both expensive and in the best of taste.
Having restored ourselves with sweetmeats from the cafeteria we joined a queue of people waiting to file past the statue of The Black Madonna which was situated in a little room high above the altar. Even I, a proud pagan, was irritated by the brainless American behind us who ignored all the Silence! Signs to ramble on to his girlfriend about his mobile phone.
A little later we took another funicular 250 metres further up the mountain. We walked down a broad path, which led to a lookout that provided a breathtaking view of the villages in the valley below. Spread out beneath us were the two towns of Manresa and Igualada, whilst in the distant background we could make out the hazy suburbs of Barcelona. Walking back along the path we were fascinated by the marble rocks embedded in the side of the hill. I wanted a bit to take home so Margaret kindly helped me scan the ground for suitable chunks. Eyes glued to the ground and the side of the hill we paid little attention to the beautiful panorama on the other side of the track. As we searched for marble I could not help but reflect on the ancient biblical saying "woe to the man who seeks beauty at his feet but sees not the beauty on the other side of his path".
I walked by myself up to the Hermitage of Saint Joan which turned out to be a derelict chapel whose rusted iron door was completely covered in graffiti. Lonely Planet had claimed that the return walk between the funicular station and the hermitage would take forty minutes, but it only took me twenty . It's hard to believe that twelve years ago I was suffering a midlife crisis (or possibly the menopause) and thought my walking days were over!
After a very exhausting day we were glad to return to the funicular station for the long journey down to Monistrol de Montserrat. Also waiting for the train were several thousand aged Spanish crones and their equally decrepit husbands. Each carriage had but one door and I had cleverly positioned us so that we would be directly in front of one when the train arrived. My strategy was for naught as the old women rudely shoved us aside and pored into the carriage. We still managed to get seats, though I was forced to give mine up to a nonagenarian lady whose husband told me (rather apologetically), that she would die if she didn't sit down. I was rather embarrassed as I had done a pretty good job of pretending not to notice her.
As I write: We have just decided to spend our spare night in Montserrat instead of Arles. There is still a lot to see, including the neighbouring town of Mansera. We could also return to the monastery for a more leisurely and less crowded exploration.
In the evening we ate once again at the hotel restaurant and once again the meal was extremely basic. We didn't mind because we felt we were eating what the owner and his family would probably eat. The only other guests were a retired Dutch couple, though a group of locals joined us to watch fútbol. All of us became quite enthusiastic as the two English teams ran up and down the field. Margaret and I didn't have a clue as to what was going on and at one stage thought the score was 11-0 until we realised that we were looking at the station's logo.
DAY 26 THU Rising just after the crack of dawn I walked to the tiny town square with the intention of ringing Mum in Australia. To my pleasant surprise I found that it was market day and I had arrived in time to see the stallholders laying out their wares. This was no tourist market. There were no stalls brimming with souvenirs or New Age candles, only vegetables, fruit, shoes and the sort of clothes only Spanish villagers would wear. As I began to dial a policewoman tapped on the glass and demanded to know whether I was the owner of the van illegally parked on the footpath. I briefly dazzled her with a flash of my practiced charm and swore that the offending vehicle was not mine. My smile was not returned (a rare failure) but fortunately she believed me.
Early in the morning we took the funicular up to the monastery. Yesterday the train had been bursting with tourists, today it was almost deserted. A busload of young English tourists boarded at the next station, Montserrat Vila. We listened with bemusement as the young fellow in the seat behind us wondered aloud why on earth they had built the monastery at the top of a mountain. All the building materials would have had to be carried up from the bottom and, even worse, tourists such as he would have to take the train to the top. He was sick of churches, castles and monuments and longed to visit Waterworld.
The monastery, like the train, was not at all crowded and we made a beeline for the basilica where we set our flag in the first pew, right in front of the altar. It was noon and the Escolania de Montserrat was due to sing at one. We spent the next hour in quiet worship or, in my case, reading our "All Montserrat" guidebook. The elderly Dutch couple with whom we had dined the previous night sat next to us and we chatted about our families and national backgrounds. The Dutch lady told us that she had a son in New Zealand. He and his wife had triplets. In case we didn't know what triplets were she added, sotto voice, "from sex". I knew immediately what she meant.
The church had filled to capacity by 1pm and, after we had waited for an hour, a score of very earnest, rather saintly looking choirboys filed out onto the altar. We were treated to two songs, the second of which may have been the Spanish national anthem as everybody stood up . After ten minutes of singing the boys picked up their belongings and filed off. We were most indignant. Two songs, ten minutes. For this we had waited an hour? Most people left after the performance but we strolled around the basilica examining every chapel, painting and statue. We agreed that it was the best church that we had "done" so far. Far from there being a mere score of ornate lanterns hanging from the walls as I had estimated yesterday, there were several score and more.
Margaret had seen old Spanish ladies carrying what appeared to be shopping bags of clothes labelled Coiques of Montserrat and was anxious to find the shop from which they came. She hadn't seen a decent shoe shop in several days and was suffering withdrawal symptoms. Much to her frustration (and my relief) we never found it and we returned to our hotel empty-handed.
Aroused by her encounter with shopping bags, Margaret asked our host where the people of Montserrat went to buy their shoes and clothes. He told her that villagers of taste all drove to the capital of Catalonia, Mansera, to buy anything not available in the local supermarket. We had never heard of the town and assumed that it must be just a larger version of Montserrat. Our assumption was incorrect as we soon discovered that it was quite a large city. We parked the car in a dusty parking lot in Mansera Sud and set off in a vain quest for ladies' shoe shops. Mansera, or what we saw of it, was a dump. Driving out of the town was a lot more difficult than driving into it had been. There were no signs directing us back to Montserrat and after negotiating the inevitably narrow streets and taking an exit that took us in completely the wrong direction we were forced to make a U-turn and drive on the C25 in the direction of Barcelona. By a rare stroke of serendipity we stumbled upon the right road and eventually reached our hotel. We resolved never again to drive anywhere we didn't really need to visit.
While in Spain we found older Spanish people to be always well presented and spick and span. The gentlemen wear suits and ties no matter what the weather and the ladies wear suits and boast hairdos of startling colour and style. Their pink or blue perms (or pink and blue perms) defy the winds and look as though they weigh a ton. I became a bit concerned when Margaret debated getting her hair done at the salon attached to our hotel, but she decided against it. Later that day she changed her mind and allowed the signora to cut her hair in the style of the Ronnettes.
We were due to leave Montserrat and Spain the next day and, for the first time since we left our gite in the Dordogne, I was sorry to be moving on.