SHRINES have no appeal for a ten-year-old child. But I have found a way to keep my daughter happy while making a spiritual trek into the Pyrenees: a ride on a very special train.
Travelling by train is a good way to make a pilgrimage. It’s convenient if there is a non-walker in your party, beats car travel environmentally, and is more sociable. It also makes you consciously plan your journey, limits what you can carry, and sets a meditative pace for you so that you can prepare yourself.
There is an obvious, religious rail trip from our starting point of Barcelona to the spectacularly located monastery of Montserrat; but the tourist crowds heading there make it difficult to find peace. Instead, we are heading into the mountains to the north, to visit the second most important Marian shrine of Catalunya (Catalonia), the Mare de Déu de Núria (the Virgin of Núria), which receives far fewer visitors.
In 1931, Núria was the place chosen to hold the committee meetings that thrashed out a state autonomy for Catalunya, quashed by Franco in 1938. The arguments continue today, as seen in the violence that flared last year, but tourists who travel to this region are in no danger.
The trip to Núria can be done by rail from Barcelona, but the timetable means an overnight stay. Because of our schedule, we drive to the departure point of the mountain railway, which promises a spectacular 200-metre climb through beautiful scenery to the shrine.
Trains and mountains do not normally mix, of course. The solution: a strip of heavy-duty teeth along the middle of the tracks, which engages with a cog underneath the engine. About 20 such “rack railways” were built in Europe, and this one — affectionately known as “El Cremallera” (The Zip) — was the last to open, in 1931; it climbs from the town of Ribes de Freser to Núria in the Catalan Pyrenees.
istockphotoThe Vall de Núria Sanctuary, in the Catalan Pyrenees, at the centre of which is a basilica church
AT OUR departure point, Ribes Vila Station, we’ve been told to choose a seat on the right side of the train going up the line for the best views. The entire line is only 12.5 km (7.75 miles) long, and the journey takes about 40 minutes. The toothed middle rail starts only after five kilometres, just before the middle station of Queralbs. Thereafter the severe gradients begin, and we climb quickly high above the valley.
After Queralbs, the track enters the attractive gorge of the Río Nuria, a series of gushing waterfalls. We are travelling in June, and are lucky that it is possible to spot the bright-yellow flowers of the Yellow Turk’s-cap Lily (Lilium pyrenaicum), the symbol of the Vall de Núria, through the trees. As we tug up the hill through the gorge, a group of hikers are zig-zagging up the mountain: the old path was the only way to get to the shrine before the railway was built.
Altogether, we gain almost 2000 metres of altitude. We are not having to make any physical effort, but I still have a sense of rising up in a spiritual sense: there is a reason why shrines are often sited in high places.
We emerge from the ninth tunnel (counting them keeps my daughter amused) into a bowl-shaped valley in the mountains in which stands Núria, screened from neighbouring France to the north by a series of 2700-metre summits. It all feels agreeably cut off from the mundane world.
That is, until we exit the train, and take a short walk to step, disconcertingly, into what is essentially a visitor’s complex — which includes a shop, bar, restaurant, self-service cafeteria, and a hotel.
Nick InmanThe Vall de Núria cable car, with a view of Núria in the valley
FROM spring to autumn, Núria is the fulcrum of a hiking and outdoor leisure centre (there are riding stables, crazy golf, archery, a play park, and more here, too). In winter, it becomes a ski resort. But at the heart of this modern complex is a basilica, founded in the 11th century, but last rebuilt in 1911, dedicated to the Virgin of Núria. A diminutive polychrome Romanesque statue of the Madonna and Child is situated high above the altar.
The Virgin attracts a great number of pilgrims during the year, especially on feast days, and many girls in Catalunya are named Núria after her.
Her figure appears simple, crude, even naïve, but when I give it more than just a first glance, this figure prompts many questions. The Virgin’s expression is something between a smile and serenity; her gaze somewhat unfocused and dreamy. What could she be seeing, or thinking? Christ, on her left knee, held firmly between her hands, is a mini-man rather than an infant. His disproportionately large right hand is raised in blessing towards the observer; his left hand rests on the Book of the Law.
According to legend, the Virgin of Núria was carved by St Giles in the eighth century. He hid it in a cave, where it is said to have been found by shepherds in 1079. Soon after, a chapel was built, and this developed into the present shrine. (There is also a separate 17th-century chapel, dedicated to St Giles.)
We take time for contemplation in the basilica, before sauntering to a picnic by the lake in front of the complex, which is dwarfed on all sides by majestic peaks. The air smells indescribably clean up here. And it is possible to get even higher by following one of the many hiking trails, or taking a cable car.
The hills are dotted with hermitages, and an established route that has Stations of the Cross. Such is the feel when we visit that the tinkling of distant cow bells almost seem be a call to prayer — at least, an invitation to close one’s eyes and drink in the peace. We have not travelled that far, or even that high up, but I have a feeling that we have journeyed further than we have: across the landscape, of course, but also into the quiet inside.
A day in Montserrat
A SHORTER and easier rail-trip from Barcelona than the one described above is to Montserrat monastery, the national shrine of Catalunya, which is stunningly sited among sculpted rock formations. It is a major tourist attraction, and it gets busy, but it still makes a great day out. Trains leave regularly from Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya station. You can buy a combined ticket for the whole trip. Get off at Monistrol de Montserrat station, and take the modernised rack railway which climbs 600 metres up the mountain.
The basilica at the centre of the monastery was built to venerate a Black Madonna. Be sure to arrive before midday so you can hear the famous boys choir of the Escolania sing during the prayer service at 1 p.m. (Monday to Friday). You can also join the monks in their other services. Pilgrim groups are catered for by a Pastoral Co-ordination Centre.
If the weather is good and you want to hike through beautiful rocky landscapes, sign up at the tourist offices for the Tebes trail (one-and-a-half hours of easy walking suitable for children aged 8+) that visits the ruins of three ancient churches.
If, on the other hand, it rains, you may prefer the museum, which is full of stunning works of art by Caravaggio, El Greco, Dali, Monet, Degas, Picasso, and others.
The Cremallera departs from Ribes-Enllaç station, in the town of Ribes de Freser (about €25 return). To get to the start of Cremallera from Barcelona by train (two-and-a-half hours), take Renfe Rodalies line 3 to Ribes de Freser station, and transfer on foot. For more details, phone 0034 972 732020, or visit valldenuria.cat/en/summer/valldenuria/. For train travel to Ribes visit renfe.com/EN/viajeros/cercanias/barcelona/index.html.
Nick Inman is one of the main contributors to Great Railway Journeys of Europe (Insight Guides), a revised edition of which is to be published in 2019.