May 24, 2006

Montserrat's Escolania: Missed the boys by a bread's length

A compact range of jagged peaks pokes the sky southwest of Barcelona, and atop sits Montserrat, a monastery and city on high that legend pegs as a pilgrimage site since the 9th century.

If you have a rental car with plenty of gas and don’t mind puffing uphill behind mammoth tour buses, you can drive to the top of Montserrat. When we got to the base of the mountain, I had a quarter tank, which made an up and down attempt imprudent. So the kids and I hopped on the teleferico and rode one of its bright yellow aerial tram cars up through the brown-gray, serrated peaks to the fantastic, monastic aerie.

Montserrat is a religious site – monastery, basilica and shrine – gone commercial. And I mean that in the best way. It’s an incredible take. From Montserrat, panoramic views extend to the snow-capped Pyrenees and into Andorra, and the dramatic, rocky quarters in which the place itself is enclosed merit awe. Montserrat’s buildings, notably the basilica with its splendid painted ceiling and wall murals, are alone worth the trip to the top of the mountain. Visit during mass, and you’ll see priests and monks gathered at the altar under great chandeliers while scores of worshipers in tourists’ clothing file up to receive communion. Around the basilica’s perimeters, tourists not needing the sacrament snap pictures.

I’ll always think of Montserrat as one of the handful of places I’ve visited where I’ve been gyped, robbed by guidebooks I trusted.

Guidebooks are useful to a point. You can rely on them for the broad sweep – what’s generally good or lousy about a place. But don’t rely on them to tell you when the Escolania, Europe’s oldest boys’ choir – musically-gifted cherubs who live at Montserrat alongside Benedictine monks whose order has reigned at Montserrat for a thousand years – will sing.

They sang, and I missed them, because I trusted my guidebook. Boys whose collective voice equals or outdoes the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the Escolania is a human phenomenon. And I missed it. Even though I was there.

"The Escolania sings only at 7 A.M., on weekdays, in the basilica," said my guidebook. I had so wanted to hear them, but I ‘d already dragged my kids across the world. I couldn’t also drag them out of their Barcelona beds in twilight to get up to Montserrat in time for a 7 A.M. Escolania performance. They’d be on the therapist’s couch for years if I pulled such a thing. So I resigned myself to seeing Montserrat without hearing the Escolania. I’d have to settle for a CD from the Montserrat gift shop.

After the kids and I explored Montserrat – the basilica and the surrounding high peaks carved by nature into surreal, ethereal formations – we retreated to the tourist cafeteria for lunch. It was almost 1 p.m.

I ordered a ham sandwich, which came built upon a foot-long French baguette. The cafeteria wall bucked up against the basilica wall, and, as I ate my long sandwich, I intermittently pointed it at the wall, remarking that the beautiful church we’d just visited was "right through there, and that’s where the boys sing."

We rode the yellow tram back down through stupendous stone peaks to the teleferico parking lot. I’d picked up some brochures and tourist literature in the tram station and had stuffed them into my backpack.

That night, after the kids were asleep, I took out the brochures: "Escolania sings each weekday at 1 P.M.," they all said.

At 1 P.M., while I’d been eating my ham sandwich, the angel-throated boys had been singing on the other side of the wall.

Now, when I listen to the boys on my Escolania CD, I shake my head, knowing I’d been but a baguette and a bad guidebook away from hearing them live.