Jeff wanted to take a daytrip to Montserrat, and I had some mental images of the place, but it turned out that everything I knew was wrong.
You know how random, useless fun facts not only clutter your brain but they can stay with you for thirty years or more? Here's a fun fact I've been carrying around in my head since junior high:
The Police recorded their 1981 album "Ghost in the Machine" on the island of Montserrat.
Has this item ever come up in casual conversation? NOT ONCE. But there it is, on the tip of my mind at all times.
But what do you know? We were actually going to Montserrat, which Jeff had described as a sort of island, maybe...cut off from the rest of Spain, somehow. Huh! Guess what, Jeff? The Police recorded their 1981 album "Ghost in the Machine" there! Jeff was nonplussed by this thrilling information.
This is what I pictured when I thought about Montserrat, conveniently forgetting the race of the extras in the video; sorry, but I hadn't looked at this in decades.
Unfortunately, we were not going to an island in the Caribbean called Montserrat. We were going to a mountain that was near the coast of Spain called Montserrat. And that mountain looks like this:
The name means jagged (or serrated) mountain, and it really does look like a serrated bread knife, with its numerous jaggedy peaks that are around 4,000 feet high. A Benedictine monastery sits near the top along with a small art museum boasting a Caravaggio. Getting there was an hour's journey by train from Barcelona. Once we were in the vicinity of the mountain, a second train took us up to the monastery. The view along the way was lovely as we gained altitude.
And the view when we arrived was spectacular (see top photo). The monastery itself was small but beautiful with exquisite sculptural decorations throughout, and I marveled at the dedication and skill that went into building it (and getting all of the necessary materials up there--what a thankless job that must have been).
We were very lucky to be able to listen to the Montserrat’s Boys’ Choir, one of the oldest in Europe. They occasionally perform during religious ceremonies and communal prayers in the basilica, and we just happened to be there at the right time. A closer view:
Their angelic voices were deeply moving. While I have been in many beautiful churches and cathedrals, I've never heard a boys' choir's voices flooding the interior with music before, and this added a layer of beauty to an already impressive space. Above the choir is a small nook below an arch containing a golden statue. Before the boys' choir performed, Jeff and I worked our way up there.
This is the Virgin of Montserrat. It's one of the so-called black Madonnas of Europe, hence its familiar Catalan name, la Moreneta ("The little dark-skinned one"). Believed by some to have been carved in Jerusalem in the early days of the Church, it is more likely a Romanesque wooden sculpture from the late 12th century. Legend has it that the Benedictine monks could not move the statue to construct their monastery, choosing to instead build around it. The Virgin is surrounded by glass, exept for a small cutout area where visitors are allowed to touch the globe she holds.
The small room holding the Virgin is high above the altar, as I mentioned before, with an open window bordered by a shaky-looking gate that was knee-high at best on me. It would have been so easy to have fallen out of there, and I felt my fear of heights more intensely there than any other place in Europe, no joke. Just writing about it now is making my hands sweat. But there Jeff was, effortlessly taking photos of the sculpture, even backing up to get better shots as I silently freaked out. Did I marry a robot?
The museum was skippable with lots of filler, although we can't resist a Caravaggio opportunity. This one was a very fine St. Jerome.
Back down the mountain we went--by then it was mid-afternoon--and once we had returned to Barcelona, the restaurant we had wanted to visit for lunch was closed. This was a shame because it specializes in luxury canned seafood, which sounds odd, but apparently Spain is doing amazing things with canned mussels and other delicacies. But it was not to be. We went to a bar, picked up some overpriced jamon sandwiches for the road, and took off for our hotel. We arranged for a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and taxi to the airport and turned in early, hoping our flight to Chicago wouldn't be cancelled.
We arrived at the airport the next morning, and hey, guess what?
OUR FLIGHT WAS CANCELLED!
The check-in woman at Iberia airlines--who gave off a "you dumbasses, don't you realize there's going to be a blizzard?" vibe--directed us to the dreaded side desk across the way reserved for problem passengers who don't realize there's going to be a blizzard.
The woman at the side desk informed us that there was going to be a blizzard, and that's why our flight was cancelled. Ya don't say? She began talking in Spanish to one of her co-workers, and the two of them disappeared behind the dreaded wall behind the dreaded side desk and stayed there for what seemed like ten minutes. Jeff and I resigned ourselves to the idea of staying in Barcelona until the storm was over, or maybe we'd fly most of the way home, to Detroit, for example, and wait there until it was safe to go home. And I was secretly deeply disappointed because I was going to miss The Storm of the Century, and I love to be in the middle of Storms of the Century!
The side desk woman returned with, amazingly, two tickets to London (where they speak English!) with connecting flight tickets to Chicago. Both flights left a couple of hours earlier than our original flight, but if we high-tailed it through security and to the gate, we might be able to get to Chicago before the storm hit.
(Note: Barcelona is seven hours ahead of Chicago, so while we were getting our tickets, it was around midnight on Monday in Chicago, i.e. 14 hours before the storm was scheduled to hit: 2:00 p.m. Tuesday. We were due to arrive in Chicago at 1:00 p.m., magically crossing time zones from east to west, chasing the sun. This helped to buy us some time.)
We breezed through security so quickly I don't remember a thing about it, managed to throw some breakfast into our stomachs, and emailed our loved ones about our progress. The flight to London was brisk and painless. Once inside Heathrow we checked the big board--somehow our flight to Chicago was still good to go! We sped to the gate and made it with about ten minutes to spare. And since I feel bad about not providing lots of photos at this point in the blog, here is a picture of London to commemorate our 30 minutes in its airport.
Once on the plane, we settled in for a soothing and not-at-all-stressfull seven hour flight. Our pilot had his Chuck Yeager voice on, and while he seemed concerned about the blizzard, he didn't think he'd have any problem getting us home. Ahh.
So really all we had to worry about was the 3-hour drive to our house downstate. Which we could probably do. Yeah! We're tough. We know how to drive in snow.
The flight was long, and we didn't even think about sleeping. We read, journaled, and watched Waiting for Superman on our personal entertainment screens, or whatever you call them. The movie is a documentary about the state of public schools, and in case you didn't know, lots of them suck! I'm glad I'm not a teacher anymore, I thought glibly as we soared over Greenland and into the gaping maw of the Worst Blizzard of This Dispensation, or as Roe Conn and other cool Chicagoans would start to call it, SNOWPRAH.
I wish I could give you the full effect of what it's like to be stressed out yet bored for seven hours, but I think the best thing you could do is to leave this blog and go sit in a tiny hot room with a small television with one good movie and seven so-what movies. Also you have a book, and also your feet are becoming so swollen that you're going to need to relace your boots. People come around from time to time to give you little snacks. Also, no matter how long you've been awake, the sun stays in the same place in the sky. OH and there's a guy sitting in a fully-reclined chair directly in front of you, and his floppy knit hat is about six inches away from your face at all times. And you're worried. That's what it's like.
Eventually, though, the little plane on the animated flight map seemed to indicate that we were over Lake Michigan, and eventually though thick clouds we could see the grid of Chicago. It looked like it had received a dusting of snow earlier in the day, as promised by The Weather Channel, and was awaiting The Big Snow. "I can see the roads!" I exclaimed to Jeff. It looked like we might make it home just in the nick of time!
Once we landed, though, there was the matter of escaping from O'Hare: getting though the line in Customs, having our bags sniffed for agricultural products by an adorable, line-roving dog, meeting the shuttle that would take us to our car, and my favorite, going to the bathroom. It all went as smoothly as possible, and we were lucky because ours was one of the last non-cancelled flights, so O'Hare was as empty as I'd ever seen it. We were in our car and ready to drive home at 2:00, and that's when it started to snow.
Started. Which was OK! We could still see the road; in fact, the slush and ice were downright minimal. We had to drive about forty miles before we were out of Chicago Proper, and then it was a two-hour straight shot down to our house.
The only problem was: everybody at work in Chicago had decided to make an early afternoon of it so they could beat the storm, too, and it was bumper-to-bumper traffic from the very beginning. Rush hour traffic in Chicago is one thing, but when you add heavy snow into the mix, it's one nightmarish driving situation. We were crawling along between 15-35 m.p.h. the entire time as the roads deteriorated rapidly. We began to slip and slide here and there and ice accumulated on our windshield wipers. Jeff did an admirable job of driving in this dangerous situation. Downstate friends and family I called told us to get a room, fast. I navigated on my phone and searched for a hotel on Jeff's phone. I booked a room for us in Monee, Illinois, a.k.a. The Place We Usually Get Gas On Our Way Home From Chicago. We just barely made it up the exit ramp and drove to Monee's Best Western.
The jovial clerk at the front desk informed us that we had snagged one of their last rooms (luckily non-smoking). Lots of truckers were already safe and warm in the hotel, and we were relieved to be able to join their ranks. The room was actually very nice, with a good heater, HBO, and a totally fine bathroom. Except we had no food, and if the blizzard was going to hit us as hard as everyone was saying, we'd need to think fast. There was no way we were going to drive anywhere, but there was a Burger King across the way.
And this is when my Jeff swooped in and, as Nic Cage in Con Air would say, saved the fuckin' day. (Note: photo above is blurred because of Jeff's superhuman speed.) In his suitable-for-50-degrees jacket, he ran over to the Burger King, bought four of those big, awful-for-you-but-delicious chicken sandwiches, and sprinted back before the perfect storm became...perfect.
It really had it all. Wind gusts around 60 m.p.h., 1-3 inches of snow per hour, and crazy things like thundersnow (which happened closer to Chicago).
I mean, if I had to spend days worrying about a snowstorm, it had better deliver. From our perch in Monee, we felt like we were close to the epicenter of what turned out to be one of Chicago's top three storms, with 20 inches of snow. Honestly, I am so glad I was able to witness it because it was incredible.
Once the snow was over the next day, frigid air swept in and the winds howled--we had to stay at the hotel a second night, no question about it, and Jeff ventured outside multiple times to start the car and help people dig out their vehicles (using the hotel's lone shovel). We continued to chip away at those sandwiches and ate stuff from the vending machines and a couple of surprisingly good complimentary continental breakfasts. In short: Pioneer Days!
We were able to drive home on Thursday morning--IDOT did an amazing job clearing the interstates--and were reunited with three joyous cats and one lemme-outta-here! woman. Jeff's mom took great care of Bun, Pache, and Q, but she was going a little stir-crazy, understandably, and we just wanted to sit on the couch and stare into space for, like, two whole days.
Thank you for reading this jumbo travelogue, and I appreciate your comments! I will reply to them as soon as my hands recover from all this typing. As for Spain: you should go. Learn the language as much as you can first, but definitely go.