Gwen said I’m the monastery kitty; well, this is true, I am a kitty and I am the only permanent inhabitant of the old Romanesque monastery of Serrabonna, the “Good Mountain.”
Well, it is a good mountain, in fact it is a lovely mountain! Mind you, I have never had to travel up to the top by myself before, but I have spent a good deal of time exploring the environs so that I have a pretty good impression of just how good the mountain is. If you happen to be coming from Prades, which is where my good friends the Baileys originated from, you might take a bus along a relatively busy highway to a small town called Bouleternère (Catalan: Bulaternera, with its quaint bakeries and cute old Frenchmen) and then cycle along a winding road with a relatively small, constant incline through the foothills, past a small 10th century Église and a country shop selling fresh cheeses, jams, and sandwiches (sometimes if I hang out there for a while the lady living there gives me a piece of her delicious cheese!) to the bottom of the Serrabonna (the Good Mountain). From there, rest assured, it is only 4 km up the good mountain along a winding road with impressive switchbacks to my home, and when you get there and visit me and the Église, rest assured, you’ll feel that your hard efforts were worth it.
I had been hanging out in the moastery gardens where they are cultivating all sorts of nice things, like grapes, strawberries, and lots of herbs, on June 30th when my good friends the Baileys arrived. Of course, I hadn’t met them before that time, but having lived at the monastery for nearly four summers now I am used to making friends quickly in a place where people come and go and usually only stick around for an hour or two to visit the Romanesque sculpture and architecture in the Église (hardly enough time if you would like to appreciate them fully: I have spent years!). The Baileys arrived in good time, over an hour before the public opening of the monastery, to spend some quality time observing the really wonderfully preserved capitals on the exterior portal of the Église. Although there are more numerous treasures to be found inside, the colourful pink and yellow marble on which they were carved, together with the personality of the characters that are depicted, make these capitals among my favourite in the entire monastery. I am told that the original capitals were stolen very recently before I came to live at the monastery, which makes me quite perplexed and distressed even now thinking about it: observed at the portal today are exact replicas.
Aesthetically speaking, the Baileys seemed to enjoy the exterior of the Église, with its authoritative tower, elegant apses, and superb capitals, as much as I do today in my fourth summer here, so I knew that we would get along just fine. For that reason I went and visited them when they were eating their (second) breakfast after having explored the exterior of the Église. Jim was a bit apprehensive, I could tell, that I might steal some food, as other cats do, but his worry was needless: I am a well-behaved kitty. I’ll prefer just sitting in your company to stealing your food any day, unless you are just a bit too loud and obnoxious (as ths Baileys are not). Jim thought it was bad to feed a kitty like me, since kitties can become spoiled if they eat too much human food, and so he abstained; but Gwen knew I wouldn’t misbehave, and so she slipped me a small piece of cheese just at the right moment when Jim wasn’t looking.
After that, the monastery became open to the public, and the Baileys set off to explore the inside. They learned about me and my occupation as a Monastery Kitty by asking the receptionist as I came in to have my breakfast of cat kibble. The monastery in the Romanesque period had been Augustinian, and hence I had been named after the order: Augustine. The Baileys were surprised and impressed with the arcade, which faces out into the valley and a small garden with flowers planted below. The arcade houses a set of really marvelously preserved capitals portraying humans and mythical beasts.
They especially liked the carved beasts with the grinning faces.
With their wings held up to their mouths, some of the beasts look like they are snickering about a private joke at the visitor’s expense.
Others have legs coming out of their mouths, which I would imagine should be awfully uncomfortable.
Going down into the garden below the arcade affords a very different perspective on the capitals. The arcade can be seen as a row of Roman arches above the original Romanesque herringbone stonework.
There are lots of bees and butterflies in the garden below the gallery that I like to chase when the monastery is closed and all of the tourists have gone. Gwen enjoyed taking pictures of the plants and insects, like this leaflike butterfly.
Above the arcade there is a porch which is quite nice to sit on in the afternoon sun. You can look at the arcade from the railing and through the windows on the porch.
Inside the Serrabonna monastery are more surprises, including a small collection of interesting capitals (see below) and the renowned gallery. One of the finest examples of Romanesque carving in Catalonia, the gallery (French: tribune, Catalan: tribuna) was preserved inside of the priory and hence was not exposed to the harsh weather conditions that degraded other art from that period. In the middle ages, the gallery would have served as a seating area for the common people and, more importantly, a divider between the more holy front part of the church where the monks would worship, and the rear part where the common people would worship. Sculpture in the gallery is carved in red marble and depicts mainly men and mythical beasts. The facade, incompletely preserved, depicts a lamb (Christ) in Glory and three of the four evangelists–a lion (Mark), eagle (John), and bull (Luke)–along with mythical creatures and cherubim.
The Baileys visited the interior of the monastery for a solid three hours, which is a good length of time for those wishing to experience the wonders of Serrabonna in a single day. More than that and one might go a bit cross-eyed from looking at all of those capitals! But as I, and as the Baileys surely know, the best exposure to the monastery of Serrabonna is one that spans several years. Even today I often visit the arcade or the gallery for several hours after all of the busy tourists have left. I often sit and stare up at a capital, wondering, where did the artist get the idea for the carving? What does it mean? The planning, intricacy, and detail of the carvings still amazes, excites, and educates me, even to this day.
After their lunch, the Baileys sat and had their lunch of cheese and ham sandwiches and pistachio pudding. Again, I visited them while they ate, enjoying their company.
It happens all too often that I find people that I like at the monastery of Serrabonna and then they leave me. I was sad to see them go. Before they left, Gwen told me she would miss me. I meowed ardently. She knew that meant I would miss her too.
It’s all part of being a Monastery Kitty.
On their way back to Bouleternère the Baileys visited the Chapelle Saint-Nazaire, a 10th century chapel and another one of my favourites.
There they met some eccentric Frenchmen fighting with swords and medieval costumes: a weekend-long role-playing convention.
A man with a white tunic greeted them from his van in the parking lot. “Don’t be scared!” he assured them, and explained about the convention.
Another man with a green cape and piercing green eyes met them by the chapel. “Super chaussures!” he told Gwen excitedly about her fivefinger vibram shoes, and asked about their function and design. But she wasn’t the one wearing the cape!