The city of Matanzas would never be the same without "La Ermita de Montserrat", a shrine devoted to the worshipping of "Nuestra Señora de Montserrat" (Our Lady of Montserrat), and built at the top of las "Alturas de Simpson".
The shrine and the hill it sits on, have been an essential part of the history and landscape of Matanzas since the 19th century, in the so-called “Athens of Cuba” (nicknamed thus because of its advanced cultural and literary development in the early 1800s). Hence the reason why; every time I bring friends to the city, I can’t suppress the urge of guiding them here to enjoy the finest views of the city, the "valle del Yumuri" (Yumuri valley), the bay, the bridges, the rivers, the city buildings and the residential dwellings, all of which can be admired from the hermitage’s height.
Something similar; I believe, must have happened to the early Catalonians who inhabited Matanzas towards 1870 when they climbed "Las Alturas de Simpson" (Simpson’s Heights). This natural elevation located to the northwest of the city, soon became quite famous due to the fact that in 1878, Matanzas musician and composer Miguel Failde, dedicated his first danzon; the Cuban national dance, and the first ever to be composed in Cuba, to the site.
Once up there, in the midst of "sardanas" (a traditional Catalonian dance), typical food, and drinks from their far away land, they must have longingly remembered the holy mountain, at the top of which, the image of the "Patrona de Cataluña" (Catalonia’s Patron Saint) has been worshipped for various centuries. Thus, Catalonia stands out as one of the Spanish regions that made the biggest contribution to Matanzas’s history and culture.
The origins of the shrine
The origins of "la Ermita de Montserrat" date back to the second half of the 19th century. This was a time during which the Catalonian colony settled in the Athens of Cuba, stood out not only for its number, but for its generous and highly enthusiastic contributions to the economic, political, social, educational, and cultural development of the city.
Evidence dating as far back as 1870, tells us about Catalonians and their descendants partaking in festivities organised by other communities of Spanish origin established in Matanzas. The following year, on 8th September 1871, the Catalonian colony threw its first, very own party at "las Alturas de Simpson", celebrating the unification of all the Spanish provinces, and more importantly, to pay tribute to "Our Lady of Montserrat".
As part of the preparation for the festivities, a temporary chapel was built for their patron on "las Alturas de Simpson", but the Catalonians wanted more. It was then, a year later in 1872; according to my research of the place, that the idea of building a permanent shrine to honour "La Virgen de Montserrat", also called “La Moreneta”, emerged.
Building and opening of the shrine
The hermitage was built by the eminent Catalonian foreman Bartolome Borrel. The image of "la Virgen de Montserrat", requested by the President of the Catalonian Charity Society of Matanzas, was brought over from Barcelona shortly before the building was finished. Catalonian sculptor Juan Roig y Soler, carved it life-size to faithfully resemble the one in Catalonia's "Monasterio de Monserrat" (Montserrat Monastery).
You should also know that on 8th December 1875, after a bell tolling session, a procession set out for the new shrine, with eight Catalonians carrying the virgin’s image on a platform. The religious commemoration and the festivities honouring the "Patrona de Cataluña" that were once celebrated on 27th April, have since been moved to 8th December, to make it coincide with the day of the "Purísima Concepción de María Santísima, Patrona de España y de las Indias" (Immaculate Conception of Blessed Virgin Mary, Patron of Spain and the Indies).
The Shrine’s main features
If you’re used to visiting great cathedrals and churches, you might be surprised to see that the hermitage’s original ground plan is relatively small. However, its builder resorted to the Doric style of the neoclassicist movement, which is quite rare to find in Cuban colonial architecture. The shrine’s rectangular structure is made up of a 12-metre-wide façade (that’s five-metres-long at its highest point), and a depth of 25. 5 metres. It features a lone Doric style nave, ashlar stone work and a roof made of wood and tiles.
New furniture was acquired for the shrine in 1919, along with a beautiful altar for the "Virgen de Montserrat", which was expressly brought from Barcelona.
La Colla Festivities
If you enjoy traditional festivities and find yourself in Matanzas during the month of December, you mustn’t fail to attend "La Colla" Festivities. These celebrations have been rescued by the descendants of Catalonians and those from other Spanish regions in Matanzas.
These festivities won the "Premio Memoria Viva" award, bestowed by Cuba’s "Centro Cultural Juan Marinello" (Juan Marinello Cultural Centre). Due to the significance of their restoring, they take place yearly around 8th December. The celebrations attract a fair share of Matanzas’s inhabitants who come to the hermitage in a beautiful procession that departs from the city’s "Centro Histórico Urbano" (Historic Urban Centre), recently declared a National Monument. The parade always features a giant bread and colorful traditional Spanish costumes.
Celebrities who have visited the shrine
I’d like to remind you that due to its privileged location; from the shrine you’ll be able to admire the "Yumuri" Valley and the city of Matanzas in all its splendour. Since its opening day, "La Ermita de Montserrat", has been visited by many Cuban and foreign celebrities. Among these quite a few stand out, including General Ulysses S. Grant who was President of the United States of America in the 19th century, Prince Alejo of Russia, Charles Berchon; member of the Paris Geography Society, Adolfo Dollero; a well-known Italian journalist and publicist who visited Matanzas between 1918 and 1919 for the purpose of writing a book, and the famous Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
Nowadays; with over a century of history and after being recently refurbished, "la Ermita de Montserrat"; has become a recreational and cultural centre in which concerts, exhibitions, and other similar activities frequently take place. Every day its scenic height continues to attract poets, lovers, tourists and all those who wish to contemplate the peculiar beauty of one of Cuba’s most wonderful sites.
Location: Las Alturas de Simpson (Simpson’s Heights), in the city of Matanzas, just a few kilometres from Varadero.
Ideal for history fans, stunning landscape views and lovers of religious traditions.
You must not miss: The image of "la Virgen de Montserrat" (the Virgin of Montserrat), and the stunning views of the "Yumuri" Vaelly and the city of Matanzas.
How to get there: You can take a taxi, hire a car or rent one of the old cars that tour Varadero. The most you should pay for the Matanzas-Varadero round trip is 60 CUC, if you opt for being driven around in a classic car.
Where to eat and drink? There are state-run and privately-owned restaurants and coffee shops in the area surrounding the hermitage. Prices range from 10 to 20 CUC per person.