BarcelonaMid-afternoon at the Mulet passage, in the upper part of Vila de Gràcia. Manel Arnau is at the door of the Club Excursionista de Gràcia, receiving the people who are parading to look for the numbers of the Matagalls-Montserrat this weekend. “Many people say when they finish it that they will never do it again. But then they repeat it. And new faces always appear,” he explains. He was present at the first editions of this race that was born as a one-off celebration, to become the dean of the resistance marches in Catalonia. “In the first years it could not be held every year, so this will be the 43rd edition. Nor could it be held in the year of the pandemic. That was hard. The club lost members, but we got them back. And the people have come back to march again,” says Manel.
“It’s changed a lot, in this half century. In the first year people wore thick trousers, the familiar ones ratchets, high socks and boots. People marched on foot. Maybe someone was running a little downhill, but nothing else. Now many people do it running, in modern sports clothes. Even so, we always want to make it clear that there is no prize for the fastest. The idea is to leave in less than 24 hours. So, if someone wants to beat their personal best… go ahead, but it’s not our idea to do a race with a podium,” he explains. La Matagalls-Montserrat has become a symbol, an appointment that many people want to do once life. In fact, participation is limited to 3,000 people – 2,300 men and 700 women -, as it is necessary to adapt to the new rules of natural parks by limiting the number. “The wear and tear of certain areas must be avoided and roads, passing 3,000 people can already affect. The route has changed compared to the first edition for this reason.
At first the start was from the top of Matagalls, but to avoid erosion on the mountain in 1998 it was decided to change the start point to Collformic. It currently leaves from the center of Brull, an esplanade and parking area adapted to the new needs. The landscape has also changed in this half century. Now it goes more along asphalted streets and housing estates. Before you could pass through canals and beautiful places. The last section is also different: initially you went up through an area of Montserrat where you had to install a rope, as it was demanding, following part of the funicular route, which was not working at the time because there had been an accident – remembers Manel , one of the 300 members of the gracienc club that participates in the organization. In the early years people brought their own sandwich. There was no provision. Then some clubs set up a stand, but only for their people. When passing through Terrassa, the people from the club there looked after theirs. That ended up leading us to install refreshments for everyone.” In total there are now 8 Time Pass Controls and 6 refreshment slots.
The first editions were biannual, but due to the success and high participation, it became annual from 1989. Since that first year, in 1972, around 90,000 people have participated. Last year, still with covid-19 affecting the day to day, the figure was cut to 1,500 people. This year the 3,000 return in a march where nowadays the average time used by people is 18 hours. In 2021 the fastest entrant clocked 7 hours and 58 minutes, the fastest of all time. “I did 23 hours and 45 minutes – remembers Manel laughing -. I was going at my own pace, calculating what I had left to arrive calmly”. A thousand stories cross in the Matagalls-Montserrat. Experienced 80-year-olds with surgeries with young people who want to be shod with the latest generation sneakers, all facing a route of more than 80 kilometers. That march with heavy backpacks and thick shirts is now also done by young people with GPS and modern equipment.
The origin of the march goes much further back than 1972. Specifically, from the year 1904, when priest Jaume Oliveres, one of the fathers of mountain marches in Catalonia, did the route from Matagalls to Montserrat in 23 hours and a half Oliveres, who fled Barcelona during the Civil War to return there with the national troops, spent a season in French Guiana as a missionary and worked all his life in a parish in Gràcia, where he died in 1957. He was one of the pioneers of Catalan hiking, with a famous ascent wearing espadrilles to the Aneto in 1906. Whenever he could, he returned to the Pyrenees peaks, taking young people from Gràcia to whom he passed on his passion. In the 1960s, Carles Albesa, a member of the Club Excursionista de Gràcia, discovered an old copy of the newsletter of the Catalan Youth Excursionista Group from 1929 in which Oliveras recalled his 1904 walk: “Going to Montserrat on foot is nothing like the another world, but going there from Montseny and in just one day is already a record that I don’t know if today’s young people would be strong enough to beat.”
These words spurred a group of partners to make that same march. “In the 1960s, a few tried to do it individually. They went out on Saturday after work, by train or taxi. And since the path was not marked and it was different times, they got lost or couldn’t finish.” Finally, Carles Albesa and Jordi Ribot completed the route in 1962. Years later, both proposed to organize a march following the same path as Father Oliveres to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Club Excursionista, in 1972. “They thought they would go four cats and 159 people signed up. And in less than 24 hours, 48 people arrived, including two women,” explains Manel. It was a success, although the idea was not to celebrate it anymore. But many of the participants in the first edition asked in 1973 if it would be held again, and this led the club to think about the idea of making it a tradition. This year’s edition will be special, then. It is the one of the return to normality after the pandemic and the one that will serve to celebrate the 100 years of the Club Excursionista de Gràcia. And the half century since the first time that more than 100 people crossed a large part of Catalonia, passing through places of great beauty with an end that “always excites”. “Getting to Montserrat on foot must be done once in a lifetime,” Manel defends, while a lot of people continue to arrive to collect their bib numbers.