Situated in Barcelona is one of the most famous religious structures in the world. It’s not famous for it’s ancient origins – it is only one hundred and twenty years of age, nothing in the spectrum of cathedrals around the world. Nor does it have any great religious significance such as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It’s location is nothing spectacular, like what may be seen at the Notre Dame in Paris. But it remains one of the most recognised and revered.
One of the great things to do while traveling through Spain is to visit the various cathedrals of the cities. They have a rich history and spectacular exterior design, so there was a great interest in visiting this famous Barcelonian basilica.
It is La Sagrada Família (translated to be The Holy Family).
It will be one of the first things people will tell you to visit whilst in Barcelona – tourist or local. And it’s for it’s unique design that it warrants attention. Antoni Gaudí took over design of the basilica shortly after it’s plans and it has become his most famous mark on the city that he influenced so greatly.
I had seen many photographs of the basilica before, but that wasn’t to say I didn’t want to see it in the flesh. For me though, the intrigue was what was on the inside, if you could indeed visit the inside. Sure, I could have done a quick Google to find some photographs, but in these scenarios I much prefer to leave the wonder and excitement of discovery intact and find out for myself.
It’s certainly well connected – there’s a métro stop dedicated to it and upon exiting it you will know you’re in the right area as loads of tourists flock between it’s gates. One of the best ways to discover a site is to not see it at all until you’re face to face with it. It is then that you get the best appreciation of the enormity or significance of it without it being drip fed to you.
A perfect comparison of this is when I visited the Empire State Building. I took the subway to get there and upon exiting, turned around and looked up and up and up. It was impressive the way it towered above all other New York City high rises and the impact that it had on me resonates even today.
By contrast, when in Toronto I went searching for the CN Tower, yet I chose to walk there at ground level. I first spotted it through a gap in the other buildings from miles away, such is it’s height. By the time I got there, it felt like I had already been there. The aura had washed away and it was nowhere near as impressive as the Empire State Building purely because it didn’t shock me in the same manner.
Coming back to La Sagrada Família, I took the métro and a similar sensation hit me when I first emerged from the underground to see it. The basilica is in a pretty inconspicuous area and so it stands tall and proud, surrounded by more typical architecture. In this area, there is no match for this structure and it’s spires pierce the skyline with a dominance above everything else. It’s almost as if the basilica knows of it’s position, of it’s reputation and of it’s thousands of admirers that sit outside and swoon over her.
And although there’s the feeling that the building has a great deal of pride about itself, it can’t mask the fact that it needs assistance. For the building isn’t actually completed yet and such an ambitious project takes time. It is for this reason that the basilica has constantly been shrouded in an array of cranes and scaffolding that puts a blight on it’s appearance.
But there’s a certain charm to this construction, this need for support. It shows a modesty about it. That such a wonder is, in fact, mortal. The cranes have surrounded her for so long that they have almost become part of the basilica themselves and, if or when the day finally arrives that they are no longer required, it will look somewhat unnerving to see her standing alone without them.
La Sagrada Família is no doubt impressive and a unique take on cathedral design, but it’s relatively short history means that it lacks a certain character that all the others have. The stone of the walls is clean and smooth. Modern and untouched. There’s a superficiality about it that is unsettling and leaves much to be desired.
But, as mentioned before, it’s the interior that I was excited to discover.
The lineup for entry appears threatening, but it actually moves at quite a pace. Waiting for a little bit doesn’t tend to put me off too often. What does is the cost. I’m typically against things like churches and cathedrals charging anything at all for entry and it generally doesn’t happen. But I can understand that La Sagrada Família is an exception. I’m sure the original intention wasn’t of this, but today it has become simply a tourist attraction – a theme park of sorts. This is by no means your typical church.
What I can’t comprehend is the fourteen euro eighty entry fee to see the basilica.
No. I take that back.
I can comprehend it. It’s a money grab, and the organisation realises that they can exploit the tourists for just about any rate. It doesn’t deter the crowds flocking in to see it from the opening hour to the closing time.
Normally, this isn’t the kind of thing I would support but I had already invested a certain level of my time and had built it up so much that I felt obliged to go through with it and enter.
What I experienced upon entering was what would certainly be described as surprise. But this is not always a good thing. It was in many facets a surprise and in others not. For after seeing the design of the exterior, it’s hard to imagine something that could be so unworldly on the interior.
Still, it remains a design that is unprecedented, with large stone columns stretching from the floor to the ceiling, branching at the top to resemble trees that hold the basilica together. The ceiling has an array of intricate shapes chiseled into it and is elaborately decorated but in hindsight so too have most other cathedrals visited. These patterns and designs might be impressive, but they are nothing compared to the intricacies seen at the Patio de los Leones at the Alhambra in Granada.
Even if they were, they just wouldn’t be as impressive. The knowledge that it has been designed and constructed in the last century and a half, aided by the latest technology, makes the accomplishment much less impressive.
What really stands out in the interior of La Sagrada Família is the spaciousness that it evokes. It’s like being in an Apple store, with light colours and large windows that, on a bright sunny day, brighten the basilica in a room that is traditionally so dark and solemn. With the addition of loads of tourists wandering the floors, this is a festival atmosphere and, combined with the tree like polished stone columns, gives the impression that it should be part of Disneyland or any other fairytale environment.
The whole thing stank of artificiality. Meaningless. There was no sense of significance or emotion about the building. A marvel exploited for it’s wonder and uniqueness. Surely, Gaudí did not envision this monstrosity of a tourist mecca.
It’s not all artificial, though. Underneath, one can catch a glimpse of another, more darkened cathedral. This (at least by looking through the window) looked to be of a more traditional cathedral, and I greatly desired to go down and explore, but disappointingly there seemed no way to get into there.
The nativity façade is on the exterior of the building that faces east. This is the most detailed portion of the entire building and documents the life of Jesus Christ. It is perhaps of no coincidence that this is the part that Gaudí had the most influence on and finally shows that there exists some emotion and passion to the building.
Sadly though, this is far too little for a monument that has such a reputation.
George Orwell was quoted as saying that La Sagrada Família was “one of the most hideous buildings in the world“.
Despite my non-flattering assessment of the experience, it is not the building at the core that is disappointing, but it’s use and administration. This is not a repeat of what I felt for the Eiffel Tower. I did not feel that this building was a blight on the skyline of Barcelona nor was it unwarranted to exist.
My error was expecting that the basilica was a place of religious and cultural significance. Had I had visited with the mindset to discover a tourist attraction showcasing a unique piece of architecture, it would have duly satisfied my expectations.