There is something about a church that pulls me back to habits and attitudes from my past. I was raised Christian but have moved into a mixed bag of spirituality since then; though I love the temples of Asia, last month I talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. The familiarity of a church washes me in calm as I give myself permission in holy places to release the stresses and the hurts from my day. Going to church was not the point of my visit, I was there for the Gaudí architecture, but the by-product of visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain was a visit to church—no doubt an activity making my grandma sigh in relief.
The thing is, I visited because it is the crowning jewel of Barcelona, the shining hub of all touristy visits to the city. And I was playing tourist in the days before my conference in Girona, so I went to see La Sagrada Familia knowing only that it was 1) still under construction and 2) designed by Antoni Gaudí, a Spanish architect known for his highly stylized interpretation of early 1900s Modernism. After taking a chocolate tour of the city in the morning (more on that another day), I started the long walk in the drizzling rain to make my late-afternoon appointment at the church (my hostel brilliantly recommended that I pre-purchase my ticket online). The solitude and weather matched my mood a bit, this was late September last year and I had left Ana back home in the states because we were just deciding whether we would continue homeschooling—not an easy decision and a tough transition period for both of us.
So, I was back to solo travel and my tourist map of the city had little cartoon buildings pointing my way to the church, indicating other buildings Gaudí had designed. I weaved along the lanes and killed some time in a tiny café with a hot Americano and my journal until I eventually found myself walking toward eight massive, intricate towers marking La Sagrada Familia (and I worried I would get lost!). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer.
I don’t know the exact moment the church hooked me, but my fascination with the building surprised me. At times on my travels I get fatigued by sightseeing, but if there is one thing that calls to me, it’s passion. Passion and creativity are twin elements that I sometimes lament when I feel them lacking in my own life, so as I strapped the audio-guide to my head I found myself absorbed in this story of a donation-funded church constructed over the span of more than century, rather than the decades most projects entail.
Gaudí is but one architect on the project, but it was his passion that really fueled the building of such a bizarre homage to the Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture of years past and he left plans for the entire basilica for the architects who would come after him—he worked on this project from 1883 until his death in 1926. I am neither an art buff nor a student of architecture, but I found it impossible to stay impassive when I looked at the complex scenes depicted on the Nativity façade. In stark contrast to the gaunt and creepy scenes on the Passion façade.
The Nativity Façade, designed by Gaudí:
The Passion Façade, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs:
The inside is exquisite too.
The ceiling of the church is so extraordinary that I very nearly caved into my desire to lay flat-out on the floor and get lost in the flowing tiers and spires (that would have totes broken social protocol though). I contented with craning my neck and gawking as I listed to the audio-guide describe the twisting, tree-like columns branching out as they climbed upward, sunlight dappling through into the interior much like if I was sitting in an orchard rather than a church—further making me want to sprawl out on the floor.
When I emerged from the church I soaked in the late afternoon sunshine; a welcome change in the weather than matched my lifted spirits. I felt lighter after immersing myself so completely in learning about this one man’s creativity and religious fervor that compelled him to funnel his passion so narrowly into a project that would affect millions of people and span several centuries.
It blew my mind.
The scope of his vision, the faith that people would continue donating to finish the church, the drive to work with such focus on a single project—I left both awed and envious. And I left living in a wider world—a world with more possibilities for those with the drive to follow a passion through to the end. I bid adiós to the church, but really more of a “see you in 20 years,” when I’ll be back to see Gaudi’s magnum opus completed.
Quick Tips: Visiting La Sagrada Familia
How: Book ahead through the official site and print your ticket. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hour time window to visit the church and you bypass the huge queue with very quick access. The towers were not open because of the rain, so I didn’t do that but you can pre-book that as well.
How much: There are several options you can pay for; I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audio-guide (worth the price in my opinion). At the time, it’s €21.50 for all three, or €13.5o just to enter the Basilica. (current prices)
Where: It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, but I managed it both ways and stopped at the other Gaudí spots on the way. There is a metro stop and what-not, but I did not use it.
When: On recommendation from my hostel (they helped me buy and print my ticket), I took a 4 pm time slot, which was fairly calm (though there was a queue for those without pre-purchased tickets). I was there for over an hour listening to the audio-guide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon.