From a pool of fascinating contenders, The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia (“Basilica of the Holy Family”) is really the chief icon of Barcelona. It’s the masterpiece of architect Antoni Gaudi, who is himself Barcelona’s favorite son (at least, from a tourist perspective). So, all jokes aside, there wasn’t anything else that we wanted to do on our first unstructured day. We had signed on for a guided tour that morning; as we set out, we were greeted with a surprise treat in the weather. For all that it was the first days of January, the day was sunny and eventually 17 degrees (Celsius)! It wouldn’t last past that day, but while it did it was a real treat. The tour itself was… fine. The tour guide seemed both knowledgeable and personable. She also conducted the tour in both Spanish and English, repeating everything she said so that everyone could understand. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, we are in Spain after all, but it was often tricky to figure out if we couldn’t understand her because it was noisy and we were far away from her or because we literally could not understand her. It made for an unsettled experience, but otherwise all was well. And really, it would have taken more than that to screw up a visit to the Basilica.
So, we aren’t aiming to give complete histories of the places we visit, but at least a brief explanation of the place is in order. The Basilica* was originally started in 1883 under the direction on another man. Plans from that time demonstrate that it would have been a lovely building but one that would be in completely in line with other major Catholic churches in Europe. When he “resigned” (the story goes that there were budget shenanigans as the parishioners had second thoughts at the expense of certain materials he thought necessary), the up-and-coming Gaudi was approached. He said yes, and then spent the next 30+ years of his life working constantly (but not exclusively, more on that later) on the construction of the Basilica. Key to know about the place is that it is not finished. Gaudi knew he would never see the finished product, but I don’t know if he realized just how much longer it would be. The last estimate was that it would be finished in 2026, but that was before COVID and they just aren’t sure now. If you haven’t seen it… I mean, go look at some pictures. The easiest analogy I’ve got for you is that it’s a giant church that relatively modern art movements got a hold of. There are some incredibly outre touches and some of the architecture is primarily interested in expressing symbols as opposed to, say, looking like a Basilica. It was more interesting than beautiful, but it was very interesting.
On the outside, that is. Once we went inside, things changed. The free hand with which Gaudi worked the outside was far more restrained on the interior. His design aesthetic can be most simply explained as “inspired by nature”, but a lot of people say they’re inspired by nature and they all mean something different. Gaudi held hard to certain concepts – there are no straight lines in nature, he says, and so he avoided them where he could. The choir balconies, for example, pass overhead in sinuous waves. The columns are meant to evoke the sense of being in a forest, and materials and structure of them are gently shaded in that direction. The interior never devolves into an art installation, and it is all the more beautiful for it. The stained glass windows, which were all made fairly recently, are gorgeous. They differ from what you’re probably used to seeing by being mostly abstract collages, and also by making one unified statement across all the windows. A spectrum of color washes through the windows from one end to the other. All in all, it’s very, very beautiful. Both of said at one point or another “this is not what I was expecting from the outside.”
When the tour concluded we still had the run of the place (when it’s not hosting active services it’s crawling with tourists), so we went through the museum they’ve built, showcasing designs, models and the like. That done, it was time to head to lunch. As we left, though, we saw three men dressed in elaborate costumes. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they were the three wise men. At first I thought they were maybe for some show the Basilica puts on for tourists, but Lisa reminded me that the next day was Epiphany. (More on that later, too.)
You can read about our lunch adventure here. I’ll just add that I’m happy we made the time to go the Barceloneta neighborhood. It clearly is not a tourist highlight and so we got to see a more organic neighborhood. Which, turns out, is really lovely. Maybe we’ve just lived in the wrong places before, but I continue to be impressed with the holistic organization of neighborhoods in the countries we’ve been to. A place for children to play, markets, restaurants, necessary businesses, and residences all just seem to fit together. It was a treat to people-watch as we ate.
After lunch we stocked up on some food essentials, because the next day would be Epiphany and we weren’t sure to what extent the city would be shut down. Epiphany, it turns out, is where Spain does most of the stuff that Americans think of when they think about Christmas. There would be a huge parade (most years) on this day, headlined by the three wise men. Children rush out and give their wish lists to the wise men, who are the ones who deliver gifts to children this very night. I’m not sure there’s a Santa Claus at all here, but if there is he is certainly not the star of the show. Full of paella and provisioned against lean times, we headed back to our flat.
*I’m not Catholic and never was, so I get a little confused on Basilica v. Cathedral v. Church. The official name of the place calls it a Basilica so that’s what I’m running with.