Barcelona is positively overflowing with architectural works of art, and the building that is synonymous with the city is La Sagrada Família, the mammoth Catholic basilica which can be seen from just about any high vantage point across the entire city. The first time I saw it up close a few years ago, I was rather in awe of the sculpture-like construction, but didn’t get a chance to go inside. Fast forward to the winter of 2018-19 and I was super full on lucky to be docking every single week in this stunning Spanish city, although it wasn’t until the final month of my time in Barcelona that I decided to bite the bullet and get a glimpse of the inside. And I was equally as blown away by the cavernous interior of the church as the beautifully detailed exterior.
Gaudí’s Unfinished Business
Work on the church began in 1882, but only a year later the original chief architect resigned and Antoni Gaudí took over the position. Gaudí was a man on a mission. Born into a wealthy family and with a university education, he was already well-known and respected for his crazy architectural gems across Barcelona and beyond, but La Sagrada Família was a particularly mammoth project which he devoted forty years of his life to.
Gaudí was a deeply religious kind of a lad, who by all accounts wasn’t the warmest of people to spend time with; he was rather unlucky in love and the only lady he ever reportedly took a liking to didn’t reciprocate his feelings. Poor old boy. Gradually he became more and more religious, building a school for the children of the tradesmen who were working on La Sagrada Família, but also nearly starving himself to death one Lent, attending confession every day, and shunning alcohol and basically any nice-tasting food; at one point his regular lunch-time meal was lettuce leaves dipped in milk. So, yeah. A very religious, and probably a little bit creepy, guy. In comparison, his designs and buildings were like something out of a fantasy world, all swirly-whirly curving lines and filled with references to nature and religious symbolism.
In 1926, aged 73, Gaudí was on his way to church in his signature slightly shabby clothing with gaunt unshaven face to match, when he stepped into the road and was hit by the number 30 tram, and because of his appearance, it took a long old while for anyone to actually help the man; they presumed he was a beggar. In the classic human being way, the majority of people will walk on by if they think it’s only a beggar in trouble. Eventually Gaudí was taken to hospital where he died three days later. Only a quarter of the basilica was complete, but the building has gone on since then, and is estimated to continue until 2026.
Outside La Sagrada Família
These days the Sagrada Família is surrounded by gates where tourists zig-zag up and down in lines outside when it’s their timed turn to enter. Double-decker open-topped buses pull up in front and let crowds hop off to marvel at the spectacle, and individuals vie for the best spot, selfie-sticks in hand, to get a picture that includes their faces with a backdrop of as much of the basilica as they can possibly fit into the shot. Men start setting up their blankets of sunglasses and magnets and ‘Barcelona’ fans to flog to tourists early in the morning, and as the day wears on the crowds are consistent. A hilarious lady who owns a t-shirt shop in Gràcia told me the tourists who stop and marvel in the middle of the pavement are the bane of her life when she’s trying to get to work every morning, although I think even if I lived in Barcelona I couldn’t help stopping and staring every now and then; the building is ever-changing. Meanwhile, up above, the construction work continues…spindly cranes unfold from the roof like the legs of actual crane flies, and the tops of several of the eighteen planned towers, not far off of being finally revealed in their fully-constructed glory, are wrapped in what looks like thick spiders-web netting.
From a distance, the older side of the basilica looks as if it’s made out of melted candles, wax dripping down from the towers in the sunshine and solidified in bizarre and slightly gory shapes- stalactite pillars glooping downwards over doorways and rough, craggy stone forming strange outlines in the outside walls of the building. This is why it’s worth paying to get a closer look; up close and personal, you can see the sheer overwhelming amount of detail that has gone into this thing. Different archways in the walls hold stone scenes from the Nativity, watched by angels, and animals and framed with vines and leaves. The closer you look, the more details you’ll spy…like the massive turtle and tortoise holding up a pillar each, the insects crawling amongst the carved ivy which covers a set of doors, or the giant colourful fruits that sit on top of some of the towers.
On the other side of the Sagrada, the Passion Facade- which represents the death of Christ- seems a stark contrast to its older neighbour. Clean geometric lines, angular sculptures with no facial details, and an entrance of pillars that reminds me of a bony ribcage breathing in and out; if the other side of the building is creepy but beautiful, this side feels like full-scale modernist Mordor. Or a klingon spaceship. Although the current builders of the Sagrada Família have received a tonne of criticism about the stark appearance of the Passion Facade, they’ve actually followed Gaudí’s plans as closely as they possible could. He wanted the ‘death’ side to be all doom and gloom.
And pals, awkwardly I was clearly such a big fan of the Nativity Facade, and so averse to the Passion Facade, that I actually didn’t save any pictures I took of it. The best I have is the photo below, of the divide between the old and the new.
Inside La Sagrada Família
Despite the fact that I’d walked past it many many times, I had no idea what to expect from the inside of La Sagrada Família. But I was well and truly blown away, even surrounded by the crazy numbers of other visitors who entered at the same time as me. Gaudí wanted the cavernous space to feel like a forest, each pillar stretching right up from the ground to the sky, ‘connecting the earth and the heavens.’ Colourful stained glass panels let natural light flood into the central nave, and it’s altogether quite a marvellous sight. Gaudí might have had the intention of creating a forest, but I felt like I was inside the shell of a gargantuan insect, with the stained glass windows like the wings of a multicoloured dragonfly. It’s all very fantastical round those parts. Gaudí had a bit of a practice run with the stained glass and church design, with his work on the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca, so if you fancy checking out some of his work elsewhere in the world, that’s a great starting place.
It’s quite crazy to think of the number of people who have spent time working on La Sagrada Família, from the architect himself to the carpenters, stonemasons, blacksmiths, bricklayers, and whoever else might have added something, or will continue arming their mark on it in the future. Not only was Gaudí a brilliant architect because of his fantastical creations, but because he really understood that collaboration was key to the success of his projects, and La Sagrada Família is clear evidence of that. He respected and trusted his craftsmen implicitly, and knew that without their skills and knowledge, his plans would never come to fruition- “We have to remember that no one is useless, everyone plays a role (although not everyone has the same abilities); it is a question of finding what each person’s role is.” In fact, La Sagrada Família is something of a large scale community project- the sculptures on the Nativity Facade are all modelled on real people. Labourers, their wives and children, soldiers, bishops, street vendors, a local boy from the pub who happened to have six toes (he is depicted in Roman uniform, killing babies) – all of them were immortalised in stone as characters from the life of JC. In that respect, I really appreciate the way Gaudí looked at the world and the people in it.
The future of La Sagrada Família
Although building is estimated to be finished by 2026, everyone knows that building work doesn’t always run to a tight schedule, and some people have speculated that we’ll more likely be looking at a finish date of some point in the 2040s. And despite the fact that this is Spain’s most-visited monument (although there are many who would argue that this is Catalonia, not Spain), controversially after over 130 years of construction, planning permission for this badboy has only recently been granted. I s’pose the forms must’ve got lost in the post.
So, over time, the entire project has been financed by private donations and the ticket sales from all the millions of visitors that the basilica has welcomed. And although it’s kind of expensive as ticket entry goes (and in fact, so is entry to just about every single one of the countless unique buildings that line Barcelona’s streets), this is one of the places that I really think is worth it.
Surely, La Sagrada Família is a modern-day wonder of the world.
- The most basic ticket for La Sagrada Família costs €17, although I’d definitely recommend paying €25 for the self-guided audio tour instead.
- If you want to go up one of the two towers, tickets cost a bit extra at €32. Although, beware- occasionally one or both towers are suddenly closed (and it’s a bit of a surprise for the people who have just pre-booked tower tickets)
- It is fully possible to buy tickets on the day, however to avoid a long wait, I’d definitely advise booking a few days in advance. Each ticket-holder is allocated a time slot for entry, and these slots tend to book up fast each morning.
- Once inside, there’s no time limit on how long you can stay inside La Sagrada Família. I spent around two hours there in total…although I do really like to take my time with these things, so I’m sure others might not need so long.
- This is a Catholic Church, which means you should fully respect the dress code, pals! Cover your shoulders, don’t wear your short shorts, and don’t even think about putting on any see-through garments.
- Opening hours change throughout the seasons, always opening at 9am but staying open longer in Summer (till 8pm)