It was our first September morning in Barcelona, a trip we’d been planning for months.
Being early-rising jubilados, we were eager to explore the Sagrada Família on our own before our pre-booked tour began.
Nothing prepared us for the awe that awaited.
Everywhere you look, there’s a feathery sense of lightness in design, a dazzling brilliance of colour. Forests of columns branch and curve, lifting your gaze to vaulted ceilings. A tribute to the natural world in form, colour and majesty, there are replications of more than 30 different species of plants, tortoises supporting columns and an abundance of birds. It is a masterpiece of wondrous beauty.
After five minutes of our eyes darting upward, we sat down and bowed our heads. (Confession: Spice was in tears.) We are not a religious pair. But this was a reverential experience.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família—Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family—began being constructed in 1882 following the inspiration of a bookseller. (I had to look up “expiatori”; Magellan studied Latin, not me. It means a place for atoning one’s guilt or sin derived from the Latin expiat (appeased by sacrifice).) A temple, not a cathedral, it was designed as a place for Catalans to atone for the sins of their modern democracy. A year later, Antoni Gaudí, one of the world’s most masterful architects, was hired to reimagine its future. Nature was his muse, especially the deep forests, undulating caves and cobalt skies of Montserrat. “Our strength and superiority lies in the balance of feeling and logic,” he said. Deeply religious, he is often called “God’s architect.”
Gaudí worked on designing this earthly temple for 43 years, creating 3-D models and sculptures that guide today’s architects as they work toward completing the Sagrada Família on the centenary of Gaudí’s death in 2026. One of the best experiences of our visit was looking at old photos of the Sagrada Família and Gaudí’s protoypes in the basement. It’s here you can see (if you’re like Magellan) the mathematics of pillars beginning as squares, growing into octagons and branching into circles. We marveled at Gaudí’s brilliant upside-down model in which he used weighted strings to engineer his design of the towers.
Run over by a tram in Barcelona, Gaudí was 74 years old when he died. But it was another death, a recent one, that was on our minds that day.
Warren, a geophysicist Magellan had worked with for 18 years, had succumbed to cancer at the age of 62. Like Gaudí, whose work he would have admired, Warren’s muse was nature. He had spent his life interpreting turbidite fans and reservoir rock through geophysical models. The funeral was being held that day, 8,000 kilometres away.
For the second time in the Sagrada Família, we sat and bowed our heads, this time in remembrance of Warren and in consideration of our good fortune to travel and see this wondrous temple, in awe of the world.
As we left, we took another look at the contemporary stone sculptures at the entrance to the Sagrada Família and quietly atoned for the guilty pleasure we had planned: lunch at Tapas 24, with wine to toast Gaudí and Warren.
Book a weekday morning tour at the Sagrada Família website: you’ll bypass the snaking lineups and learn so much more. By seeing it early in your stay in Barcelona you’ll have some context for many other examples of Gaudí’s architecture throughout the city. Book a tour that includes the towers. We didn’t and it’s an hours-long wait—plus if you leave you must pay the full entry fee again.
Arrive early and see the interior for a bit on your own before the (relative) silence is broken by the daily hordes of visitors. See the basement. Give yourself ~4 hours to do it all. Eat a good breakfast and don’t forget your water bottle.
For lunch afterward head to Tapas 24, a tiny basement gastro-tapas bar recommended in Where Chefs Eat, at Diputación 269, close to the Passeig de Gracia about a 20-minute walk from the Sagrada Família. We loved the ambience (especially sitting at the bar watching one young woman whose sole job was to make tomato bread) and the food (especially the bikini—grilled ham and cheese sandwich on thin brioche bread with a bit of truffle).
Hughes, Robert. “The Hermit in the Cave of Making,” The Spectacle of Skill. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, p. 238-268.