8 May 2012

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia No. 1 : The Nativity Facade

La Sagrada Familia is Barcelona’s greatest attraction. It is jammed with tourists, there are terrible queues and there are all manner of tatty stalls and conmen around it just waiting for the unaware traveller to make a mistake. Oh and it isn’t even finished yet.
          But it would take far more than that to spoil it. Far, far more. There are few buildings the first sight of which stay with you for a lifetime so make sure you get a good one. This is not obviously easy as there is no grand approach that does justice to its magnificence. Instead it is simply sat slap bang in the middle of an unremarkable neighbourhood, looking almost as incongruous as a large spaceship.
          I would argue that the best way to see La Sagrada Familia for the first time is to arrive by metro (Blue or Purple Line, you can guess the name of the station). Get on the escalator out of the metro and do not turn round until you reach the top because when you do you will be facing the Nativity façade. You won’t take that in at first though. What you will see first is just how big it is (it’s going to be the tallest church in the world) and then you will panic and worry that all the stone appears to be slipping off. This is some kind of architectural illusion designed by Barcelona’s ex-resident genius Antonio Gaudi. I don’t understand how or why. All I know is that hard, solid stone seems to be hanging on precariously. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
La Sagrada Familia No.2 : View from park

 You will feel the urge to get closer but I would counsel you to resist that urge (this is a Catholic church after all and resisting urges is what much of Catholicism is about so you should be able to manage it). Instead head into the little park on your left. It is not a particularly nice park but it isn’t crowded and it allows as good a view of the church as there is so you have a few minutes to get your head round the incredible spires. Spires have always seemed austere to me – black spikes shearing to nothing. But not here. Here they are joyful - rising and rising and then suddenly opening out into the heady surprise of a sunburst. All your expectations about church architecture are delightfully confounded (and until they are confounded you probably didn’t know you had them – I certainly didn’t.)
          Now and only now should you get closer. The detail in the nativity façade is  breathtaking - everywhere in this exuberant exterior Gaudi has suggested movement and vitality. Never has the birth of Jesus been more enthusiastically welcomed with celebrating angels jamming on all types of musical instruments (I particularly like the bassoon player) while the creatures of the world gaze on approvingly.
          When you’ve seen enough go down the right hand side, past the ominously long queue to get in, to get to the entrance where the Passion façade represents Jesus’ death. Gaudi wanted it bleak and, even though he didn’t design it himself, bleak is what he got. The harsh lines and crude geometrical shapes of Golgotha could not contrast more with the joy of the natiity. The Roman soldiers look like stromtroopers. Hunched scavengers are depicted throwing dice for Jesus’ meagre possessions. There is pain, there is suffering and with Jesus’s head hanging limp and dead there seems to be no hope.

La Sagrada Familia No.3 : Passion Facade

          And yet as your eyes rise upwards you find some. A golden Jesus jauntily perched high up on a bridge between two of the spires now ascended into heaven and looking down at his own death as if indulgently watching a play. His casual nonchalance is unexpectedly comforting.
          Now it’s time to go in. You may look at the queue and think is it worth it? Stop thinking. It is. However, if you want to beat the queue you can pre-book online in advance – you have to pick a two hour window when your ticket will be valid but it does get you an instant entrance. The other way to beat the queue is to go to mass. But if you’re not a believer and you don’t really mean it don’t blame me if you go to hell. Otherwise you’re looking at about half an hour. If you’re lucky while you’re waiting you might get to take a photo of a human statue of Jesus – pay him a Euro and he’ll bless you. I understand this won’t appeal to everyone. But it nicely sums up all the chaotic hucksterism...
                               and in that spirit can I draw you're attention to the adverts that accompany this blog. Do click on one. Preferably one of the Barcelona ones as some of the adverts that are being randomly generated are most unsuitable for a family blog. Not to mention a sacred family blog.Thank you... 
                                                                          Back to the chaotic hucksterism that surrounds La Sagrada Familia - it sets you up ready for a  big change. Which is what you get the moment you step inside.
             The interior is simply beautiful. The stained glass windows do amazing things with light. The colours are bold and vivid. The air seems somehow lighter and freer. I cannot recommend it enough.
          And again it totally confounds your expectations of great churches which though impressive are often dark and gloomy. This is taken to its extreme in Sevilla’s ancient cathedral which with all its locked and caged chapels feels more like a prison than anything else.  I used to think this was how all old religious buildings were until I visited the mezquitas of Southern Spain. Here I experienced the same sense of calm and freedom that you find in La Sagrada Familia (and if you really want to see the contrast in one building go to the mezquita in Cordoba where, after the south of Spain was retaken from the moors, the reconquistadores in a brutal act of desecration built a great big gloomy cathedral right in the middle of it – it is perhaps the strangest and saddest building I have ever seen). But back to La Sagrada Familia. Even with the hordes of tourists there is so much space that you cannot but help still find it uplifting to the spirit. In stark contrast to the medieval cathedrals you feel not a sense of imposing dread and majesty but instead one of liberation and peace. It’s wonderful. Just imagine how good it’ll be when it’s finished.  

La Sagrada Familia No.4 : I knew you didn't believe me about the human statue of Jesus

 Useful words/phrases;

¿Cuántos minutas dura la cola? – How long does the queue take.
¡Qué grande la basilica! – How big the church is!
¡Que buenísima la iglesia! – How beautiful the church is!
Todavia no está acabada – Still not finished

If you fancy chatting :

Cariño, Jesús quiere un euro por una foto con los niños – Darling, Jesus wants a euro for a photo with the kids.


  1. You forgot to mention the local engineers who are worried that all that extra stone and the new high speed rail line they're digging underneath might one day make the whole lot come tumbling down.
    If you go in - keep it quick!

    1. This is too negative, Andrew. Remember if it all comes crashing down while you're in church this is your best chance of going straight to heaven.