We arrived in Barcelona directly by AVE fast train from Madrid our first day in Spain, a long day and short restless night since departing Atlanta, overtired and excited to immediately jump into our short visit to this Catalan city. The Sagrada Familía awaited us two blocks around the corner from our apartment.
My expectations for this still-in-construction-after-100-years cathedral were set by the ostentatious exterior, dripping sand castle, weathered and modern and too busy pile of towers upon towers. But in person, and especially inside, this is an awe-inspiring spiritual and sacred monument.
Part of my visual/architectural confusion before entering was that the two sets of finished towers and entrances are on either transept (arms of the typical cross-shaped floorplan), while the “front” and “rear” of the church are still mostly in-progress. Somehow rotating the building 90° and realizing that the overall shape is that of a typical cathedral and most views as above are from the side makes this basilica less absurd in my mind. The left side of the exterior photo shows the nave’s stained glass which quickly became the focal point inside for us. The quality of the afternoon light through these masses of windows, transitioning from blue and green to red and fire along the length of the nave is incredible in this light, open, and brightly welcoming space.
The shapes of everything from ornament to structure within emphasize an incredible precision of geometry and math as it manifests in the organic world – from cubic grids and spiraling staircases to the branching hyperbolic columns and arched swooping domes, this is fluidly super-imposed modern technology on the memory and material of nature. Gothic stone echoes seamlessly into this (the?) masterpiece 20th century church.
As part of our ticket on this not-very-crowded (though still pulsing with masses of tourists until just before the end of our visit at closing time), we reserved time near sunset to ascend the Passion Tower via elevator. The views of Barcelona are somewhat constrained by protective fencing and the ongoing scaffolding, as well as the immense stone towers you descend within, spiraling around and bridging between as you return to the main body of the church. Not for the faint of knee or heights, the final half of the descent is through an interior spiral staircase apparently endless through the rail-less center opening. While I am not afraid of heights, often these edge-less spirals evoke some vertigo for me, but once again the precision and balance of the design of this place surprises me and there is nothing but joy and awe in the downward experience.
That said, we’re both glad Stephanie joined me at the top to look out on the city, and then returned via elevator. We met at the bottom of the stairs back in the southern transept, and took some time seated in the center of this loudly glorious worship space for silence and reflection as the stained-glass light dimmed and our first day transitioned into night.