[travel] Sagrada Família–the strangest, wildest, prettiest dream

My first image of Spain was that of Sagrada Família. At home in Vietnam, we used to have a book titled something like 40 Wonders of the World, in which Sagrada Família is proudly listed as one of the best of the best. For a few years (that is, until 4 years ago), I still believed that it was in Mexico… Excuse my shallowness, but my young brain at the time of reading could not register this extremely foreign name. The church, whose exterior looks like a bizarre synthesis of a Disney castle and giant corncobs, was embedded in my head as a very Mexican thing (corn –> grilled corn –> corn tortillas –> nachos –> Mexico). There, I said it, feel free to curse me in all kinds of languages for my dim-witted, narrow, manipulated, over-simplistic, politically incorrect, culturally superficial past thinking.

But but… I mean, guys, look at this photos. I swear that those towers look like corncobs.

To put it simply, SF is the weirdest, most eccentric, most creative and most intriguing thing I have ever seen. If there is a construction that embodies the whole meaning of cool, it must be the one and only SF.

Begun in 1882, this brainchild of the world-renowned, ridiculously ingenious, lets-be-frank-he-is-not-human, Antoni Gaudí was envisioned to surpass the 13th century Catedral de Barcelona–itself a very remarkable landmark. This project is so big and so different, with so many intricate and modern details that by the time Gaudí died in 1926 (the man was hit by a tram running at 10kph and nobody helped him immediately because he was dressed like a vagabond with no personal identification; food for thought, peeps), SF was only around 15~25% complete. Almost 90 years later, it is still under construction; as this slow progress is very much dependent on private donations. It is hoped that SF will be completed by 2026 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The bf and I both made a bet that it won’t be completed even when we die.

That is, however, not a problem. Heck, the current SF is so mind-blowing that even those ugly cranes over its towers cannot diminish its strange beauty by a microgram. In fact, it was honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared it a minor basilica. One can only imagine how it will look once completed. As for me, I can’t. Seeing SF in real life defied my imagination ability. I know that Modernist art is always otherworldly, but there is quite nothing as peculiar and as wonderful as this. If SF is really completed before I die (which I doubt), I will book a ticket to Barcelona right away to see it. In the meantime, all we can do is to pay the exorbitant entrance fee (15~20 euro, depending on what you want to see), hoping that we are financially contributing towards a grand, century-long dream.

I remember reading a travel article elsewhere before I visited Barcelona, in which it claimed something like: there is no need to get inside SF–it is expensive, crowded, hot, and much less spectacular than the exterior. EXCUSE ME SIR? Are you trolling your readers? Because that is not funny and simply not true. SF’s exterior is insane. Insane. But its interior is incomparable. It is a labyrinth of shapes and colors. It is a surreal forest made of stone and glass. It is worth every penny and more to get inside, to see every nook and canny, to realize that human imagination is such a magnificent, blessed gift.

Before bombarding this post with my interior photos, let’s take a look at the outside shots first.

The Nativity façade, which faces the rising sun to the northeast, is perhaps the most photographed part of the basilica. Understandable, as it is as dazzling as it is confusing. Seen from afar, it feels like the ground of a dense tropical forest. The towers, besides reminding me of corncobs, also resemble ant hills. Each of them is dedicated to a different saint. There is a tree of life that rises above the door of Jesus in the portico of Charity. This façade is overwhelmingly naturalistic–typical of Gaudí’s style. As you get close, you will see the tortoises at the base of two columns, while on either side of the façade are two chameleons. Nature is not only a perfect backdrop for the Nativity, but also finds itself entwined with this tale of Jesus’ birth. We see vines, leaves, flowers and other natural elements shoulder to shoulder with the images of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the wise Kings etc. Everything makes this façade an extremely complicated, borderline bewildering picture. Yet once you spend enough time studying it, you are in for a feast.

Even closer:

In stark contrast, the Passion façade is simplistic, austere, and quite ‘modern’. It lacks the flamboyance of the Nativity façade, but I found it truly striking. Never had I imagined that the crucification of Christ would be illustrated that way: with rigid, angular, harsh straight carving in bare stones. “Gaudí intended for this façade to strike fear into the onlooker” (source), I think that he succeeded.

Enough with outside. If your jaw is already dropping, prepare yourself for an even greater wow. I literally held my breath the moment I stepped inside SF. My eyeballs sprung out of their sockets, my jaw was hanging open, and my head was filled with: oh my god oh my god oh my goodness Dios mio how how can this be is it for real holyshit fuck me holyshitton motherfather this is nuts ok.

SF’s inside is a grand forest. Instead of boring round columns oh-so-typical of Gothic church, Gaudí turned them into the numerous trees with branches to support the nave. The ceiling is decorated with figures of Bismarck palm, while in the centre is the raised altar, crowned by the Latin cross with a canopy decorated with vines and grapes. Made of stone, but SF is bright and vibrant, very different from all the churches I have been to (mysterious, dark, scary stuffs). I felt some source of energy within the basilica, perhaps from the colorful, abstract stained glass, or perhaps from the feeling of an ever-growing forest under the roof. Either way, SF is, let me repeat, unlike anything I have ever seen, and is definitely much cooler than any church I have set foot in. After seeing SF, my churched-out soul officially became weary of its kind. Please understand, for such a mesmerizing place, nothing can ever come even halfway close.

Grand, imposing and stony, but not in the least constricted:

Even the stairs are to die for:

or those balconies:


Frankly this stuff is outta this world:

Spectacular stained glasses:

Not just spectacular, they were magical:

Much has been written about how to get in SF, but I will chip in my experience. Although the bf and I visited SF in the low season (January 2014), we still booked tickets online in advance. I seriously urge you to book tickets first, because when SF opened its door at 9am, I estimated that there were at least 200 tourists queuing to buy entrance tickets. The few of prepared folks, like us, were the first to get in and got to enjoy SF to ourselves for a good 10 minutes. Admiring Gaudí’s quintessential piece with few people around makes the experience a lot better I tell you.

Bottom line is, however, you must go and see SF. You must. If I have a list of 10 man-made and natural sites I adore and never get tired of, SF would be ranked pretty high in the list. Please, just.go.


4 thoughts on “[travel] Sagrada Família–the strangest, wildest, prettiest dream

    • Thank you, but I believe that nothing can quite capture SF’s pure grandeur. Seeing SF in real life with open eyes is perhaps the only way to take in the basilica’s beauty.

      • I completely agree! I visited last summer. I was completely astounded by the internal beauty, however I like the way you captured the outside, I now feel perhaps I should have given it more time.

  1. Pingback: [travel] Barcelona: Gaudí and beyond | this user is dead

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