There’s still time to get to Barcelona before Gaudí’s masterpiece church, the Sagrada Família, is completed. Outside, construction of the planned crown of many spires goes on. Inside, the minor basilica (consecrated by Pope Benedict in 2010) is finished, open and glorious.
A few years back, our travel plans had us seeing a host of Gothic cathedrals. They all seemed similar, large old structures of dingy stone and high ceilings. Despite massive displays of stained glass, they were dark inside and kind of creepy, filled with the tombs of long dead kings and saints. I thought I’d never want to see another. But I really hadn’t taken the time to understand what I was looking at.
Guidebooks for every old town across Europe list its Gothic cathedral as a top attraction, a must see. So I went and didn’t ask myself why. Ask before you go.
Built to last an eternity, it’s a miracle that so many have. Seven to eight hundred years later, they’re the oldest buildings standing, largely unchanged while their cities evolved around them.
It must have been something – perhaps everything – back then to watch one going up. No doubt it would have been the central community project for generations, often many, many.
Men would have worked at heights offering views only possible from a mountain top. For most of a millennium, they were landmarks seen from great distances on Earth and hopefully from Heaven above.
Catalan Flying Buttress
“Flying buttress” – what a great term. Gothic cathedrals rely on the flying buttress to hold their walls in place. (I should have studied them on Wikipedia before I went.) Like ribs, look for rows of them spaced along the sides of their vaulted roofs. These ancient churches are like bodies in reverse with an austere skeleton on the outside adorned only by an elaborate entrance.
Built to be experienced from the inside, the design is a masterful trick. Step through the door and the 100-foot height of the ceiling immediately draws your eyes to look up. Then the stained glass, illuminated from behind by the light of day, keeps your gaze elevated. With eyes raised toward Heaven, your view is unobstructed even in a crowd, leaving you alone in your prayers.
It’s a trick that works every time, even when you know you’re being tricked. But as a tourist, knowing adds a dimension to the experience that makes any visit worthwhile, particularly if you appreciate that the feat was accomplished with simple tools and the effort and risk of many lives.
Barcelona has several fine examples in Catalan Gothic (a bit shorter with ceilings rising 80 rather than 100 feet). Take the tour of the Cathedral and hear the story of Saint Eulalia entombed in the crypt. Thirteen cackling, white geese stroll the cloister commemorating her age when she was martyred.
There’s an elevator to the roof terrace for an overview of the city and a chance to study the installation of the stained glass up close. But I recommend the more unique experience of climbing the circular, stone staircase to the catwalks on the roof of the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar a few blocks away.
From there, you have a clear view across town of the cranes sticking up from the ongoing construction of Barcelona’s #1 tourist attraction, the Sagrada Família. (Be sure to get your tickets online in advance.)
See the Gothic churches first to enhance your appreciation of architect Antoni Gaudí’s Art Nouveau elaboration of their ancient design.
Delayed by war, revolution, political regime change and COVID, the Sagrada Família finally nears completion. Begun in 1882, Gaudí took over in 1883, but less than 25% was finished when he died in 1926. (He’s buried in the crypt.) Construction, funded by private donations and hefty admission fees, has continued faithful to his intentions.
The exterior is a phantasmagorical sculpture changing form from side-to-side, anything but symmetrical with no right angles and practically round. One side features a giant rib cage like entrance, echoing the skeletal qualities of a Gothic church exterior. Another presents a flowing, intertwinement of allegorical figures running its height. A third, intended to be the grandest, is yet to be completed. You could spend all day searching out the infinite details of the Sagrada Família’s facades.
But even with everything Gaudí has going on outside, the majesty of his creation is in the intensity of light and color flooding the interior. Inside is a fantastical representation of a dense forest of trees and giant flowers. Green and yellow light from stained glass windows vibrantly coats white walls, filling the space with a surreal life. Rather than tricking you into looking to Heaven as in a Gothic cathedral, Gaudí instills visitors to the Sagrada Família with a naturalist’s sense of Heaven on Earth.
Armed with a little understanding, I now look forward to my next “must see” Gothic cathedral. And with a sense of participation in the building process, I’m anxious to see Gaudí’s masterpiece again once completed.
Steven Glovsky of Wayland can be contacted at TravelsWithTwain.com.