The Sagrada Familia

Antoni Gaudí's unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia, is one of Barcelona's many must-see monuments. It's also one of the most popular of Barcelona's sights with tourists and there were nearly 40 IH Spanish students on the visit that was part of this week's social programme.

Gaudí took over as the project director a year after work on the Sagrada Familia had begun in 1882, working on it for more than 40 years until his death, with work on it continuing, on and off, ever since.

Currently, they are working inside the main nave, as well as one façade, with the largest (170-metre) bell tower still to be built. There is little that is gratuitous, that does not symbolise something in Gaudí's work; the main tower will symbolise Christ, the twelve lower bell towers (four still to be built) the apostles.

Our guide, Pilar Diaz, gave us a great little explanation of the Sagrada Familia's architecture and history. We began standing outside the newest of the three main façades, that of the Passion (1952-1978). The modern abstract figures (1986-) of Josep Maria Subirachs led to furious local debate that that wasn't anything like what Gaudí intended.

The Glory façade, the one on which much of the current work is being done, is largely hidden under scaffolding and tarpaulins and the third, well, we came to that later, after we'd passed through the main nave, currently also much obscured by scaffolding but interesting nevertheless, with real stone masons actually building the thing.

The Nativity façade, the only one anywhere near finished in Gaudí's time, is the eastern-most, the one on which the sun rises (that of the Passion, symbolically, that on which it sets, that of the Glory, that on which the suns plays during the day). It's heavy and neo-gothic, with Nativity scene figures and a prominent cypress tree, symbolising eternal life, and a liberal smearing of pigeon droppings which may or may not have been part of the original plan.

Sagrada Familia Barcelona

Passion façade: Look! I'm just fed up with all this criticism!

This latter façade is virtually complete, but they reckon it could be another 25 to 30 years before the whole thing is done. One problem was that Gaudí in fact left few plans for it (he was run over by a Barcelona tram in 1926) and those that did exist were lost in a fire in 1936; another that it has been built entirely with donations (not to mention annual ticket sales well in excess of 1.5 million). And then there were all those arguments about how it should be continued - or if it should be continued, even.

After she'd point out the main features of the Nativity front, Pilar suggested we either went up one of the towers (around 350 steps) or skipped that and went straight into the museum. Anyone suffering from claustrophobia or with no head for heights should stay on the ground floor, she very rightly advised.

Also, it's just kind of vaguely worrying, as you head up the narrow spiral staircase, that a number of Gaudí's contemporaries are supposed to have believed that the geometry of his constructions was such that, defying mathematical logic as they did, the buildings wouldn't stand. What if, today...

Still, when you get up to the top, it's well worth it, as the view of Barcelona could be spectacular. "Could be", because all too often you'll find that the city is shrouded by haze, as it was when we went - but it was still quite a dramatic view, as the sun was slowing sinking over the wintery horizon.

If you do suffer from vertigo, going down is almost as bad as going up, by the way, worse even. By the time you get to the bottom, the spiral stairway has given you a fair idea of what old Frodo would probably have felt like in Lord of the Rings.

Sagrada Familia Barcelona

The kings on the Nativity façade - that's what the thing was supposed to look like!

Down at ground level again, the museum is interesting, with its old pictures of the Sagrada Familia as it was at various stages of its construction, a number of scale models and drawings ("They're a bit like Escher," said Marc Capponi, from Washington DC, and you can see what he meant) and a 20 minute video showing you the sort of shots you would otherwise only see if you were, as I think I mentioned, a pigeon.

So were those with us on the trip impressed? Anastasia Terechenkova, from St Petersburg (Russia) was but was disappointed it didn't seem to have progressed much since her last visit to Barcelona. "The government should be paying for this!" she insisted. That's great Spanish you speak, Anastasia, where did you pick up that amazing accent? "Oh, I've been to Barcelona 5 times, Spain 8 already," she told us. You want to learn a language, you've got to keep coming back to the country where they speak it.

Serena Telesco, from Naples (Italy), had fixed the problem of no stay ever really being long enough for you to learn the language by coming to Barcelona on a one-way ticket. Serena had liked the Sagrada Familia too, but said she it wasn't her favourite Gaudí work. What was? Oh, the Casa Milà, the Casa Batlló, the Park Guell.

Now that's a funny thing about Gaudí - about Barcelona in general, in fact. You ask half a dozen people what they found most interesting, they'll all inevitably give you a different answer.

Further information

For more information on Gaudí and his works, there is the excellent site built for the 2002 Gaudí Year.

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