Pros: Exquisitely beautiful architectural creation. Excellent museum.
Cons: Still being built. Crowds. Potentially expensive for some.
I remember the first time I went to see Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. It was 1997 and I was with a couple of friends I knew from a summer job I once had at a Presbyterian church camp. We were spending a couple of weeks together while I traipsed through Europe by train after a two year stint in the Peace Corps. One of my friends had a buddy in Barcelona, who was kind enough to take us around the city. My reaction to La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's amazing cathedral, was profound. Unfortunately, we were all pretty poor at the time, so we just admired it from the outside. Several years later, I showed pictures of Gaudi's creation to my husband, Bill. Somehow, he had never heard of La Sagrada Familia. My pictures of the unfinished masterpiece, in all its unusual and powerful glory, was enough to make him vow to visit Barcelona and see it for himself. We were fortunate enough to go to Barcelona this past spring and tour La Sagrada Familia, a work that is still in progress. The sheer beauty of the place was enough to move my darling husband to tears.
A quick history
The cathedral is quite new by European standards. Work began on La Sagrada Familia in March 1882. The following year, Barcelona's celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi, was commissioned to design the cathedral. He continued working on this monumental project until his death in 1926. Unfortunately, Gaudi never got to see the church completed. Indeed, La Sagrada Familia is still being built to this day. The church is slated to be completed in 2026, one hundred years after Gaudi's death.
It was very interesting for me to see the progress that has been made since my first visit in 1997. It seems to me the last time I was there, the cathedral was lacking a roof. But when we toured the cathedral this past spring, the cathedral had a roof and people were able to climb some of its famous bell towers.
La Sagrada Familia is an expiatory church, which means that it's been built entirely through donations from the people. That is, at least in part, why people who want to see the inside of the cathedral pay admission.
Bill and I took the metro to the cathedral one cool, sunny morning. There were throngs of tourists about, and for a minute, we were very confused about where we needed to go for tickets. But then I looked up and beheld the intense beauty of the Nativity facade, which is the older part of the cathedral facing east. It's just astounding to me that a man could have come up with such an incredible representation of Christ's birth and depicted it the way he did on the outside of a building. I could have spent all day gazing at the Nativity facade and not seen the same thing twice. The building seemed cavern-like with its sculpted formations, yet the formations were on the outside of the building.
We finally found the ticket line, which resembled toll booths. It wrapped all the way around the cathedral. We got in line and were immediately accosted by a couple of Barcelona based grannies who were begging for spare euros. Bill, being very soft hearted, tossed a 50 cent piece into one of the ladies' hats. She rewarded him with a toothless smile, bright brown eyes, and a thumbs up. That was definitely worth 50 euro cents.
As we approached the ticket booth, we could see the very striking Passion facade, which faces west. In contrast to the very ornate and detailed Nativity side, the Passion side is very spare and modern looking. I felt myself take a sharp breath as I took in the depictions of Christ's suffering... the crucifix and Christ's emaciated body being flogged. A third facade, Glory, is still being constructed on the south side of the cathedral.
Admission to the cathedral and museum is 13 euros per person over age 10 (children under 10 can go in free). However, there are several ways to get a discount. Bill and I happened to have Barcelona cards, so our tickets were only 10 euros each. Tourist groups can get a group discount. Those who are at least 65% disabled can go in free, as long as there's someone accompanying them. I don't know how the disability is determined. Additionally, people in special groups, students, retired persons, and those under 18 but over age 10, pay 11 euros each. General admission to just the church is 11 euros per person. Guided tours are also available for 15 euros per person and given in several different languages. The times and days of the guided tours are listed on the cathedral's official Web site.
First impressions inside the gate
The inside of La Sagrada Familia is just as fascinating as the outside is. For me, it was interesting for a different reason. It's basically a construction site. While we were walking around the inside of the church--which was packed with people-- we could hear the sounds of construction and see building supplies. It was kind of exciting. I gazed up at the ceiling and saw the very cool honeycomb structures that I later found out were based on Gaudi's observation of plant life. Stained glass windows caught the sun's light and turned it into sprays of color on the walls.
There was a long, long line of people willing to pay an extra 2.5 euros to take the elevator up the bell towers. Bill and I decided to skip that experience because we didn't want to stand in line. Besides, Bill doesn't like heights. For those who required refreshment, there were vending machines available... something I thought was kind of weird.
I looked over at Bill and he had tears streaming down his face. La Sagrada Familia's intricate beauty had profoundly moved him. I don't think he even noticed the vending machines.
If you get the more expensive ticket, you can visit the Gaudi House Museum. It's there that you learn about Antoni Gaudi's life and how he came up with his incredible creations. I found this part of our visit very valuable, since there are detailed exhibits, photographs, and replicas of parts of the church. The museum takes about 45 minutes to an hour to tour, especially if there are crowds, but it's well worth springing the extra two euros to see.
Other things to know
La Sagrada Familia is a church. For that reason, visitors should try to dress with respect. Leave your skimpy skirts, tank tops, and dresses and t-shirts with obscene sayings on them at your hotel.
Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.
Animals are not permitted inside the cathedral unless they are guide dogs for the blind (I don't know how they feel about mini horses that guide the blind).
Luggage and large bags must be left in the cloakroom.
If you go to Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia is one attraction you should not miss, even if you just walk around the outside. It is a stunning artistic and architectural achievement. As for me, I'm just glad I was able to visit again and see the inside, especially with my sweet husband, who vowed he would see it before he died.
For more information: http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/sf-eng/index.php