Few cities in Europe can match Barcelona for its storehouse of cultural riches. The tourist industry knows it only too well, sending 30 million visitors coursing its way every year. Very nearly all of them were surrounding the famous Sagrada Familia basilica the day we arrived by train from Valencia.
We’d been foresighted enough to reserve our tour of Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, but finding our rally point and guide in the bedlam proved trying. The only worthy comparison might be an Indian bazaar on the eve of Divali, or a Shanghai train station at Chinese New Year. As we elbowed our way through the throng, we couldn’t help but notice that adjoining apartment buildings displayed on their balconies tattered protest banners with slogans not in Catalan, or Spanish, but in English. We took the hint they were intended for us who churned cheek by jowl in the plaza below: “Barcelona not for sale!” and “Tourist, go home!”. Another said cryptically, “We’re not going anywhere!”
The contrast between the boisterous scene in the plaza, and the creative piety of Gaudi’s architectural vision could not have been more jarring. One was all frustration and commerce run amok, the other a prayer of soaring spires. One all breathless tumult and lather, the other, a sandcastle hint of the eternal.
Inside stands a gothic forest of spirituality. The pillars form a grove of trees, a primeval Eden, their branches a canopy high above. Every detail, each chip of colored tile, each cornice and window and molding seems invested with sacred story. So intense is this concentration of image and narrative that it leaves the attentive visitor in near exhaustion. Which may well be the intended effect: that the seeker be beggared, smitten, disarmed, in encounter with the fierce mystery of the sacred.
There is another wisp of story that emerges from this whelming experience. It is the story of Gaudi himself. They called him ‘God’s architect’ and chided him for how long the project was taking. (It is still a work in progress.) His mischievous reply? ‘My client is not in a hurry.’ Utterly devoted in his faith, he set out one summer day in 1926 to daily confessional at the parish church. On the way he stepped into a bustling street only to be struck by the #30 tram a stone’s throw from the unfinished basilica. So shabby was his appearance, so unkempt his demeanor, that passersby took him to be an indigent. Eventually a policeman consented to take the unfortunate to a charity hospital where he lay incognito with grave injuries. When it was already too late, the caregivers realized with dismay the identity of their deceased patient. Shocked and grieving throngs jostled for place in his funeral procession which bore him home to that unfinished shrine he bequeathed to Barcelona. He rests in that spiritual forest within the walls of story which were his testament of encounter with the divine.
Should you venture to visit the city and its famous shrine, beware the crush of people. And beware the #30 tram.