Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia: Beware the #30 Tram

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.

The forest-like interior of Sagrada Familia reflects powerfully Gaudi’s love of the outdoors.  It is said that there can be found not a single straight line or right angle anywhere in the structure so thoroughly does it embody the inspiration of nature itself.  Begun in 1882, its 18 spires approach completion, now projected for 2028.  The expenses incurred are met entirely by proceeds from the torrent of eager visitors.  A mass for the international faithful is held every Sunday at 9 AM.         photo credit:  wikimedia commons  

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.    


5 thoughts on “Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia: Beware the #30 Tram

    1. Hello, Melodie! We should all have been so lucky! We passed through in July, 2019 after the city had gone orbital. The unequaled architecture, its fabled futbol club and the buzz left after the Olympic Games only begin to account for the city’s high energy and flair today. Add to that the dramas of Catalonia’s independence fever and well – it’s no wonder the town is flooded with visitors. You should riffle through that journal of yours. There’s a book begging to be set down! Something like, ‘Present Before the Creation’!

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  1. Jonathan, your essay on Barcelona tourism reminded me of a quite different experience that also had a linguistic twist to it. Once around the year 1980 I was in Brussels and was taken by one of my host’s family to the most elegant shopping area of the city. Brussels is deeply divided between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking citizens, with Flemish a variant of Dutch. Common knowledge would lead one to expect the area to do business in French, the language of haute couture. Instead, most of the shop windows courted shoppers in English, apparently assuming that it would appeal equally to upper-crust clients from both populations, who were assumed to be fluent in English. C’est du snobisme.

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  2. Fascinating dialogue of a city and basilica that I have never visited except for the airport and port. It brought back memories of tourist shopping day trips to Tangiers city bazaars in the early ’70’s from Malaga, Spain. We warned “our” people of pick pocketers, drug pusher/sellers and to not act or like like tourists! Interesting experiences! Dan Johnson, winter visitor in AJ, AZ.

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