A Pinnacle Moment: Visiting the Sagrada Familia

Seventeenth (and almost the end) in a series of posts about a trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Barcelona, with tips about purchasing advance tickets to the Sagrada Familia

Interior and cross, Sagrada Familia

Our trip was coming to an end. But what an end! We had one full day left in Barcelona, and we saved the best for last.

There could be no better capstone to a trip to Spain than seeing Gaudi’s masterpiece and the crown jewel of Barcelona and maybe the most beautiful religious building ever constructed by man: the Sagrada Familia. We entered on the Passion side, where raw, muscular sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs evoke the pain of Christ’s brutal end. On each side, Subirachs’ spare sculptures depicting the days leading up to the crucifixion: here is Judas’ betrayal, then Jesus chained to a pole, Jesus alone, and Pontius Pilate reluctantly condemning Christ to death, flanked by armor-clad soldiers who resemble Stormtroopers. Finally, Christ on the cross.

In a strange side note, as we were visiting the Sagrada Familia, this talented sculptor was breathing his last. Josep Maria Subirachs had to retire in 2009 due to Parkinson’s disease, and he died on April 7, the day of our visit.

Inside, another kind of Mystery: Gaudi’s sanctuary. Mostly white and bathed in light, columns of stone reached to the nearly 150 foot ceiling of the main nave, twisting and then branching into limb-like arches. The resemblance is not accidental. Gaudi devised an alternative to Gothic architecture by studying nature; in the tree, he found the idea for a design to spread and support the pressure of the building’s weight without relying primarily on walls for support.

Some things, however, are better experienced with the heart and gut than the mind. For nearly three hours, we wandered with our head phones and audio guides, and finally just sat in the quiet zone provided for that purpose.

As the sun rose, its light painted the floor and columns in ever-changing patterns as it poured through¬†the stained glass windows. When a visitor walked through a stroke of color projected through a window, they became clothed in hues of red and yellow, or green and blue. Red and yellow represent fire: the birth of the planet, the fire that made human civilization possible, or perhaps the fire of a burning bush. Green and blue represent water: water that cleanses, water that nourishes, perhaps the water of the womb. Father and mother, it is all here. This article offers¬†more details about the symbolism of the basilica’s interior.

Walking out the opposite side of the church, we studied the organic forms of the Nativity side. Dripping like ice cream cones, the sculptures here depict the story of Jesus’ life: the announcement of pregnancy to Mary, his birth attended by kings and shepherds, his teachers, the visit to the Temple, his recognition as the son of God.

Much had changed since I visited the Sagrada Familia in 2005. Then the walls didn’t yet enclose the building, and none of the stained glass was in place. It wasn’t even recognized as a church and was only consecrated as a minor basilica in 2010. It was majestic nine years ago, but my most recent visit took me to another plane. It did not feel of this earth.

As beautiful as it is, there is still much to do before the basilica’s anticipated completion in 2026. Earlier this year, the Sagrada Familia released this stunning animation of its completion:

Despite the clanging of the construction outside, the Sagrada Familia is an oasis of peace within a vibrant city. I can hardly wait to visit again.

Ticket tips:

It is important to get advance tickets to the Sagrada Familia or you will wait in a line lasting an hour or more (or not get in at all, and most likely not be able to ride the lift up one of the towers). However, prepare for frustration. I found that I could get advance tickets including the audio guide and visit to the basilica, but I could not secure a companion ticket to visit one of the towers. It may have been because I wanted to visit the Passion Tower. Every day for a month, I went online and saw the same count of available tickets: 0. I finally walked to the Sagrada Familia ticket booth on one of the days we were in Barcelona and learned two things: a) you cannot buy advance tickets on site, and b) the Passion Tower tickets weren’t available because it wasn’t open to the public – but it might be on the Monday we visited. Once in Spain, I even had the hotel concierge try to sort out the problem with me – to no avail. We ended up purchasing advance tickets to enter the basilica. We could have gone up the Passion Tower by purchasing a ticket once inside the grounds, but our entry time would have been five hours later. Here, therefore, are my tips:

a) Purchase tickets in advance from the official Sagrada Familiar website (ideally several weeks to a month ahead) and print them at home (second best: from your hotel computer/printer)

b) If you see “0” next to the Passion Tower (which refers to available tickets), assume the Passion Tower is not open

c) Do not bother to call the help number on the ticket site – you’ll never get through

d) Do not try to get tickets from the yellow ATM/ticket machines in one of the banks, which you will see mentioned on some travel sites. Right now at least, they no longer dispense tickets to the Sagrada Familia.

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