The oddly shaped stones above the entrance to Barcelona's still unfinished Basilica, Sagrada Família, hang over my head like a menacing colony of huge, stone rags. On top of the spires lie pink disks with beads that resemble icing, and perched atop the nave are oversized, colorful spheres.
This bizarrely eccentric and monumental building of the century, designed by visionary and artist Antoni Gaudí, has been under construction for 140 years. It is supposed to have 18 spires when it is completed, the tallest will be 560 feet high. The entire cathedral consists of a series of seemingly organic forms: stone leaves, roots, figures, and huge rainbow-colored windows. Gone are straight lines, bare walls, and ecclesiastical gloom. Gaudí is kind of like I. M. Pei after sharing a hit of acid with The Grateful Dead.
When my boyfriend and I heard about this building—not on Tripadvisor or in a guidebook, by the way, but in Dan Brown's bestseller Origin—we knew that we had to go and see it in person! So, it is off to Spain. And if you're already there, you might as well throw yourself into the train (in, not in front of!) and travel through northern Spain for two weeks on a hunt for art and madness. That's exactly what we did. But let's start with Gaudi’s Barcelona. Where we find the church of all churches, mosaic parks, labyrinths, and gothic alleys.
Concrete walls, cameras, and metal fences rising many feet into the air. The Sagrada Família is not a church that you can just glibly walk into for a short visit. Instead, the building is surrounded by a security perimeter like the Pentagon. In the middle, a huge construction crane towers over the entire project.
Even more than a hundred years after the foundation stone was laid, practically the entire Basilica is still a construction site—and when you're building a bridge on I-80, you don't just walk up to the driver of the cement mixer and say "Hi, I just want to take a quick look.”
So, we buy online tickets.
While we are outside waiting in front of the security gate (airport control, upper deluxe), I'm wondering about the brightly colored spheres adorning conical peaks at the of the nave.
"What is that stuff up there? Ice cream cones?" I cheekily ask our guide. He patiently explains that each orb represents a different fruit. Summer fruit on the sunset side and winter fruit on the sunrise side. Everything Gaudí planned is a little crazy, but none of it is nonsense.
As we enter the church, it's like plunging into a sea of rainbow-colored light breaking through the surface. I've never seen such an impossibly large, bright, and colorful cathedral. The sun casts blue, green and yellow splotches of light everywhere onto the gigantic columns, which spiral 150 feet into the air and branch out near the top like trees under the white ceiling festooned with golden ornaments. I run back and forth and almost run into one of the columns. It is a moment and a place where you are simply unable to stop looking as you try to grasp what is going on.
"I don't mind that I will never see the church completed," Gaudí once said. "I will grow old, but there will be others after me. That will make it even more magnificent."
For once, someone who does not just think from the wall to the wallpaper, but forges visions and then gets going. No matter what critics say and no matter if you are around to see the final result or not, the most important thing is to have started something.
Gaudí, by the way, was 76 years old when he was suddenly hit by a streetcar on his morning walk. Zap! Dead. You only live once. Just saying.
He was buried in the crypt of his own cathedral. Buried in his own creation. I hope he can hear the construction sounds and knows that people have not given up on making his dream a reality. Supposedly the church will be completed in 2026. After what we saw during our visit (January 2022): totally unrealistic.
The Sagrada Familía is not the only thing Gaudí left behind in Barcelona. He also designed two houses—the Casa Milà and the Casa Batlló—in his unmistakable style. With rounded house corners, curved facades, colorful little stones, and vibrant turrets. And then there is Park Güell.
Park Güell is not a Turkish prayer carpet, but Gaudi’s homage to nature, which he started to design for the Spanish industrialist, Eusebi Güell. Unfortunately, this work is also unfinished and will not be continued, as well as 60 planned villas that never became reality. However, at least the gardens have been completed in the Park.
My boyfriend and I walk on a gravel path to a group of trees. Suddenly, strange stones seem to grow out of the ground. Below us are brown archways stuck crookedly and abruptly into the earth. Gaudí's arcades. They look so natural that for several moments you do not realize they were man-made.
Then we arrive at a large viewing platform, which seems to direct our gaze toward the sea on the horizon. As we walk to the serpentine railing, we find that it is covered with thousands and thousands of brightly colored ceramic stones. Just below us are two pavilions where the surfaces seem to move in waves. Reality and illusion. Art and nature. Gaudi’s favorite game of confusion.
Below us is also an open hall with 86 Greek-looking columns and a mosaic salamander fountain. Everything here seems like a huge expo, an exhibition, a fair. And yet it's just a normal part of the city of Barcelona.Wouldn't the world be a much nicer place if we built more colorful, quirky, nature-themed houses instead of gray concrete boxes?
Of course, Gaudí isn't everything in Barcelona - even though I kind of wish the artist had lived to be 1,000 years old and designed the entire city himself.
One morning we explore the Parc del Laberint d'Horta. Because my boyfriend has never been in a labyrinth, we have to get in there right away! Between hedges and dead ends, we laugh about how such a small place can be so much fun. The entire park is incredibly beautiful. Enchanted fountains with bearded faces and mossy stone splash everywhere. Between the neoclassical pavilions, I get an eerie urge to sit down and write a poem. It's as if time has stood still and if someone were to begin playing a Beethoven piano sonata now, it would be perfect.
In the evening we are in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. The old town is large with many tiny alleys teeming with small fashion stores, bars in cellars, and overhead arches. Plants sprawl over black, iron railings framing the balconies, and the long shadows of the low winter sun begin to wander over houses with cracked walls and squiggly streetlamps.
We find a special retreat on our last day in Barcelona: the Monastery of Pedralbes. Fragile 14th-century archways form a square frame around an idyllic monastery garden with plots of herbs and scattered orange trees. The street noise is gone and all we hear is the splashing of the fountain and chirping of the birds.
"I would so love to take one of those oranges," I say quietly to my boyfriend, looking around.
"Me too," he says.
"But this is a monastery," I reply.
"I know," he says.
We look at the oranges about twenty more times before deciding that it really wouldn't be right to steal anything from a monastery.
After more than ten years of travel and trips to countless cities from Florence to Tokyo and New York to Budapest, Barcelona has nestled into the top five of my "All Time Favorites" within a few days.
If you are curious about Spain in general you can check out my three-week-roadtrip through Andalusia where I peered over to Africa and got lost in between natural wonders and arabic architecture.