Before we had set off for Girona John had finally managed to book us tickets to see the Sagrada Familia. We had a window of entry between eleven thirty and eleven forty five, with the chance of going up the Passion Tower at twelve thirty.
We made sure to arrive early, had a wander round the outside and then sat in the shadow of the Cathedral for a coffee.
You have to keep your wits about you, as everyone there is so busy looking up it is easy to crash into folk. No doubt this makes it a paradise for pickpockets and we are very conscious how light fingered they can be after the demonstration by our magician friend. Every quarter hour a long line erupts out of nowhere and a group is let through the bag check and into the maw of the entrance.
It is some fifteen years since we last visited the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s last masterpiece, still being built. At that stage the interior was a complete building site, dark and strewn with stone lintels and bags of cement. It was impossible to venture far, a wonky sign read No Entry Temple Under Construction. Tape and plastic barriers were everywhere to stop people wandering into what looked like a bombsite. Parts of it may very well have been a bombsite, as the interior and Gaudi’s workshops had been wrecked in the Spanish Civil War. We had been allowed to go part way up one of the towers to look across at some of the stonework of the roof before heading to the crypt and a display of models.
They have come a long way in fifteen years. The interior now soars higher than any Cathedral I have visited. The pillars are elegant and end in complex stylized flowers. There is a vast open span. Jesus on the cross hangs at one end under an odd umbrella of lanterns. Above the door opposite a brooding Darth Vadar figure looks down on the proceedings. As you look more closely you notice the galleries, shells of stone fronted by a ribbon of clear glass, which undulate along the walls to either side. Higher still the view from the gods must be dizzying. But the wonderful part is the light. In the corridor by the entrance beams of blue and green light pour in from the stained glass illuminating the arched roof with a flowing aurora. On the opposite wall the windows hold red and yellow glass and I thought the light probably bathed that area in the evening, but no as we crossed the floor and drew closer to those windows, we passed into the sunset glow painting the archways there and looking back the blues and greens had faded away in the vastness. The movement of the sun is mapped as all round the walls ovals of white light slide along the columns from high clear windows, too slow for the naked eye to notice, but shown in video footage on screens. At noon the bells chimed and the whole place reverberated with the strokes, which climbed the octave in groups of four. Glass windows near the floor looked down into the basement a long way below. It looked like the nave of a very plain church down there and red, electric candles flickered on a stand.
We went down into the secular part of the basement. There were all the models and sketches I so enjoyed last time we visited. I particularly like the hoards of tiny leather bags suspended on networks of string used to show where the columns should be built to support the weight of the roof. In some cases mirrors are used to show how the network inverts to give the patterns of the Cathedral ceiling. I imagine all the cats-cradles Gaudi wove and rejected in the process. There are also drawings on which Gaudi has scribed cross sections in ellipse shapes. The models on display are reconstructions of those destroyed when Gaudi’s workshop below the Cathedral was vandalized during the attacks on it during the Civil War, but now the Cathedral itself is rising from the rubble of that destruction.
It was time for us to rise too, up into the Passion Tower. Luckily there is a very modern lift and a polite attendant to take us up in it. It is a one-way journey and took hardly any time at all. The attendant ushered us out, indicating the route to follow for the views and the steps back down. We were able to look across at the bobbley tops of some of the smaller towers and down at the crowds far far below us. The tops have been faced with ceramic fruits since our last visit, which lends an odd Carmen Miranda touch to the building. I prefer the way the dark tentacles of the spires used to grasp the sky and hope there are not plans afoot to clothe the whole structure and turn it into a Disney castle. We shuffled along behind a gilded Christ figure looking down at the street below. John was not happy with the views down and after taking photographs we headed for the stairway down.
At first the sone steps wound round the lift shaft, comfortably wide enough for one person, nice and even with solid walls on both sides. At intervals there were slit windows, to let in the light and allow you to gauge your progress. We were now level with the tops of the baubled towers. We came to a halt behind a queue of people and stood awhile. Then a woman in front of John said “ Right I’m ready now!” and we moved forward. We then realised why she had hesitated for the stairs became a narrow spiral, the center of which twisted round an open void. The gap was not wide enough to merit safety measures, but enough to turn the stomach. We kept to the wall, held onto the rail and just kept on going. Eventually we emerged into the body of the Cathedral and the murmur of the crowds. On the floor there the passion is drawn out in mosaic and the cloister contains modern materials and techniques, which seem entirely in keeping. I wonder what Gaudi would have got up to with a laser cutter and modern glass.
Back out on the street we ventured down into the Metro and managed to buy tickets from the machine and find the right line for the Place de Catalonia, where we wandered through the fountains and balloon sellers and onto the Ramblas. We walked down one side of the boulevard, which carries a faint whiff of drains. It would have been more pleasant to walk under the crossing branches of the plane trees in the central pedestrian area with its florist stalls, but for the marauding mob of a British stag party parading down it waving a blow up doll. John managed to find the turn in to the large square with restaurant umbrellas flanking the ochre buildings and luckily the mob passed it by.
We found a table overlooking the fountain and watched the tumblers and violin players over lunch. We both had the menu of the day, enjoyed wonderful gazpacho, of dark cherries with slivers of goats cheese and then shared an indifferent cod and asparagus paella, but the coffee was good and the atmosphere lovely.