All in the Sagrada Familia

My husband is working, so I am taking my in-laws to Sagrada Familia. We met them for a few days in Barcelona, a stop-off on their European tour, and I arranged daily excursions. We visited Park Guell earlier in the day. Afterward, I napped for too long in the chilled, blackout dark of a Sheraton hotel room, compliments of my in-laws. We hop in a cab because I got the time wrong for our tickets, which say we will only be allowed inside if we are less than half an hour late. Even with the cab, we will arrive 40 minutes past our start time. On the ride, I think about how much I have screwed up this experience before we even get there. “I don’t know if I have enough cash!” I blurt, rifling through my purse to find a way to pay for our trip. My mother-in-law has some, and I tell them we can at least look at the outside if we cannot get in. This is my second time visiting the cathedral. Still, the memory feels like another life, another person, like something I saw in a movie. As I remember it, that other person was an idiot.

Exterior under constant construction.

We are over 45 minutes late. The guard looks at our tickets at the entry and checks his watch. He glances at us, then looks at the tickets displayed on my phone again and his watch a second time. We don’t say shit. We adopt the silence people possess when there is an understanding that we have screwed up, but we hope no one will point it out. We stare calmly back. He waves us in. Whatever, he seems to shrug; thousands of people amble through this place a day, staring open-mouthed at the ceiling and stained glass, so a few more latecomers won’t matter.

Sagrada Familia is a religious fantasy, a meeting hall for aliens, a glorious immersion in color, and surprising features carved in stone. Even turkeys share the entryway with saints. Turkeys. Globs of rock and masonry melt into the exterior like a drip sandcastle. Inside, the columns supporting the ceiling contain egg-like finials, and staircases look as if they were made by an insect slowly building the structure from masticated remnants of limestone, all drippy and smooth at the same time.

Over the apse, the ceiling lifts into a cone-like shape resembling lace. In this great room, I imagine stately creatures drifting about in shimmering robes, chittering or singing in notes too high for our primitive ears to hear while they decide the fates of other planets.

At this moment, the organ lays into a tune best suited for Dracula’s castle. We are thrown back into the bony grasp of the old religion, feeling the layers of time and modernity combined with the tinny music and kaleidoscope of light. At one end of the massive space, a cubist Saint George glowers down at us. His blockish head is solid bronze. At the other end, an emaciated Jesus, his ribs casting shadows on his stomach, dangles on a cross under a lit-up umbrella like a Cirque de Soleil performer being lowered to their starting point. He is sad and small as he gazes upward as if he is so very over all of us below him.

A $30 ticket buys you entry. Massive numbers of people flood through Sagrada Familia daily for a good reason, but the influx strains the experience too.

While they advise covering your shoulders and knees out of respect for the church, it is not enforced. Young women posing for their Instagram or TikTok show much more flesh. One woman smiles for her videographer while she preens in a red and black bustier and ass-cheek short crinoline skirt best suited for a Wild West whorehouse. Positioned by a staircase before one of the many stunning displays in stained glass, she twists one knee inward as if her naked legs dangle uselessly, like a puppet.

Please note: I will write about behaviors in public, but I will not photograph individuals without their consent, especially if the whole point is to analyze their brand of foolishness. We are all foolish. I’ve done plenty of silly things and worn stupid outfits myself, and Lord willing, I will continue to do so.

Although absurdly dressed, she is lovely, but her expression is as blank and sweet as a doll. Her fans may crave this when yanking it to her latest content – an absence of evidence of a sentient being. The whole look clashes with the stained glass behind her, even if it highlights her thigh gap. Other women have constructed outfits of flowing skirts, midriff-baring tops, and up-to-the-taint short shorts. After fixing their hair or lip gloss, they gaze up at the light filtering through the colored glass, practicing expressions of peace. Faint smiles, closed eyes as they lift their faces to receive the benevolence of the universe, or wide-eyed astonishment as if suddenly recognizing the face of god.

It is a tender god who loves, accepts them, and approves all of their social media choices, their expressions say. A god who whispers to them, “Sherry, you need to do a yoga pose right here. Right now.

Mostly, this makes them look smug and silly amongst the thousands walking past. But their photographers, either reluctant boyfriends or professionals with more than a phone to assist them, capture them from many angles, and they continue to occupy space that most of us are too polite to walk through. A few venture through shots, rolling their eyes or muttering, “Fuuuuuck this” under their breath.

The young women will make these photos marketable. In them, they will be beautiful, beneficent, sexy, or circumspect. They will radiate the light of well-being and certitude.

I also know I don’t take as many photos of myself as I used to because, for various reasons, I now resemble a toad. I imagine myself, toad-like, smirking in the golden light that flows over my face and chinless neck as I gaze up at my god. What god would condone what I was selling?

The density of influencers, the vloggers interspersed with regular tourists snapping a picture, become the teeming base of how you experience Sagrada Familia, like standing on a swarming anthill while looking at the Mona Lisa. Luckily, they cannot genuinely detract from the immense beauty of this space.

There are signs asking us to respect the worshippers in a particular area near the dangling Jesus, forever ready for his acrobatics. Still, no one is praying. Here, tourists chat and rest their feet from walking on stone all day to see the sites, looking up to snap more photos as they stretch and take a swig of water.

“This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” my father-in-law says. My mother-in-law is also awestruck but comments on the sometimes excessive exposure of the ladies. I agree because even if I don’t possess the faith that built this place, I cannot help but believe in following the most basic rules to experience it. “Can you imagine them letting someone make this today?” she says. “There’s nothing really about worship here, though.”

The cathedral is still in process; the years ahead will see it completed by 2026. Maybe.

Maybe not. Walking outside, more ladies are posing on the steps, and we walk around them to get a better view of the façade, backing up to the fencing that keeps those lacking tickets out. We don’t want to rush out of the cathedral as I often find myself doing in crowds. We want to stand our ground and enjoy it, believing everyone there was touched by the light we all saw.

General Tips:

  • This is one of the few sites I suggest experiencing organically, meaning don’t have a guide telling you what every object is or how to view it. You can read about the architect and structure in advance and look up individual aspects you are curious about later.
  • Sagrada Familia books far out, especially during tourist season. Buy your tickets online in advance directly from the cathedral’s website:
  • Cover your ass. No one needs to see that here, even if it looks good in the afternoon light filtering through the stained glass windows.
  • The crowds are intense. Do only one crowded thing a day to avoid being overwhelmed.