Europe in January 2017 – The Third Day

On the third day of the January 2017 trip to Spain and Italy, your intrepid travellers arose (very) early in order to the catch the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona. This train, operated by Renefe, travels at close to 300 km/h, making the journey from Madrid to Barcelona just a touch over two and a half hours.

Leaving Madrid well before the sun had risen provided the opportunity to watch the sunrise from our train carriage as we sped along the Spanish plains towards the northern Mediterranean coast and the city of Barcelona.

Barcelona is, of course, situated in Catalunya, a part of Spain that has been seeking formal independence from the central government for many years. The Catalan people have their own dialect of the Spanish language (which description they may not like) and very proudly use that in preference to the more traditional Spanish. They are very close granted, but the presence of multi-lingual signs featuring two different dialects of Spanish makes it clear that the Catalunyans really do see themselves as different to the rest of Spain.

The primary purpose of our visit to Barcelona was to see the famous (and as yet incomplete) Basilica de la Sagrada Familia or to give the building its full name, the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, the Basilica has been under construction since 1882. It is often described as a wonderful of architectural design and construction but I have to confess that it did nothing for me.

The facade of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The external part of the building looked like an unfortunate blend of old and new with one appearing to melt into the other at whim (though I suspect there was nothing whimsical about it at all). The external visage, when I first viewed it, was jarring to the point of distraction, and try as I might I could find very little ‘beauty’ in the facades I could see. Does that make me a philistine?

The interior of the basilica was slightly less jarring if only because there was no mix of old and new. The design was consistent throughout the main floor, a very open and modernist large church building. The use of colours, particularly in the stained glass, was intriguing, and certainly added to the ‘openness’ of the space, which could only be described as light, breezy. There were some architectural features that were very impressive, but my overall sense of the building is that it is more a work of art than a church designed for the celebration of liturgy.

Perhaps that’s the danger of a liturgist exploring a church building. I always tend to explore and assess the building on the basis of how it might be used for what the purpose it was constructed – i.e. for the celebration of liturgy.

And for me, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia didn’t work liturgically.

After what I considered a disappointing visit to la Sagrada Familia we explored some of the Latin quarter of Barcelona, little back alleys and small streets, hidden plazas and buildings of significance, including the Catedral de Barcelona, a building that dates back to 1298. In comparison with the previous church, this building is particularly moving, with side chapels devoted to many a saint, a cloister that includes the provision of geese (yes, Bishop Bill, there is definitely some planning and plotting going on), and the cathedra of the Archbishop of Barcelona that has been occupied by the current and all past holders of that ecclesiastical office.

The Cathedral of Barcelona from the plaza in front

The Cathedral has new and old components, but the difference is that that they have been brought together in a more harmonious way. And there’s the rub; there was a consistency to what those responsible for the building have attempted to contrive. And it worked.

After exploring these two churches, it was time for a late lunch and then the trip back to Madrid via the high-speed train (we so need these in Australia!).

It was a long day, but a rewarding day, and well worth the effort make the trip to Barcelona.