When I was 18, I went to Israel as part of a Birthright trip. I was raised as a reform Jew, pretty relaxed and unorthodox, although my parents are by no means non-believers. At 18, I was definitely going through my jaded atheist phase. As part of the trip, we went to Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall, which is probably the holiest site according to Jewish religious tradition. People told me that the Western Wall would move me, that I would feel God’s presence, or something.
I didn’t feel anything but cold stone. (Mostly, I was annoyed that the wall was divided into a men’s sections and a women’s section, with the latter being considerably smaller and more crowded. But that’s a feminist rant for another day.)
Now fast-forward almost eight years. I’m still not a religious person, although considerably less dismissive than I was at 18. But inside Sagrada Familia, I couldn’t help but feel something special. There was a connection, as though the place was alive. I certainly haven’t converted to Catholicism, but if there’s any place that can make you stand in awe of life, the universe, and everything, that place is Sagrada Familia.
Antoni Gaudí is Barcelona’s best-known architect, and for good reason. Often drawing from the structures and designs found in nature, he created buildings where light and space are used to create a feeling of openness and harmony rather than simply create shelter from the outside world. It’s almost like when Westerners try to talk about chi or feng shui, without the cultural appropriation of Asian mysticism. (Although let’s be honest: he was a white European in the late nineteenth century. He probably appropriated Asian mysticism at some point.)
Gaudí’s designs are beautiful yet practical. No detail is left to chance; everything is designed with a purpose, from the shape of doorknobs made to fit the curve of a hand, to the color of tiles or glass to create the illusion of even lighting throughout a multi-story light well.
I can’t claim to know anything about religion or God, seeing as I don’t subscribe to any beliefs myself. But if you go to Barcelona, you should see the buildings Gaudí designed, especially Sagrada Familia. I don’t know what it is, but you can feel it, poring through the light in every window, the arch of every vault, the stone of every pillar. Something akin to the holy spirit, that’s for sure.
Note for actual trip planning:
All of Gaudí’s buildings in Barcelona are owned by different people or organizations, so unfortunately there is no special ticket or pass to see them all. The tickets can be a bit pricey, but they are definitely worth it. The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia tickets range from 15 – 29€, depending on if you want an audio guide, a guided tour, or access to the towers. Reserve tickets a day in advanced on the website so you don’t have to wait in line.
I also went to Casa Batlló, which was 24€ with an audio guide. I think the audio guide is worth the price, as it points out a lot of features of the design and architecture that I would’ve missed, so I learned a lot. Again, buy your tickets online to skip the wait.