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Barcelona's Towering Sandcastle

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

From a distance, I’ve always thought the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain looked like an elaborate sandcastle. On my 2006 visit to the city, I saw it dominating the heart of the city, towering 560 feet and casting an intimidating shadow. On that trip, I never got very close to it, so on our visit in 2019, visiting the unique basilica became a priority.

Antoni Gaudi began the project back in 1882, and it remains unfinished, with a planned 2026 completion goal. Generations have worked on it, most knowing they’d never live to see it in its final state. There’s something poetic about this, the idea of working as a community, each generation adding their own skills and knowledge. I could apply this idea to something like global warming, the need for a generation’s unselfishness, to do their part for a future they may never live to see. There’s something lovely about that idea, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Lessons to be gleaned from this massive structure, a physical and tangible manifestation of humanity at its unselfish, visionary best.

Because it’s been under constant construction for the last 140 years, every shot of the iconic basilica is framed with skyward-bound cranes hovering over it, which detracts from the awe, at least from a distance. But as Christine and I walked the final block toward it, after finishing our coffees at a neighborhood sidewalk café, the structure loomed impressively, so much bigger in scope than I’d previously perceived. Up close, I noticed the hundreds, if not thousands, of intricate carvings that covered almost every space of the basilica’s façade. I wondered aloud if Disney’s Tree of Life in their Animal Kingdom park lifted the idea for their elaborately-carved tree. The towering walls are pocked with carvings of saints, soldiers, and, most interestingly, animals and scenes from nature. Gaudi wanted his masterpiece to embrace not just Roman Catholicism but the natural world as well, that these things should exist symbiotically, perhaps the reason for its naturalistic color and appearance, as though it had spouted up from the ground itself.

Christine loves visiting churches and cathedrals all over Europe. She loves the architecture and aesthetics, places of communal connection, but perhaps most importantly places of quiet contemplation. Her favorite in all of Europe is probably the Salzburg Cathedral in Salzburg, Austria, mainly for its natural light filtering through the unpainted windows, this beacon in her favorite city in the world. We’ve toured St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City in Rome, but also a lot of smaller chapels, such as the tiny stone church at the top of a hill in the Cliffside village of Montessori in Italy’s Cinque Terre, where we hard monks chanting from a back room.

But La Sagrada Familia is a different entity altogether. There is no other cathedral like, not just on the outside but inside as well. It’s a massive, cavernous space, the white, arched ceiling looking like it’s a mile above. I notice that there are no straight lines to be found, by design. Gaudi wanted his basilica to look like it was born from nature, that it hadn’t been touched by man’s hand at all but was created organically, the mile-high ceiling covered in a canopy that reminds me of the undersides of mushrooms. “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature,” Gaudi said. For instance, the structure’s massive pillars stretch to the ceiling but curve slightly, their bases spreading almost like roots. I think of the coastal redwoods we saw in Northern California, centuries-old ancestors stretching toward the heavens. But I also look at the rows of white pillars, the curvature, the way they bow inward like monstrous wishbones, and I imagine the inside of a whale, Pinocchio and Gepetto trapped inside the belly of the beast. More than that, though, the interior of the basilica actually makes me think of something else other than nature. Not to be too corny, or hyperbolic, but I feel, walking through the arched doors into this colossal space, that I’ve perhaps stepped into heaven itself. Its scope dwarfs us, the architecture otherworldly, the soft whites of the pillars and ceiling. But it’s the soft pastels of the stained-glass windows that complete the illusion. Natural sunlight filters into the space in angelic shafts, the colors unlike any I’d seen in any other church. I think of Dorothy stepping out of her crashed black-and-white house and into the color-popped fantasy of Oz. Delicate colors slice the vacuous space: magenta, powder blues, a hazy yellow, filtering the entire cathedral in a beautiful and serene aura. Christine and I stand in the center of the floor, our heads tilted back at its infinite size, and let the colors bathe us in Crayola sunshine.

* * *

Later, we met up with our friends from back home who happened to be in Barcelona for their honeymoon. We got tapas and drinks and then walked the promenade following playa de la Barcelona and its collection of yachts moored in the port. Palm trees lined the street, the late summer sun dropping behind the mountains to the west, the Mediterranean Sea alighting. We eventually landed back at their hotel and had drinks on the rooftop bar, the night stretching out and the booze oiling the joints the way it can only in summer and only with friends. We talked about the Sagrida Familia—trying to restrain from over-selling it, to let them discover it themselves. They had tickets for the following day. We told them we’d run into actor Steve Carell, who was with his family and just as awestruck by the cathedral as we were.

A lunar eclipse shadowed the moon, a small gesture of natural art to punctuate this final night in Europe, the end of our nearly month-long voyage across six countries. We ordered another round and clinked a toast their marriage and our friendship and the night, the eclipse decorating the Spanish sky above us, reminding me of Gaudi and his ambitious tribute to nature and connection and love, and all that is good in the world.

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