Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Barcelona - Part Three (La Sagrada Familia)

Tuesday. The second day of our bus tour of Barcelona. Having again failed to find anywhere suitable for breakfast (we don't manage a single breakfast in the entire week we are here as it turns out) we are heading towards the Olympic Port, the starting point of the bus tour's alternative route.

Our first destination is La Sagrada Familia. This is the unfinished work of the much talked about Antoni Gaudi, the architect who designed pretty much every significant building in Barcelona, and with whom there is something of an obsession in the city and in Catalonia in general. He's even more popular than One Direction and Justin Bieber. Imagine that. Gaudi knew he wouldn't live long enough to finish his last great masterpiece, but it probably still came as something of a shock when he was knocked down by a tram and killed in 1926. He was 74 years old, and probably not quick enough to get out of the way.

What he did manage to do was leave strict instructions to others working on the project as to how the finished article should look. Eighty-eight years later they still haven't quite managed to fulfill his vision, making it about the longest running project since David Beckham started his GCSE in Spanish. Despite it's incompletion, La Sagrada Familia is still open to visitors, and attracts them in their thousands.

There is an enormous queue as we get off the bus and approach the vast building. Queuing creates a most complex dilemma for wheelchair users. To join or not to join? You never quite know what to do. I've been dragged out of queues by fussy staff, looking at me as if I am from Mars for having taken the ridiculous decision to try to wait in line with the 'normal' people, but I have also been left to wait, and wait, and wait, and wait in queues. Both of these extremes took place on the same day in Berlin airport in December 2010, but that is a story you can read elsewhere on these pages.

We decide to play dumb and ask one of the many tour guides patrolling the line about wheelchair access. Then with a nudge and a wink and a 'know what I mean?' we are ushered to the front of the queue and asked to wait by a small turnstile. Earlier, I had noticed that admission to La Sagrada Familia is 16 Euros each. Normally you would have to pay me to go into a place of worship, but this is in the name of tourism and is therefore different. I needn't have worried as the guide is soon opening a small gate and waving us through without any reference to the small matter of paying to get in.

We are now inside the gates, right in front of this ridiculously large structure. La Sagrada Familia is a basilica, as opposed to a cathedral. Despite appearances, La Sagrada Familia is not a basilica because of it's barely credible massiveness. Rather, and since you insist on knowing the difference, a basilica is a place that has received a Papal blessing. All of which means that Pope Benedict the whatever-he-is approves of it on some level and has publicly demonstrated this. Well, he can't fault the architecture. Unless he is overly fussy about the fact that it is not finished, obviously.

To our right is a small kiosk selling headsets. You could, if you were really troubled by the idea of spending an extra 2 Euros, just go inside La Sagrada Familia and try to find your own way around. After all, it's only an overgrown church, right? However, if like us you haven't spent anything yet and are far too lazy to try to work out for yourself what any of it means then you will be well served by picking up a headset. It provides you with an audio guide, although at certain points during the tour mine keeps stopping as if the commentary is being provided by the same people who edited the clip of John Terry shouting obscenities at Anton Ferdinand. That's problematic enough, but when you are in an environment about which you know precisely nothing it makes things all the more difficult.

I'm not into God. Let me tell you about God. Actually, don't. We'll be here all day with me ranting on about how he never makes anything good happen, only the bad, horrendous shit that I have seen happen to others in my life. In any case I have come to the view that God, while his existence is 99.9% impossible, is an effective placebo. God will never physically help you do anything, but if the mind convinces itself that God exists and that He has made wonderful things happen, then in a roundabout sort of way He has. It's like giving an athlete a suspicious looking pill and telling him that it will make him faster and stronger, and then revealing that it was only a sugar pill. Having believed he was taking something to improve his performance, chances are the athlete's perfomance will have improved. Or in the case of one person I know, sucking on a cider lolly at the age of 12 and believing yourself to be innebriated. God works for some people, despite his lack of basis in reality.

Before we even enter the building we take a wrong turn. Outside La Sagrada Familia (which by the way means the Holy Family) is some very uneven terrain. It's accessible only if you are profficient at pushing up mountains. I am a reasonably mobile wheelchair user but I would not have been able to take certain parts of this tour on my own. This includes my visit to the toilet, which involves rolling down a practically vertical drop masquerading as a ramp, while all the while trying to avoid the scores of people coming out of the toilet areas. I've never been absailing with a crowd around me, but if I did I should imagine it would be something like trying to use the disabled toilets at La Sagrada Familia. Anyway, the wrong turn. Had we turned left we would have reached Point 1 on the tour, the idea being to stop there and take in the views of the 'facade' (front) of the basilica while listening to the description and history behind it. Instead we turned right, only because we couldn't see Point 1 and, with no instructions accompanying the headsets we had purchased, had no concept of Point 1 or Point Anything Else until we had missed Point 1. We turned right because the path to the facade and the front door of La Sagrada Familia looked closer and flatter that way. Basic, basic error.

At this point I could describe the breathtaking architecture, the detailed, beautifully crafted sculptures and their religious and historical significance, but like the Grand Canyon and Dirk Kuyt's first touch, it is something which has to be seen to be believed. My describing it here would be entirely superfluous. To summarise, Jesus is fairly well represented, as are Mary and the Wise Men. And Pontious Pilate. Dirk Kuyt doesn't even make the subs bench, which is the way it should be and always should have been.

Once inside the audio tour comes into it's own. The numbered stopping points have started to make sense to me, althouth there is one occasion when we are instructed to leave the basilica by the open door on our right to view something or other, but look to our right to find no open door, or doors of any description. A look in all other directions tells the same story. There are no open doors leading to anything or anywhere. While looking around in a slight state of confusion I am asked by one staff member to remove my hat. Not being a church person I had forgotten that cricket hats aren't really church-going items of headware. Perhaps I should have brought my trilby. Anyway, I remove my hat feeling a little chastened, and never find the open door of which the audio commentary is still speaking. Near the end of the tour we come across a wonderful irony. A lift that is only accessible to people who can walk up a small flight of steps. To give tourists an even grander view of their surroundings, La Sagrada Familia has two towers, each of which is equipped with a lift to carry visitors to a higher vantage point. Yet the steps leading up to the lift's entrance exclude me.

Regardless, I never before thought it possible to spend two hours of any sort, much less interesting hours, in a place of worship. Until now. The tour is informative (in the main) and the architecture is a modern miracle.

And you have to remember we got in free.

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