Anyway: Barcelona. It was amazing, at least to me, who hadn’t had time to read up on it before we went. Our reason for going was mainly to see the Gaudi architecture, which I knew about, vaguely. I’d seen pictures of strange, tiled buildings, and kind of realised that the cathedral that Gaudi had started to build was still not finished and was still being worked on. But I had no idea exactly how much it wasn’t finished. And visiting this on Tuesday – the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (expiatory temple of the sacred family) - was a real highlight of the trip – in fact one of the highlights of my life. Maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly; though one has to bear in mind that my life hasn’t been all that exciting… .
Unlike my expectations - which were that there would be a plasterer or two patting the last tile into place - the whole cathedral is a huge, enormous, gigantic building site. Which sounds bad but which is actually fantastically exhilarating. Because you’ll never be on such a huge, grand, ambitious building site again. It’s as if you were transported back 800 years to the building of some mediaeval cathedral – Worcester or Lincoln, maybe – and could watch the workmen tapping out the carving at the top of the pillars high above your head.
Huge, soaring pillars, an enormous roof, beautiful stained glass - and meanwhile chaps down on the floor mixing moulds for leaf and tree trunk shapes, or standing around drinking cups of coffee or consulting plans or sweeping up messy bits. And birds flying in and out.
I’ve visited lots of very old cathedrals and thought – wow, what must this have been like to build? And now you can see what it must have been like – give or take modern scaffolding and cranes and cement mixers and protective headgear and – presumably – fewer unfortunates plunging to their deaths. But in essence it’s the same – men (yes, they were all men, at least when we were there) plodding on with their work and – very very gradually - achieving something astonishing. Gaudi died in 1926 when he was knocked down by a tram, but he was 76 at this stage and must have known that he’d never see his cathedral finished. Work then came to a halt and didn’t start again till 1952; but that was a while ago now, and it’s still only about a quarter built, I’d say. It’s hard to imagine that it’ll ever be finished – for one thing, they need to knock down a whole lot of the surrounding buildings to make the cathedral into the cross shape that’s planned. And the cost of it – completely unimaginable. And we live in a much more unbelieving age than that of Gaudi, so how many people still want to expiate anything in honour of the sacred family? I’ve no idea. And yet it goes on.
The temptation in the end – for some future government in some future Spain - will surely be to leave it as it then is, which even now is very impressive, with its strange spires which look like iced decorations on a slightly melted fairy castle cake complete with fancy spoons on the top, and its pillars which look like trees, and its various carvings and tiled bosses and its stairs which curl like apple peel cut off in one piece.
Was Gaudi right to devote – as he did – the last part of his life entirely to this project? I’d have to say yes. It was completely mad, but what do most of us leave behind when we die? Not a lot. A few memories with a few grandchildren for a few decades. Which is fine – it wouldn’t do if we all built cathedrals, and I’d personally rather have grandchildren. But… well, if you’ve not been to Barcelona, let me urge you to go, despite the possibility of the engines falling off your plane.