I have a few travel rules. Only a few.
- Do not eat at a restaurant where the menu is in more than two languages (the local language and English). Preferably, there shouldn’t be an English menu at all.
- Never underestimate the power of (a) a thermal and (b) a travel umbrella.
- Avoid eating seafood if you’re not close to a significant body of water.
- Thongs will always be the most comfortable travel shoe, but not always the most appropriate.
- Never pay to enter a church.
I’ve broken all of these rules at different stages of my travels. I’ve eaten at a restaurant that had a menu even in RUSSIAN in Bruges. I’ve nearly frozen to death on the streets of London in a t-shirt. In November. I’ve eaten smoked salmon, tuna steak and prawns in Madrid. I’ve worn thongs on top of the Swiss Alps. And, this summer, I paid to enter a church.
You see, this no paying to get in church rule really sucks sometimes. But I’m a woman of principles (I have way too many businesses on my hit list) and I had to stick to my guns.
The thing is, I was baptised Catholic. Millions of Catholics all over the globe look up to the Vatican, but when I first went to check out the popey’s digs, I was shocked.
I couldn’t believe the excess, the wealth and the in-your-face feel to it all. It made me feel sick; all the priceless artwork so superfluous that lots weren’t even on show, the souvenir shops in every second room and the gorgeous Sistine Chapel reduced to sharing similar acoustics to a school gym. I hated it and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
So I don’t like the whole idea of paying to enter churches. I’ll give donations to climb their towers, but that’s it. I know many have an entrance fee to pay for maintenance work, but I don’t understand why the Vatican can’t sell some of their Raphaels, Carvaggios or Titans to fund it. Better yet, I’d love them to feed Africa with those paintings, too.
However, there is a church in a certain part of the world that is kind of a big deal. You see, it’s one of the few non-ABCs in Europe (‘Another Bloody Church’ I call many of them when guiding). It’s called La Sagrada Familia and it’s in Barcelona, Spain.
I’d visited La Sagrada Familia twice prior to this summer. The first time, I popped out of the adjoining metro station, walked around its perimeter and decided I’d rather pay for a tour of FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou than see its inside.
Ahem. And who calls me a snob?
The second time was four years later, and I was on a bike tour during my tour guide training trip. There had been progress on its construction, though not a lot. I didn’t go in – I didn’t have the chance to – but it didn’t really bother me. The outside was impressive enough.
For those who haven’t had the chance to visit Barcelona yet (you must, by the way) La Sagrada Familia is the most famous work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, who changed the face of Barcelona at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s been under construction since 1882, and isn’t expected to be finished for at least another twenty years. I personally don’t think it will be finished anytime during my lifetime.
This summer, La Sagrada Familia started to get to me. I had a few stints of days off in Barcelona (which just so happens to be one of my favourite cities in the world) and had begun to know the city relatively well. Yet I still hadn’t been inside its most famous landmark.
I read up a bit on the church. It’s actually a basilica – not to be confused with the fifteenth century Barcelona Cathedral in the Gothic Quarter – and only was consecrated as a church two years ago. The Catholic Church wasn’t too impressed with the design at first and refused to have anything to do with the project for years. This has meant everyone who’s had a look at the basilica – read: us tourists – has paid to build it instead. I quite liked that.
So I bit the bullet. I paid my entrance fee – online and with a student discount – and headed inside. And yes, I was pretty impressed. Here’s a bit of what I saw.
I spent quite a while inside. It felt so happy, so light and not at all like a church. It really felt like the public had built it. Whilst countless churches in the Netherlands are being closed or turned into bookstores and pubs, the line for La Sagrada Familia was around the block. People vote with their feet.
(Oh, and definitely book your visit online. You get to pop a smug look on your face and jump the queue.)
Entry to La Sagrada Familia didn’t just include a walk around a church. An exhibit many forgot about was in the basement, which told the history of the basilica’s construction, and I spent just as much time in here as in the church itself. I didn’t get an audio guide because I usually hate them, but there’s plenty of information points all over.
So I sold out. I paid to enter a church. I haven’t done so since; the next week I visited the Barcelona Cathedral for the third time. With an entrance fee levied between one and five in the afternoon, I timed my visit for five thirty.