I’ve just spent three days in Barcelona. It was the first time I’ve been away from London on something other than business in how long I genuinely cannot recall.
I hadn’t been to the city in almost twelve years, and my previous visit was a very different one. Back then, I spent a month in and around Barcelona with my Chicago Connection, both of us on a retreat from reality. Although it can be as expensive as any other large European city (particularly, as I found out this time out, if you’re doing anything with small children), it can also be incredibly cheap, if you know where to shop. This weekend, at one point shortly after arriving in town, my family and I alighted on the Placa de George Orwell. It had added a children’s playground since last I had seen it, a handy thing for it to have in the instance in which I re-discovered the place. My wife looked after the kids while I scouted the nearby environs for somewhere we could all eat. As I did so, I was glad to see that most of the seedy, cheap as chips bars my Chicago Connection and I drank in all those years ago have somehow survived; survived everything, from the 2008 crash onwards, still able to sell beer at insanely low prices. Of course, the Barri Gotic and the old city still looked exactly the same as well, but that wasn’t surprising – short of tearing it all down and starting again, that part of Barcelona will almost certainly look roughly the same in 2116. Perhaps even the same cheap bars will be plying their trade.
I did one thing on this trip that I hadn’t previously done, even during the whole month I had stayed in Barcelona: I went inside the Sagrada Familia. We were staying right next to it, so it seemed a shame not to. The first thing to note about this notable building is that despite having been started in 1882, it still isn’t finished. It’s expected to be done completely in 2026, which will actually be the centenary of the death of its architect, Antoni Gaudi. Thus, it has no history of being in any sense a real, functioning basilica. It was only consecrated in 2010, and since then it only gives intermittent church services in Catalan and Spanish. In fact, there is a whole other church in its basement that acts more as a real church that the main building itself – there seems to be a metaphor in there somewhere. The second thing to take into account when discussing the Sagrada Familia is that no picture you could ever see of it can really give a sense of its epic hugeness – it is absolutely titanic in scale.
But what really struck me about the Sagrada Familia is that it is a massive white elephant in a sense; a very large building that will never be truly used for its intended purpose. In balancing the building’s intended use as a church and its commercial and practical reality of being a major tourist attraction, the latter has hands down won, and will continue to do so, even after the building is complete. For what audience is there for a Roman Catholic church the size of a large American shopping mall just north of Avenue Diagonal in Barcelona? Will they stop charging for entrance and try and make it the equivalent of a local parish? Won’t that make the ridiculous size of the thing and the literally epic length of time it took to build a bit of a cruel joke?
But yet it will be there for all the world to see, one of the great buildings of the world. And people will flock from all over the globe to see it. Perhaps this is why the trip made me think of the current debate over the European Union – although the EU does something different to what it was intended for originally, it has found an important niche to fill, and we would all miss it if it went away. Even those who complain about how ghastly it is, like some locals in Barcelona still do about the famous, uncompleted church. Sometimes we need things like these more than we would care to admit.