When we visited Barcelona three weeks ago, my excitement was threefold: 1) I was there to celebrate my brother- and -sister-in-laws 25th wedding anniversary; 2) I was about to revisit La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a magical place I have kept alive in my memory since my first visit 13 years ago and 3) I was finally going on vacation.
I remembered Barcelona as a beautiful, thriving, architecturally stimulating city of friendly people. I remembered La Sagrada Familia as a sacred space in the middle of the city that brought me such as sense of calm and well-being that I had no doubt that God was present within its walls.
Would Barcelona and La Sagrada Familia live up to my memories? Or had I blown that first visit completely out of proportion?
We arrived at night and were whisked off to the family apartment, where we stayed up late enjoying the company of half of my husband’s immediate family. It wasn’t until the next morning that we ventured out into the city. After a lovely morning exploring a local flea market, followed by a too-short visit to a national museum, we headed to La Sagrada Familia in time for our afternoon reservation.
Sometimes expectations and built up anticipation are the perfect recipe for disappointment. But the funny thing about La Sagrada Familia is that it will never be exactly as someone remembers it, since it has been undergoing construction since 1862 with estimates of completion in 2026. Although several architects have worked on it throughout the years, it is Antonio Gaudi’s organic design that defines the building we now see. He took over the project in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926.
As we waited outside in line, I looked to the exterior, awe firmly intact. But when we finally made it inside, tears filled my eyes. Despite the crowds, the heat, clicks of cameras and cell phones all around me, its sacredness had not diminished. If anything, it had expanded.
In my second novel The Things We Said in Venice, travel vlogger Alexi visits La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona–one of many stops on her international trip. Here is a passage from my novel about this sacred place designed by Antonio Gaudi.
As she edges inside, the hushed murmurs of the crowd convey awe and wonder that mimics her own. The building is spacious, filled with light. Off-white columns rise skyward like trees. Flower-shaped stained-glass windows bathe the walls in gold, green and orange. The vaulted nave soars forty-five meters high. She has seen this sacred church in books, read about it online, but nothing could have prepared her for this moment.
~ Chapter 3, The Things We Said in Venice
Although Alexi is a fictional character in my novel, we nonetheless have a few things in common. We both like visiting churches when we travel, and we always light a candle for someone when we’re there.
My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were married in La Sagrada Familia, and thus part of the festivities was to attend a Catholic mass in the lower chapel of the church with friends and family on Sunday. The priest, who said he would mention them during the service, actually seemed to shape his sermon around love and commitment and called them out time and time again during the mass. To accommodate the visitors from The Netherlands (the majority of the groom’s family), they asked my husband to do a reading from the Bible in Dutch.
This lower chapel is at the basement level, thus visitors on the ground floor can peer over the balcony at the church-goers and observe the religious as a curiosity, or perhaps experience a moment of connection with faith.
Something that intrigued me about Barcelona when I visited so long ago was the idea that two languages were spoken in this city: Spanish and Catalonian. I didn’t fully get the history of this difference at the time, but seeing signs throughout the city in two languages had made an impression on me back in 2004.
When we visited last month, we saw the Catalonian flag flying from balconies and saw signs with the flag throughout the city with the word “Si” printed above it. While sipping cava at the anniversary party at a beautiful restaurant, I asked my Catalonian table mate Marta J. about the Catalonian flag hanging from so many balconies and what the “si” was all about. She explained the long standing and ever-growing tensions between the Catalonians and the Spanish government. A large section of the Catalonian population wants independence, but the Spanish government is adamantly opposed to secession. The flag was a reminder to vote “Si” or “No” during the upcoming referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, even though the judicial branch of the government had deemed the referendum illegal / was not giving credence to Catalonia’s right to voice its will.
I thought of the beginnings of my own country of origin, how bloody hard our ancestors fought for freedom from the crown and how that freedom formed The United States. I felt sorry for the Catalonians, trapped within a larger country that did not honor their independence and apparently didn’t value their contribution to society. It’s not like they could sail across the world and discover a new land and set up there. They were already home.
The tension between Catalonia and the Spanish government is nothing new, and somehow, in my short visit years ago, I picked up on that tension. In fact, it playfully made a cameo in my 2017 novel. In this passage, travel vlogger Alexi is filming a vlog post for her followers, and imparts a bit of cultural knowledge, while providing insight into her own character with Catalonia as metaphor.
“This city is beautiful, the people friendly, but there is a strange duality here. The signs are both in Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is a unique language quite similar to Spanish that is only spoken in four provinces known as the Catalonia region of Spain. The history of Catalonia and the reason for a separate language within Spain is a bit complicated, but just Google it and you can get the scoop.
“So I’m like Barcelona. I have two languages within me; two cultures coming together. I’m not talking about actual languages, but rather a duality of personalities. Although friendly and comfortable in one-on-one situations, I’m actually quite shy in my day-to-day life. I work in counseling, and my clients value me. But now I’m on a one-year sabbatical, discovering another me — my freedom, my individuality, the Catalonia within me.”
~ Alexi during a vlog post in The Things We Said in Venice
Our five-day trip to Barcelona ended the first week of September, but Barcelona was definitely in my thoughts as October 1st approached. This is the day Catalonians would attempt to vote for their independence from Spain.
This video from The Guardian gives a quick impression of how that turned out.
I, like many people throughout the world, was shocked to witness the violence in Barcelona captured on the news and social media. Just a few weeks earlier I had only witnessed sunshine, peacefulness and beauty. The police brutality and denial of the right for Catalonians to hold a referendum recalls harsher chapters in Spain’s history. Is this the face the Spanish government wants to show the world?
To add a little background, consider these words from the website Armstrong Economics: In the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence.
A bit more research reveals that in 2006, this statute of autonomy was challenged by Spain’s high court of justice, and there have been growing protests throughout Catalonia ever since.
Will the international community come to Catalonia’s defense? Unless there are rich natural resources to usurp or threats of mass genocide, it seems the international community is rather reluctant to get involved in civil debates–though civil hardly seems like the proper term here.
Just as I was about to publish my post, a friend who had just had a romantic weekend getaway in Barcelona, sent me pictures from her trip. Based on the smiling faces, the gorgeous Mediterranean sea, the lovely touristic shots, life in Barcelona continues despite the protests on both sides.
One of the last shots she sent me seemed to be the perfect way to end this post.
If you are interested in knowing more about my travel romance The Things We Said in Venice, please visit my other blog: www.authorkristinanderson.com. Or, visit Amazon to download a free sample, or what the heck, purchase one.
Kristin in Holland