La Sagrada Familia

When in Barcelona, go to La Sagrada Familia. The church is visible from high points around the city, its yellow cranes making it even more conspicuous. But when walking at street level, it evades view until it is just a few blocks away.

Construction started in 1882, paused during the Spanish Civil War, began again in the 1950s, and is still underway. The current date for structural completion is 2026; a few years later for the artwork. Hopefully we will be able to take our kids to see the finished Basilica someday.

We watched one of the cranes lifting blocks skyward as we drank sangria waiting while for our entry time.

The Nativity Facade (eastern side).

The different sides look almost like completely different churches. The Nativity Facade on the east side is already showing age; the color is much darker from a hundred years of weather. It is very Gothic feeling, with lots of details and natural imagery. The four spires rise almost straight into the air.

The western Passion Facade is stark and modern with skeletal looking humans showing the scenes from the Crucifixion. Sections added in just the last few years are still bright white. Its pillars come outward and seem to welcome people in.

The Glory Facade exists in name and design posters only. A lot of concrete bases with rebar rising out the top stands where towers and the main doors will eventually go on the south side of the building.

A small part of the Passion Facade and part of a wall of stained glass.

Symbolism is rampant around the Basilica – there are scenes from the Bible and the history and saints of the Catholic church, representations of virtues, images of the natural world showcasing the variety of creation. There is a tree full of doves, trumpeting angels, symbols for the Apostles and Saints. Two of the eastern pillars rise from the backs of a turtle and tortoise – representing God’s creation and control of the sea and land.

Words on a door leading in from the Passion Facade, a tortoise holding up a pillar, seashell font, details from the doors leading in from the Nativity Facade.

The interior style is much more unified. It was completed and consecrated in 2010. Entering the nave is like walking into a forest – the pillars branch near the ceiling and seem to dissolve into a sky of stars and planets. In reality the inset circles each represent a saint or apostle.

Ceiling of the Nave, stained glass reflecting late afternoon light.

The light colors of the stone interior reflect dozens of stained glass windows, especially late in the afternoon. The windows are arranged to create rainbows of color as sunshine filters through; the entire area seems to glow.

At night, the completed facades are illuminated by flood lamps. Some of the lower details are lost, but it is easier to see the complexity of the spires. I think I prefer the exterior at night and I’m glad we got to see it that way.

The Basilica at night.


The Barcelona Cathedral is not as tall as La Sagrada Familia and will be further dwarfed once construction is complete, but it is just as breathtaking inside. We watched the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday evening. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the statue of Jesus be moved around the square to readings from the Gospel before being carefully ushered back into the church.

The Stations of the Cross in front of the Barcelona Cathedral.

MNACx2 & Wandering

Another free afternoon at MNAC! Still trying to make up for art we’ve seen but not shared…

This time we started with an even older collection of art from churches in the 1100-1200s. Dozens of murals were literally peeled off church walls in small towns in Catalonia and reattached to new backings. Arches and apses were recreated to their original dimensions, so it feels like a deconstructed church. I imagine the conservators working on the 900-year-old paint faced a very stressful job…

Angel with eyed wings from a  church mural (1150s), The Dice Players – Simo Gomez, a self-portrait, and dove from a church’s collection.

We also filled in the gaps from about 1800 to the 1900. It is really fun to imagine the lives of those pictured, and whether the artist liked the wife he drew so many times… or if she liked him.

Maria del Pilar Casanovas Fortuny, the Artist’s Wife – Dionis Balxeras, a slightly less serious girl, Baix Llobregat – Maria Pidelaserra.

One portrait appeared to be Bill Hader from SNL hiding behind a poorly-affixed mustache. Not sure I can explain how he ended up in a painting more than a century old.

Bill Hader? Why are you here?

There were some beautiful impressionist landscapes and lots of organic lines in work that both inspired and was inspired by Gaudi.

A darker period of work from the 1930s dealt with the Spanish Civil War. Brightly illustrated recruitment posters contrasted with artist’s renditions and photographs of destruction and civilian suffering.

Organic-feeling stained glass, watercolor of a Spanish Civil War battle,  A Party on Mobilisation Day – Daniel Sabater, guys have been smiling goofily since at least the 1920s.

On Sunday, we again attempted to go to Picasso Museum during free times, but found the line even longer than last week. Maybe a third time will be the charm! Instead, we headed to the beach. It wasn’t warm enough to swim but that didn’t stop the seafront restaurants from being crowded. Sangrias, seafood, and gelato were out in force. As were yachts so large that I initially mistook them for small cruise ships or naval vessels.

The Catalonian Parliament building and the beach.

To cap off the previous art & this post, here are some sightings from our walks.

Seen on buildings and in parks around the city (publicly funded and otherwise).

Maritime Museum

Sunday was a day we sent aside to wander the city; it was sunny and many museums are free late in the afternoon. We stumbled onto the Barcelona Marathon and a talented drumline cheering on the participants. Taking some advice from an English-Spanish language exchange, we went to a restaurant serving 1 Euro tapas all day – and discovered the joy of Spanish omelets. Five small sandwiches and onion rings later, we set out to the Arc de Triomf. It is almost impossible to walk around the city and not pass by at least a few churches. Sant Pau del Camp and Santa Maria del Mar happened to be on our path.

Sant Pau de Camp, the Arc de Triomf, Cascada Monumental in the Parc de la Ciutadella

The Arc de Triomf is noticeably smaller than the more famous one in Paris, but it is made out of stunning red brick. And rather than semi-isolated placement in a roundabout, Barcelona’s version leads into a pedestrian avenue that also served as part of the marathon route.

South from the Arc is the massive Parc de la Ciutadella. All of Barcelona seems to use it as their living room. People were doing gymnastics, practicing yoga, dancing in the pavilions, and having parties under the trees. One of the main meeting points in the park is the (slightly over-the-top) Cascada Monumental. With dragons, phoenixes, water nymphs, and gold horses, what’s not to love?

Santa Maria del Mar, park and promenade around the Arc de Triomf.

Our intended destination for the afternoon was the Picasso Museum, but hundreds of others had the same idea. The line was about two blocks long. A staffer mentioned a 75+ minute wait to get inside the entrance. Rather than contend with that much of a crowd, we opted to go to the Maritime Museum instead. Just a 15 minute walk away and no lines!

I like that the top sailing chart sort of gives up on the UK and Denmark; detail on another old map; sailboats in the museum.

There were no Picassos, but old, quirky nautical maps made up for that. And the Museum is housed in a beautiful structure built during the 1600s; from the 1300s-1700s the area served as the Royal Shipyards.

Replica of a Spanish Galley that served as a flagship  and was used in battles in the late 1500s; a prettily painted fishing vessel – the eye was believed to help navigate.

The crowning jewel of the collection is a replica of Juan de Austria’s flagship. It is about 200 feet long and only took 59 rowers to power it, even when fully loaded with soldiers and cannon. Due to the royalty being on board, it has all sorts of bright paint and ornamentation to dress it up.

Smaller fishing and leisure vessels filled another hall. A third was devoted to smaller objects like navigational aids and model ships.

A Sunday afternoon market sets up at the back of the museum, and covers both sides of the sidewalk and a small square. Shopping is much easier when I know there is no spare room in my two bags…


Olympic Park & MNAC

As I don’t specifically remember from childhood, Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Not too far from our apartment, the main set of venues and park are still in use. It was all built on a grand scale with wide lawns and walkways, now good picnic spots.

Inside the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Park and TV broadcast tower/sculpture, trails in a park on Montjuic.

Next door to the Olympic Park are the grounds of the 1929 International Exposition. The Palau Nacional, which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya (MNAC), was built as a temporary structure to house a portion of the Exposition. It was too beautiful to tear down afterward, so it was remodeled and made into the museum’s permanent home. The large fountains in front were built at the same time, and given the same reprieve.

Main entrance of the Olympic Stadium and the Palau Nacional housing the MNAC.

Many museums don’t let visitors to take pictures. However, the MNAC does allow non-flash photography, so here are some arts to make up for everything else we’ve seen but haven’t been able to share. My camera doesn’t take the best images in the lower, painting-preserving lighting; it was more vivid in person.

A saint having a bad day and Saint Margaret calmly slaying the dragon (representing Satan).

The museum was massive; with the time we had courtesy of an entrance-fee-free Saturday afternoon, we saw less than half of the collection. Fortunately, we will be in Barcelona for several more weeks, and will be returning.

Demon trying to make an escape and a vision of Jesus – with some priceless expressions.

We wandered through the Medieval section first, taking in paintings and sculpture from the 1200s and gradually moving forward in time to the 1700s. Almost all the pieces were based on the lives of Catholic Saints and the Bible. Only during the latter stages of the Renaissance did ordinary people and scenes from daily life appear. And by that time, the excessive use of gold leaf tapers off as well.

Creating a pope, A blue painting of St. John the Baptist with St. Francis of Assisi by El Greco, Saint (Elijah?) being fed by birds in the wilderness, A less-than-Biblical vision.

Wrapping up the Renaissance and then skipping ahead several generations to the early 1900s, there is a noticeably wider variety of subjects, most taken from daily life. There were furniture pieces by Gaudi and his followers and paintings depicting quiet moments in the home or countryside. It feels much more relatable.

Girl sewing from the late Renaissance, art from the 1900’s. The man drinking was part of a series… he always has a glass of wine and looks shifty.

Leaving the museum about 6 pm, there were hundreds of people enjoying the view from the terraces. Hawkers tried to sell cheap trinkets, two small stands sold wine and snacks, and lots of people took selfies. Staircases lead down to the Venetian Towers and a pre-marathon pasta dinner was finishing up with runners for Sunday’s race trying to carboload.



We’ve been in Barcelona a few days now, and most of our time has been spend wandering around the city. Our first impression was the towers and oversized, grandly-columned  buildings of the Plaza de Espana, where the airport shuttle dropped us off, followed by the Avenue de Paral-lel, one of the city’s many grand boulevards.

It is the most walkable place we’ve been during this trip so far, even though treks to some sights will be longer. Unlike Chiang Mai and Penang, we don’t have to dodge vehicles to cross the road or navigate narrow quasi-sidewalks; unlike Lisbon it is mostly flat, so no tedious hills on the way to the waterfront or the store! Of course, our 5th floor apartment is in a building with a sketchy elevator, so we still deal with at least a couple of good climbs a day.

La Boqueria Market and Santa Madrona in Poble Sec.

In Barcelona, life takes place out of doors. There are plenty of open spaces and playgrounds. Behind our apartment is Montjuic, a hill topped with a castle and with gardens around its sides. The waterfront also features lots of public space – amid the docks is a massive mall, restaurants, and a large promenade.

There are cafes on virtually every block with tables outside, even on chilly evenings. Fruit shops have merchandise sitting outside their doors, the city’s meat and produce markets spill over onto the sidewalks. The market nearest our apartment is Sant Antoni – the beautiful structure it is housed in is undergoing renovation so, for now, vendors are all squished into a glorified tent across the street. It is very much spiritually akin to Pike Place.We waited in a cramped line to buy a local fish, dourada, that ended up being really tasty baked whole in the oven.

Statue on Montjuic, an pretty building serving as art space, Venetian Towers at Plaza de Espana, the harbor.

Staying in town for an extended period has some extra perks, like being able to schedule our museum visits around free days. Our most touristy sight so far was Montjuic Castle (free on Sunday after 3pm!) – at the summit of a decent hike past gardens. The current castle was built during the second half of the 1700s as a defensive fortress, there are well-guarded entry points surrounded by walls 12 or more feet thick. The under-defended seaward side was at one point shored up with massive cannons, the picture of ferocity from every direction.

We were taken by the 360 degree views of the city, the port, and the Mediterranean. A light house was documented here as far back the 1070s – it definitely would have been the best position for one. The port sits right at the base of the hill, and it appears as large or larger than Seattle’s. One of the grain terminals must have been loading rice because the entire area smelled like it all afternoon, making me hungry. There were probably 20-30 cruise docks, and one of Norwegian ships in port was larger than any I’ve ever seen. (And it looked like there couldn’t possibly have been enough life boats, though I’m sure they did the math.)

Montjuic Castle: the inner courtyard, the Catalonian flag, the tunnel entry, the immense ramparts.

The castle has played an important role in the history of the city, and has been used at various times by French, Spanish, and Catalan forces – oftentimes the cannons were even turned on the city itself. The democratically elected President of Catalonia was executed by Spanish forces here in 1940, and it was used as a jail and place of torture by both sides during the Spanish Civil War.

The front of Montjuic Castle, Barcelona and the port from its roof.

Barcelona itself is beautiful, ringed by low mountains and the sea. Aside from the Gothic Quarter and Poble Sec, it is laid out in a ridiculously consistent grid, countless lengthy blocks with 6- or 7-story buildings around central courtyards. A scattering are taller, but the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia towers above, as do some of the larger hotels and financial buildings along the waterfront. Montjuic would be great for sunset views… on a day with a little less chill in the air…


To cap off our time in Lisbon, we took a trip to the Mafra National Palace. This was something I was particularly looking forward to, since it was supposed to have a library that rivals any in Europe – both for the books it holds and how beautiful it is – but that’s reading a few chapters ahead.

Our journey started with a quick jaunt on the Metro out to Campo Grande. There we had time for a snack (pastries and espresso, of course) while we waited for our bus. Rather than running city routes, the Mafrense bus service reaches the further-out suburbs and uses charter buses with cushiony seats and decent wi-fi. Like the Uber drivers we had, our bus drivers were very leadfooted. Combine the speeding bus with lots of narrow and curvy roads, and Kevin and were both as close to carsickness as we’ve ever come.

But the bus dropped us off right next to the palace… which is suitably impressive. An empty courtyard out front makes sure the massive size strikes visitors. I gave up trying to get the whole of it in a single photo.

The Mafra National Palace, the interior of the basilica’s dome, a statue in the church.

The Palace is so large that the basilica in the middle of it only takes up a small portion of the facade. The King’s and Queen’s rooms are on opposite sides and sit about 700 feet apart in separate towers on either corner. They’re far apart, is what I’m saying.

Antler lamp from the Trophy Room, bookplate and map from old volumes.


The royal family did not actually spend that much time at the Palace. The building was drafty and mostly used for hunting parties, and they eventually had the more tropical option of vacationing in Brazil and later got deposed. There are no rooms of royal treasure or golden crowns. Still, there are the usual assortment of giant rooms for impressing important guests, multiple music rooms, a game room full of antlers and hunting trophies and a different kind of game room with billiard tables and some sort of prehistoric pachinko machine.

The palace even held a monastery – we toured the large kitchens and infirmary, as well as the interior cloister.

And then there is the grand finale, the library.

The library.

It is absolutely gorgeous; the best library I’ve ever seen in person.

The library was designed to be the most important part of the convent and palace; it is even larger than the basilica. There are hundreds of feet of ornate shelving and arched windows to let in light. Miles of books were bound in leather by local craftsmen, so they all look and feel like they belong to the same collection. Some were set out in display cases, showing off printing dates from the 1500 and 1600s and the ornate book plates and fold-out maps that were sent inside the front covers.


In total, there are almost 40,000 volumes comprising one of the great collections of old and rare books in Europe. In the 1700s, when such edicts were necessary, the Catholic Church provided the library with a dispensation that allowed books explicitly banned by the Church to be kept within its walls. Oddly, it is cared for in part by bats: the easiest way to keep the collection clear of insects is to let several hundred bats in at night to have a snack.


More photos of the library, just because; one of the statues outside the basilica.

The interior of the basilica, as gorgeous as it is, pales in comparison (in my mind at least) to the library. It is unique in that it has 6 organs; the library contains musical scores written for the church that can be played no where else in the world. It was our last stop before chowing down on some more pastries and grabbing the bus back to Lisbon

It was windy, wavey-feeling ride back to the Metro, and an uphill walk from the Metro to our apartment. Of course, we stopped for one more meal, an order of duck-sausage-asparagus rice with a side of crab-and-egg guacamole, at the Mercado.

We got up very early a couple of days later to catch our flight to Barcelona, where I am writing this. Barcelona is much larger than Lisbon, both in population and sheer scale of the city. Fortunately, we picked a decently-located apartment within walking distance of many sights (though most walks will be longer, and we might have to use transit a bit more). We’ve already noticed that they are more choices for supermarkets than where we were in Lisbon, though pastry shops are fewer and farther between…