Arnold Toynbee once famously said “See Angkor Wat and die”. The statement by the British historian refers to the overwhelming beauty of the ancient Cambodian temple complex — one which he describes as being a sight so awe-inspiring, it’s to die for.
I have visited Angkor Wat and it is undeniably amazing. But being only a stone’s throw away from my native Thailand, it doesn’t quite inspire that sense of otherworldly wonder that can be deemed “to die for”.
The Discovery Channel came to Thailand when I was a teenager, and I grew fast addicted to it. I loved getting a window into the whole world from my living room. One day I watched a documentary about an unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, called La Sagrada Familia. At that moment I realised this was a place I had to visit before I die.
I started researching La Sagrada Familia and found out it was considered the masterpiece of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s oeuvre. The unfinished cathedral was one of several innovative, unforgettable works created by the visionary figure.
Fourteen years after I conceived this dream, I had locked in some Spanish words and saved up some money to go. Still, the funds didn’t seem to be sufficient for my trip to Catalonia.
Gaudi became more of a fantasy than reality in my mind, with many other travel destinations proving cheaper and easier to visit, tempting me away from Spain.
The Gaudi fantasy seemed to be fading until two months ago when I got an invitation for a conference in Geneva, Switzerland — not too far off from Barcelona on a map.
I had a limited window of time between the conference and when I had to get back home, left with only one full day to make something of. “Is the trip really worth it?” I asked myself. I began to explore my options and put together an impromptu plan.
An airline ticket and city tour bus booking later, I was on my way to La Sagrada Familia. Here I come, Gaudi.
The flight from Geneva to Barcelona was rife with pleasant views. Switzerland looks especially beautiful from above, with its snow-capped mountain ranges. The views made the travel time fly and made me feel the whole journey would be worthwhile.
Over the course of the 70-minute flight, the landscape changed from dramatic mountain ranges to flat land with coastlines running alongside them. I landed in Barcelona and, after 30 minutes at the airport, went to the station where the bus would deliver me to the heart of Barcelona. I alighted the bus at La Rambla, the first station of the city bus tour.
“Hola, como estas?” I said to the driver, thrilled to finally be able to put my Spanish to the test by asking “How are you?”. The bus driver responded in Spanish well beyond my level of comprehension. I switched back to English and we were able to speak far more effectively.
The tour bus took off and Barcelona began to reveal itself — from the Gothic Quarter, Catedral de Barcelona, Port Olympic and more. The double-decker, open-roof bus allowed us to breeze through the city with its perfect weather and clear blue sky.
Finally, we arrived at La Sagrada Familia. It was even more amazing to see in person than on TV. Every single detail of the majestic cathedral was breathtakingly beautiful.
The building of the La Sagrada Familia begun in 1882, led by Spanish architect Francisco Paula de Villar. Gaudi became involved in 1883 after de Villar resigned as head architect.
As he took over the project, he adjusted it to his own architectural and engineering style, combining a Gothic style with curvilinear Art Nouveau forms.
Gaudi devoted the last years of his life to the project. He died at age 73 in 1926 with less than a quarter of the ambitious project complete.
The construction of the site, funded by private donations, progressed slowly. It was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and later resumed in the 1950s. The construction was halfway done by 2010 but still plagued with scheduling delays. The anticipated completion date is now 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
I arrive at 11am. Having already bought a ticket, I didn’t have to stand in the queue. I passed the security checkpoint and entered the cathedral. Going inside felt like stepping off of planet Earth and entering some magical alien world. I was awed.
This sight alone made the whole short trip worth it.
GAUDI IN THE CITY
I spent one short hour at La Sagrada Familia before speeding along to my next stop — another Gaudi creation. I hopped on the tour bus headed to Park Guell.
As we drive along, I could spot Gaudi’s work standing out on what seemed to be every city corner. It’s not hard to spot his creations since they have all his signature style.
His buildings embody a free-form style, disavowing straight lines. His works were created between the late 19th and early 20th century, but they look several centuries ahead of their time.
I couldn’t get a ticket for the park online because it was full that day. But I went to the park anyway as some parts are open to the public without an admission fee.
From the bus stop, I had to make my way to the park on foot, a 10-minute walk. The distance isn’t terribly long, but the park is situated on a hill, making it a climb.
Still, the weather was pleasant to walk in and there were nice cafes to stop at along the way for coffee or tapas.
Park Guell was built between 1900 and 1914 and was officially opened as a public park in 1926. In 1983 Unesco declared the park a World Heritage Site alongside several other works of Gaudi. Park Guell epitomises Gaudí’s creative dynamism. During this period the architect drew inspiration from organic shapes and forms. He built a series of innovative structural solutions based in geometry concepts.
His works share a structural richness, reflecting forms free of rational rigidity and any classical architectural premises. With Park Guell, Gaudi deployed several innovative structural techniques that helped him establish his organic-looking style. This paved the vision for La Sagrada Familia, widely considered the height of his oeuvre.
I generally get surprised about once a month — but since landing in Barcelona, I’d been met with one surprise after another. Standing at the top of the hill, I got incredible views of the city. Another astonishing hour passed, but I had to remind myself to stay on schedule.
I had to get a move on before sundown. I was forced to choose between several Gaudi sites spread over Barcelona — the Gaudi House Museum, Casa Vicens, Colonia Guell, the list goes on — and narrow down my options due to time constraints.
Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera, was my last shot to get my Gaudi fix. La Pedrera was the last private residence designed by the architect. It was commissioned in 1906 by businessman Pere Mila and his wife Roser Segimon, and built from then until 1910.
Designed by Josep Maria Jujol, its undulating stone facade and twisting wrought-iron balconies and windows made the building most controversial. Its structural innovations included a self-supporting stone front, floors and columns free of load-bearing walls, an underground garage and the sculptures perched on the roof.
In 1984 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The line to visit the residence was long and the number of visitors allowed were limited. Luckily, a premium access pass is purchasable and allows visitors to pay an extra €7 to get immediate access to the building with no wait involved.
The first part visitors are led to is the legendary rooftop of the residence. La Pedrera drew influence from famous mansion Palau Guell with its wrought-iron work, but offers more dramatic shapes.
The residence was built over a century ago, but stepping out from the lift and onto the rooftop, what strikes me is how modern it looks. Words like “futuristic” and “imaginative” come to mind, even “alien”. Gaudi’s works are simply out of this world.
The roof has six skylights and staircase exits, four of which are covered in broken pottery; some of which end in a double-cross typical of Gaudi. There are also 28 chimneys, two half-hidden vents and four domes protruding from the facade. The staircase also houses water tanks, some of which are snail shaped. Even the most mundane elements of the residence have been treated in imaginative ways.
Descending from the rooftop, I notice the catenary arches supporting it. The attic, where the laundry rooms were located, rest under a Catalan vault roof supported by 270 parabolic vaults of varying heights and spaced out by about 80 centimetres each.
The roof resembles the ribs of a large animal or perhaps a palm tree. These elements make it as fascinating and dynamic as a landscape of shifting hills and valleys.
The narrow courtyard, with its dramatic arches, are now used as an exhibition hall for Gaudi’s works.
Walking around the building, I snapped photos of anything I found unusual, which happened to pop up at every single corner. I read any texts offering information about the building on the wall.
I spent a good three hours there before returning my audio guide and leaving.
I had never had a day of discovery so well spent. I got to sample all the highlights Barcelona has to offer, from the fascinating and mysterious Gothic Quarter to the lively pedestrian mall La Rambla. People from all walks of life flock here to enjoy its vibrant energy.
The time had come for me to return home. Suddenly, Toynbee’s words popped back up in my mind. Now that I’d seen both Angkor Wat and Gaudi, was I ready to die?
My trip may have been to die for, but there are many more amazing places in the world to explore. Thanks to Gaudi, it got me that much more excited to keep imagining what stop is next.
COSTS: City tour bus ticket €26; La Pedrera €29; Sagrada Familia €15 (€70 in total for the city tour and main attractions).
that’s the spirit: Catedral de Barcelona, the cathedral’s interior, the Columbus monument and crowds celebrating Palm Sunday by the cathedral.
seeing the light: Despite being unfinished, La Sagrada Familia is widely considered Gaudi’s masterpiece. PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
dream constructions: The rooftop of La Pedrera, the interior featuring bold arches and the courtyard space, now used as an exhibition hall for other Gaudi works.
raise the roof: The rooftop of La Pedrera, famed for its dramatic sculptures overlooking the surrounding neighbourhood. The building was the last private residence designed by Gaudi. PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI