One of the perils of traveling to a place that is so many people's favorite destination is coming home and facing their expectations. What??? You didn't go to [insert speaker's favorite spot here]??
So far no one has done this to us. But they might, if they find out that we didn't go inside Westminster Abbey, we didn't go into Notre Dame, we didn't go to St. Paul's Cathedral.
(As I, too, might shriek if I found out that you went to Dublin and didn't go to Mulligan's on Poolbeg Street.)
Doug and I are not terribly big on churches, no matter what country we are in. I am a bit uncomfortable traipsing through them, tourist-like, when people are trying to worship.
Our friends John and Ann got it right. When we were all in Ireland together a few years back, they simply went to church on Sunday like they always do at home. They went to services at the big Catholic church in Galway, where they were amused to find that the priest prayed for soccer player Roy Keane, and they went to church again wherever we were on the following Sunday--Cobh, I think. That seems like the right way to do it.
We didn't visit a lot of churches in England and France, but we visited a few. And while we didn't set out to rate them or rank them, we had our favorites.
CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL, Canterbury
I had to see Canterbury Cathedral. Gruesome or not, I wanted to see where Thomas a Becket had been murdered in 1170.
It's a vast place, dim and cool and filled with dead bodies. (Of course, you don't see the bodies; just the tombs and the stones.) It felt more like a museum than a church. Maybe it was all the history; maybe it was the groups of German schoolchildren traipsing through with their audioguides. Maybe it was the stiff entrance fee. Maybe it was the fact that I was under the weather. But we shuffled along the smooth 900-year-old floors, past tomb after tomb of former archbishops of Canterbury ("Wouldn't that be a nightmare?" Doug asked. "To be buried where you worked?"), the scent of candlewax making me dizzy.
Thomas Becket's jeweled shrine was destroyed 450 years ago by Henry VIII--legend has it that it took 26 wagons to cart away all the jewels, gold and offerings--and in its place now a single candle burns.
Nearby is the tomb of Edward, the black prince, which looks a lot more festive than any tomb should look because of his "achievements," which hang above it.
Achievements (I learned quite recently) are the emblems of his knighthood--his helmet, his coat, his gauntlet and his sword. I am not entirely sure what the stuffed animal on the hat represents. (And if anyone knows, please tell me.)
I thought these were rather vivdly colorful for artifacts that are more than 600 years old, and sure enough: they are replicas. The faded originals are in a glass case not far away. The prince's sword is missing; legend has it that it was stolen by Oliver Cromwell. (I wouldn't put anything past that man.)
SACRE COEUR, Paris
Hmmm. A trusted friend told us not to miss this church. I'm not sorry we went--we had a great time climbing around the neighboring steep streets of Montmartre--but I'm not sure I'd consider this a crucial stop.
Yes, it was pretty, and I loved the white stone it is built of. But any church that has its own gift shop and charges 10 euros to light a candle is a church that has lost its way, just a little, in my book. (Doug says, "Be fair. It's up high. The message is clearer from there.") It did have beautiful mosaics, and a fabulous view of Paris. It also had its own beggars (one at each door) and a long line of tourists that filed slowly through, clockwise.
COLLEGIATE CHURCH NOTRE-DAME, Vernon, France
This old church in Normandy felt good the moment we walked through the huge wooden doors.
We wandered in simply because we had some time to spend before catching the train back to Paris. We were in Vernon after visiting Monet's house nearby.
The church dates to 1070, and it feels it. The stone floors are deeply worn and uneven from hundreds of years of worshipers. It's cool and dim, like Canterbury, but nowhere near as vast. It felt simple and--will I sound like Linus if I say it felt sincere?
There was no admission charge. no gift shop.
There were hand-written notices on the bulletin board, and beautiful ancient stained-glass windows. When we walked in, the robed priest was watering the flowers. A dozen women sat in the pews and prayed. A man crossed himself, lit a candle, and then sat down and folded his hands.
We sat down, too. We didn't pray. But it seemed like a good place to do that, if we wanted to.
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