Religious establishments around the world make for some of the best tourist attractions. From the towering temples of Tamil Nadu in India to the elaborate halls of the Vatican, thousand of visitors pass through various holy doors around the world every year, and I am one of them.
One of my resounding memories from childhood holidays involves being dragged into every church, cathedral and temple my parents could find in any given location. I remember hanging around outside basilicas in Italy, moping around churches in the south of France, and feeling awkward outside ornate cathedrals in Spain. An uncomfortable experience – even for an eight year old – thanks to my indifference to any god, religion or spiritual belief.
It seems, though, that now I share that same appreciation for the places of prayer that once charmed my parents all those years ago, and I’m inadvertently on a mission to visit godly houses around the world as I go about my job as a travel writer. I don’t think I’m religious (I can’t say for sure), but perhaps there comes an age when these buildings become more than just unnaturally silent spheres of discipline.
So I spent last weekend, not for the first time, admiring London’s Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with the Abbey that sits next to the House of Commons) from all possible angles. A beguiling, 12.5-million-brick neo-Byzantine creation from the late nineteenth century, consecrated as a Catholic house of prayer in 1910, it is, by far, my favourite building in London. It evokes images of the east from the exterior, and has a dark and enchanting interior, with hundreds of colourful marble slabs and sparkling mosaics decorating its walls, leading up to a dramatically bare, black-brick vaulted ceiling. An empty space, where perhaps there is no need for anything except God. There is something so romantic about Westminster Cathedral that it makes my hair stand on end, empties my mind and leaves room for a flood of serendipitous emotion to wash over me, no matter how many times I walk through its heavy wooden doors.
Today I experienced a similar feeling, but in an entirely different surrounding.
Today I visited Hallgrímskirkja – a Lutheran church in the centre of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. From the outside, it’s an intriguing structure: a 73-metre-tall grey concrete clock tower is flanked by two one-storey-tall wings, which look as if they’ve been built in a game of Tetris, one block at a time (apparently meant to resemble lava-flow). It’s a wonderfully sci-fi style arrangement, plonked at the top of a hill, overlooking an otherwise architecturally-uninteresting city (forgive me Iceland, for you are beautiful, but your buildings are not the main attraction).
With such an impressive exterior, I expected an equally exciting space inside its walls, but was bewildered as I came in from the cold to be greeted by a stark-naked core. A pale-green carpet lined the aisle, which stole the satisfyingly ominous echo of my heels as I walked down it, and pews with cushions of the same clinical colour were fixed to the floor either side. The cream-coloured walls were left unclad, save for the comparatively grandiose organ, and the bare pillars led my eyes to a ceiling that resembled the curves and lines of a skeleton’s ribcage. Despite the unusual amount of light entering the church through its plain-glass windows, it was an eerie composition, and while it was no match for Westminster Cathedral, it still captured my attention for far longer than anticipated. Yet again, I found my mind empty and my heart full of sentiment.
So perhaps my (accidental) quest to visit as many different religious establishments around the world isn’t in pursuit of contrasts, but instead a hunt for that familiar feeling, the same solace, that – no matter the location – strikes my heart every time.