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Holy smoke: Glen Mutel

Far from being dull, churches and cathedrals are great places to take a breather, indulge in a bit of people-watching and soak up the history and atmosphere

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There’s something wonderful about a good cigar. I’m not much of a smoker, but every now and then I like to treat myself to something pricey and Cuban. And what I tend to enjoy most about the act of smoking is the fact it forces me to take some time out.

To get the most out of a decent cigar requires patience — if it’s high-quality, long and fat, it should take at least 45 minutes to smoke. And in a life as ill-managed as mine, anything that forces me to spend that amount of time relaxing has got to be a good thing.

To me, churches are the cigars of travel. During a packed city break they provide precious respite from even the most ferocious holiday itinerary. If I’m ever somewhere with a large church, I often find myself gravitating towards it. And when I step inside I always experience a welcome change of pace.

At once things feel different. The rumble of traffic and tourists is replaced by whispers and the echoes of footsteps on stone. The air, blended over centuries, has acquired its own distinct taste. There’s little sign of what’s happening in the world outside, except for the occasional shafts of sunlight illuminating stained glass.

And within this serene environment, I feel an instant change in priorities. My ‘to do’ list suddenly seems crude and self-defeating. I no longer care whether I manage to see everything the city has to offer. Instead, I’m content to sit on a pew, take in my surroundings and observe my fellow church-goers as they unconsciously filter themselves into types: the devout local, who comes only for prayer; the meandering enthusiast, who reads every inscription; the ill-at-ease person, who shuffles awkwardly and finds it difficult to keep quiet; and the visitor who, like me, lacks knowledge and has no real plan of action, but who is happy just to be there.

Could it be I’m getting old? Possibly. I certainly haven’t always felt this way. I’ve never been religious, so when I was very young I found churches alien and unnerving. They seemed so cold and serious, and the tattered gravestones only made matters worse.

By my late teens, I’d started to take an interest. But whenever I visited a famous church, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself, and the experience often proved awkward and unsatisfying.

These days things are different. And while I still don’t spend too much time in churches, when I’m travelling I seem to find them compelling. And it’s not just the promise of tranquility that attracts me. Whenever I visit a major European cathedral, I’m often struck by the sheer opulence of its interior. Forget the bare walls of your local parish church; instead, think frescoed ceilings and marble columns, intricate carvings and generous swathes of gold leaf.

Then there’s the buildings themselves; often staggering in their beauty and ambition. And there’s plenty of variation to keep things interesting, from the spiky menace of the gothic to the sugary magnificence of the baroque.

And, of course, there’s also the history to consider, which seems to seep from the walls. Many churches predate their existing surroundings by centuries — for example, work began on Notre Dame in 1163. That’s over four centuries before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Today, its beauty still startles, but imagine how it must have shone amid a clutter of medieval dwellings.

And it’s much more than just a relic. In my view, churches, even famous ones, have maintained a relevance to their surroundings that sets them above castles or ruins. They’re more than tourist attractions; these are places where real things happen, from the dramas of old, to gatherings, ceremonies and confessions. And as the environments around them mutate, these structures stand fast, resisting the haphazard forces of progress.

Every church has a story. You can piece it together from the inscriptions, paintings and stained glass. Or, as I prefer, you can write it yourself as you gaze at the walls and think of all they’ve witnessed. But to let these hallowed spaces really work their magic, you need to give them time. At the very least, as long as it takes to smoke a fat cigar.

 

Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)