“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Churches

If you’ve followed my travel adventures for any time at all, you know that I always find my way to places of worship. This fascination has little to do with faith or religion itself, though I am a believer. Growing up in parochial school, every Friday morning we went to Mass in the parish church where I also went with my family on Sundays. I never really liked that church. It was very plain and modern and cold. I guess the architectural term would be austere. 

When I travel, I feel I’m looking for places that speak to my sense of beauty and tradition. I’ve been in great cathedrals like Notre Dame de Paris and I’ve been in the Smallest Church in America and I visited temples in Japan and Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue. Each one is awesome and moving in its own way. Here are some that I find most memorable.

Probably the most well-known church I’ve visited was the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Notre Dame is a 13th century Catholic cathedral and one of my favorite things about this beautiful church is its stained-glass windows. In April of 2019, the cathedral caught fire, destroying the spire and oak frame and lead roof. Firefighters saved the façade, towers, buttresses and, thankfully, the stained-glass windows. I’m sure they will rebuild it, but I fear it will never be the same.

But for me, the Basilica of Sacre Coeur was the most memorable church in Paris. This beautiful Roman Catholic basilica stands at the summit of the Butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city and offers a sweeping panoramic view of Paris. To get into the basilica, you must trudge up 270 stairs (or you could take the funicular, but what fun would that be?) Sacre Couer is my most favorite memory of Paris.

In Italy, it seems like I visited a church in every town in Tuscany, but I think the most memorable was Santa Margherita in Cortona. Perhaps it was the romance of the wedding that was taking place while we were there, but it was a very warm and inviting church that I still remember today.

In Rome, I stayed across the street from the majestic Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, used as a church for over 1400 years. The building is beautiful and highly recognizable from the outside but inside is filled with lovely statuary in niches throughout the huge hall, a pagan temple from antiquity converted to Christian worship.

Probably one of the most elaborate churches I have visited is the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, the Duomo in Florence, Italy. It is one of Italy’s largest churches and the exterior of the basilica is faced with poly-chrome marble panels in different shades of green and pink, bordered by white. Its dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed. There are three huge bronze doors with scenes of the life of the Madonna. They are absolutely amazing!  Definitely a must-see in Florence!

The Cathedral in Seville is the largest cathedral in the world. It is not only a magnificent place of worship, but also a repository of history with the tombs of Christopher Columbus and his son, Diego, among others.

I was privileged to visit the Pinkas Synagogue, the second oldest in Prague, where I was overwhelmed by the wall with the names of over 78,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jewish victims of the Shoah. Also touching is the permanent exhibition of pictures drawn by children in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. The pictures offer proof about the daily reality of the lives of the children there.

In Japan, I visited a lot of temples. Some were just little shrines along the streets while others, like Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, were magnificent and ancient edifices. Kinkaku-ji is completely covered in gold leaf and is very spectacular. 

On my recent road trip, we just stumbled upon the Memory Park Christ Chapel, which is called the Smallest Church in America. The all-hours travelers’ chapel is just ten by fifteen feet, with pews for twelve people. It was absolutely charming, and I think it reminded me of the little chapel near my house where we sometimes attended Mass on Sundays. It was small and intimate, built entirely of wood and will always have a special place in my memory and my heart. Unfortunately, when I was a teenager, it fell victim to the expansion of the road system. 

 

Speaking of just happening on places that always remain with you reminds me of an incident when I was vacationing in Aruba with my family. While walking on the beach with my daughter, Alisa, she saw a little chapel. We walked to the Alta Vista Chapel and were entranced by its simplicity and serenity. 

 

Having written these thoughts, I find it interesting that the places of worship that abide deepest in my memory are not the ancient and grand structures but those that are small and personal and simple. Places in my heart.