Rowers pass Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. A recent European trip by Herman Goodden found the historic cathedral packed with camera-wielding tourists CNS photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters

Surviving the tourists is half the battle in Europe

  • July 25, 2012

I recently returned from my triumphal 60th birthday tour of the UK and Europe, which included visits to London, Paris and Milan.

Since I first started these transatlantic treks more than 20 years ago, I find that the older I get, the more I become a Catholic tourist, adding churches and cathedrals to book and music shops, museums and theatres on my itineraries. Whether you’re attending Mass or just checking out the ecclesial digs and saying a prayer, the universality of the Catholic Church means that, regardless of the language spoken, you always feel at home in a very profound sense.

The only impediment this eager Catholic tourist ever comes up against is when the touristic component at one of these sites starts to outweigh the Catholic. I used to worry that my aversion to crowds was a kind of snobbery. Isn’t it an unadulterated good thing to see swarms of people piling into a church even if they aren’t the kind of people who would ordinarily be drawn to attend a church in their hometown? Who am I to sit in judgment of the purity of their motives in coming here? Clearly, it’s a delicate business.

When I visited the Vatican in 2005, it was in late October, which happily turned out to be (not, I assure you, as the result of any shrewd planning on my part) about as close as you’ll ever get there to an off-season. Yes, there were thousands of other people but unlike some of the horror stories I’ve heard, I wasn’t held to a time limit while viewing the Sistine Chapel, in spite of the crowds there was a quiet and prayerful atmosphere inside St. Peter’s and the weather wasn’t so clammy and hot that I thought I’d pass out. Except for a brief altercation with a pickpocket on the packed Rome subway, I had a wonderful visit to the Eternal City.

My visit to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris wasn’t so blessed. While the wait to get in only took about 10 minutes, the place was packed with tourists who brazenly ignored the multilingual sign at the door to keep quiet. I suppose they were at least making an effort to “keep it down,” filling the air with a constant buzz of whispered ooh’s and aah’s.

Every second one of them wielded a camera device of some sort, contorting or stretching their bodies as they held their infernal image-snatchers aloft. This only confirmed me in my lifelong decision to never pack a camera when travelling. It’s the same maddening, focus-busting behaviour one encounters at so many weddings when the need to document a special occasion elbows aside the original experience and cruelly renders it less memorable.

In Milan we toured that great sprawling city (with the immense Gothic cathedral, the Duomo di Milano, at its centre) and making excursions out to nearby towns. We visited Pavia, where the mortal remains of St. Augustine of Hippo (who died in 430) are contained in an exquisitely carved marble ark which dominates the presbytery of the Basilica of St. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.

Despite the renown of its permanent saint-in-residence, St. Pietro is sufficiently “out of the way” that its sacred aspects are not overrun by its secular appeal.

There has been a church at this site since the early 600s. Though it was substantially rebuilt in 1132, the “new” building was designed to conform to the old levels and lines with the result that when you come in from the street today you take a few steps down to get onto the floor which used to be level with the small piazza outside.

It is another one of those sublime instances when you suddenly apprehend what the poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins was getting at when he wrote that, “Time has three dimensions.”

My general advice to the aspiring Catholic tourist would be to approach the more world-famous churches with, if not caution, then with a layer of armour to help you deflect the many distractions that will assail you when you find yourself in the company of people who come to gander rather than to worship.

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is No Continuing City.)

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