When I travel, I typically spend a good deal of my touring time in religious edifices. There are several reason for this . . .
1) Religious buildings are usually free, and therefore they are good places for someone on a budget.
2) Religious buildings generally have the most beautiful, most impressive architecture in a town. Before the heathen age, men thought it proper to dedicate their finest artistic and civic achievements to God. In our land of mammon, architectural genius is more often dedicated to banking, commerce, funeral arrangements, and sporting events. Sigh . . .
3) You can learn much of a people and a period by examining their temples. I suppose that I subscribe to a generalized form of lex orandi, lex credendi, where the cultic life of a people demonstrates, and perhaps determines, their general way of life. The link between cult and culture is not only etymological.
4) I am keenly interested in religion, and I suppose that such interest leads to my enjoyment of religious buildings.
5) Churches, at least, function for me as sanctuaries. Of course, thieving gypsies might wait outside in ambush, but locals typically treat you well in their churches as long as you are respectful. If you need a rest, stop in a church and just sit. Observe, pray, and collect yourself before continuing on your journey.
My favorite churches, in general, are English Gothic cathedrals. The Anglicans do not deserve their beautiful hallowed halls anymore, but they are lovely. I appreciate the English practices of altar choirs, entombed notable figures around a cathedral, cathedral gardens and cloisters, and the Lady chapels in the apse. Each town’s cathedral is unique and beautiful in its own way. The windows, the sculptures, the vaults, the colorful ceilings, and the side chapels all delight the wide-eyed visitor. Durham, Winchester, Peterborough, Wells, Salisbury, Saint Alban’s, Canterbury, Exeter, Lincoln, Worcester, and others show how the English once had good taste and appropriate priorities. Now, the well fed peasants on the dole act like barbarians at soccer games. Sic transit gloria mundi.
It is hard to choose a favorite, but I think that Ely Cathedral captured my heart more than the rest. I have never seen its octagonal turret like tower anywhere else, and the interior and adjacent Lady Chapel are breathtaking. The town of Ely’s visitor center has this page for the cathedral, too.
The vistors’ center page mentions that Cromwell (hot coals be upon him) had the cathedral closed during his tyrannical reign, during which he used the cathedral as horse stables. Calvin and his minions were perhaps the most disgusting and worthless creatures to carry the name Christian before the French revolution.
Anyway, let the celebrants of ugliness rot—the beautiful cathedrals that embellish the English countryside remain. You ought to visit them before they undergo the same fate as the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople and become mosques or museums.
I happily am a lifetime member of Hostelling International—one of the “progressive” era’s few real worthwhile accomplishments. Begun in A.D. 1909 by a German teacher, Richard Schirrman, Hostelling International has spread throughout the world, providing inexpensive quarters, an international meeting place, and cultural opportunities to young travellers in over eighty countries. Next year is the centennial anniversary of youth hostels. To celebrate, you may wish to try them out.
I have greatly benefited from Hostelling International in my own travels. Far from home, often in countries where I did not know the local language, H.I. hostels were always safe, clean places where I was sure to meet interesting people from all over the world and to receive reliable travel information from fellow travellers and the hostel staff. Even as an adult, I continue to take advantage of hostels. H.I.‘s reservation service is rather hassle free, and H.I. maintains a pretty consistent quality control standard. Unlike many hotels and motels, I always feel that H.I. is on “my side” as a traveller instead of attempting to milk my wallet of its remaining pennies.
I have also stayed at dozens of independent hostels, some of which are considerably nicer than HI hostels and some of which are not. My favorite independent hostels so far are probably Hostel Vista Serena in Manuel Antonio and Luna Loca Hostel in Montezuma, both in Costa Rica, and a wonderful hostel in Munich, the name of which I do not remember. It was in a residential neighborhood and had great food. The Costa Rican hostels were set in paradise; each morning, I woke up to the sound of monkeys. I found iguanas, birds, frogs, lizards, and those same monkeys close to these hostels or on the properties themselves. A huge jungle frog tried to take a shower with me one morning. They were so beautiful. If you can make it to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, I recommend both.
In addition to cheap prices, fellow travellers, and helpful staff, there is almost always a kitchen in a hostel. Grocery shopping abroad is quite fun, and preparing a meal in a communal kitchen with random foreigners is even better. After the meal, you can hang out in the common areas, play games, watch movies, or strike up a conversation with folks that will expose you to rather different perspectives.
I have so many great hostel stories. In Berlin, I met an older woman of Serbian descent who was from Australia—I discovered in my travels that Australians come to Europe and travel for several months at a time. Anyway, we had several fascinating discussions after visiting Berlin each day. She told me that she was glad that so much of the city had been destroyed during the war; she still harbored tribal grievances against the Germans for what the Nazis had done in Serbia. Vindictiveness lasts for many years. In Bonn, I roomed with a young Norwegian man who bought me my first German beer, as I was too cheap to buy it myself. He did not harbor any ill will to anyone; he was probably just happy to see how far Norwegian money would go in less expensive countries. Adam and I stayed in several posh hostels throughout Britain, including some converted castles and mansions. In the U.S.A., I really like the Fisherman’s Wharf hostel in San Francisco and the Point Loma hostel in San Diego—both clean, convenient, and full of character. Hostels really are the best way to travel.