by Sarah Baxter, The Telegraph, February 22, 2018
Dawn was breaking over the ancient city, granting its golden benediction on the time-worn stone. Kashi – “the luminous one” or “city of the light”, now best known as Varanasi – was starting to stir.
We moved quietly, just the gentle plish of oars on water as the boatman rowed us along the Mother Ganges. A flock of birds swooped over the rooftops as bells began to chime for early morning rituals. On the ghats – the flights of steps leading down to the river – figures began to move: bathing, stretching, lost in prayer. No need to be Hindu. Nor Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain.
The serene scene, with its bells and birds, temple tops and warming sunrise glow snuck in; got under the skin. There was a sense of a place greater than the sum of its colourful, crumbling parts. The centuries of worship practised at this, Hinduism’s most sacred city, seemed scored into the slabs, resounding down the alleyways, soaked into the river itself.
But spiritual places can do that. They have the power to seep in somehow, regardless of the faith or feeling you might bring to them. Indeed, “spiritual” means different things to different people. For some, it’s joining the hordes at Lourdes to pray and bathe in the French town-turned-pilgrim metropolis, gaining comfort from the presence of thousands of likeminded souls.
For others it’s the opposite; it’s escaping the crowds somewhere such as Canada’s peaceful Haida Gwaii archipelago, where First Nations mythology is rooted not in manmade churches or shrines but in the moss and the trees, and Mother Nature herself is the miracle.
You might find your own salvation or contentedness at either extreme. Despite the current rise of “wellness” holidays offering mindfulness, meditation and a gazillion types of we’ll-sort-you-out spas, the greatest balm may be found in simply sitting amid the spinifex grass to watch Uluru blaze red at sunset or taking a pew at Córdoda’s Mezquita and being hypnotised by the arched interior’s divine grace.
Religious travel is certainly enriching for many. To seek out others who share your beliefs, in a location central to your faith, can be a once-in-a-lifetime high. But even if you have no faith at all, there is something affecting, even soothing, about experiencing the faith of others.
It’s essential to remain respectful when visiting spiritual places – you may need to cover your head, uncover your head, make an offering, leave no trace. But, assuming you obey any rules, watching devotees interact with their sacred tombs, pagodas, waterfalls or grottoes can not only give you a greater insight into other cultures, it may just make you question your own.
No matter where you travel, you’ll discover that humans have long constructed their own ways of interpreting this marvellous, multifarious world of ours – whether it’s the Ancient Greeks locating their gods atop Mount Olympus, the Maori developing a mythology to fit New Zealand’s fizz-banging terrain or the Easter Islanders moving massive rocks to safeguard their far-flung Pacific outcrop.
By travelling, you’re able to experience these interpretations first-hand. You can explore the often spectacular, sometimes hostile environments in which these beliefs have developed and start to understand more about those who believe.
Whether or not we accept that the dint in that rock was really made by Buddha or that God really did appear in that burning bush, we can’t ignore the acceptance of others. And the presence of faith elevates these spiritual places, making them more than mere stone or tree. When you visit, maybe you’ll find religion. Maybe not.
But the chances are you will find something – beauty, connectedness, knowledge, a little inner peace.
1. La Mezquita, Córdoba, Spain
Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
“Mezquita” means “mosque”, but this Córdoban complex is more, well, complex than that. After the Islamic conquest of Iberia in the eighth century, Córdoba’s existing basilica was split and shared by Muslims and Christians. But in AD 784, construction began on a magnificent new mosque, with an orange-tree courtyard and prayer hall of seemingly infinite striped arches. In the 16th century, following the Christian reconquest, a Catholic cathedral was squeezed inside; the minaret encased in a bell tower. The result: a clash of architecture and religions. But still one of the world’s most striking buildings.
Do it: A seven-day Moorish Spain: Córdoba & Granada trip, travelling with an expert historian, costs from £2,195. Flights included. Departure September 17 2018. ACE Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk)
2. Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto was once known as Heian-kyo, “Capital of Peace and Tranquillity”. It’s been the centre of Japanese culture for more than a thousand years – and remains so today. The city is overflowing with spiritual sites: 1,660 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and 90 Christian churches dot its ancient lanes. The eighth-century Fushimi Inari Shrine and its photogenic trail of red torii (gates), on a hill on the outskirts of Kyoto, is a good spot to gain an overview of the spiritual city.
Do it: A 14 night Pilgrim’s Paths trip costs from £2,970, including Kyoto, temple stays at Mount Koya and walks along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. Flights not included. Departures tailormade. Inside Japan (0117 370 9751; insidejapantours.com )
3. S’Gang Gwaay, British Columbia, Canada
The First Nations Haida people have occupied the Haida Gwaii archipelago for around 8,000 years. Their village at S’Gang Gwaay, in the south-west, was abandoned in the 1880s; now, its totem poles are slowly being subsumed by the moss and the trees, their decay expressive of the Haida’s connectedness with nature. S’Gang Gwaay is only accessible by boat and no more than a dozen visitors are allowed at a time, which only heightens its atmosphere. Haida Watchmen lead tours, walking visitors through the old forest and telling the tales of the totems.
Do it: A 13-day Haida Gwaii by Yacht trip costs from £5,455, including exploration aboard a small sailing ketch and landing at S’Gang Gwaay. Flights included. Departures tailormade. Audley (01993 838861; audleytravel.com)
4. Cape Reinga, North Island, New Zealand
At the blustery crag-tip of Northland, where Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide, a gnarled pohutukawa tree clings to the cliff-face – and sends souls down into the underworld... According to Maori mythology, wild Cape Reinga – also known as Te Reinga Wairua, “leaping place of the spirits” – is where the deceased depart, sliding down the old tree to join goddess Hinenuitepo in the afterlife. For the Maori it’s a connection to their ancestors. For any visitor, it’s a dramatic, end-of-the-world place
Do it: A 13-night North Island Classic Fly-Drive costs from £2,175, including a Maori culture tour at Ohinemutu Village; scenic flights to Cape Reinga can be added from £232pp. Flights included. Departures tailormade. Discover the World (01737 886131; discover-the-world.co.uk)
5. Lake Titicaca, Peru and Bolivia
Photo by DC_Colombia/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Shimmering at an altitude of around 3,800m, vast Lake Titicaca was central to the birth of the Inca civilisation. Their founder-king Manco Cápac is said to have emerged from a rock on the lake’s Isla del Sol. Consequently this “Island of the Sun” became a key religious centre, and pilgrims from across the empire came to visit its shrines. Today you can sail across to the car-free island to walk the flagstoned paths, visit temple ruins, stay at a posada and soak up the stirring snowcapped-Andes views.
Do it: A 14-day Andes and Altiplano: Cusco, Lake Titicaca and La Paz trip costs from £2,711, including an overnight stay on Isla del Sol. Flights not included. Departures tailormade. Journey Latin America (020 3811 7378; journeylatinamerica.co.uk)
6. Avebury, Wiltshire, UK
Avebury is dotted with oddities: a cutesy village sliced by a stone circle; a mysterious sanctuary of concentric rings; a long barrow dating to 3650 BC; the largest man-made mound in Europe. No one knows exactly what it was all for. Probably it was a key Neolithic ceremonial site, where people came to perform rituals and connect with seasons and spirits. Such connection is still possible: hire dowsing rods to search for supposed ley lines, touch the mighty sarsens or head to the manor for a soul-lifting cream tea.
Do it: A two-night Wessex Weekend costs from £695, including visits to Avebury and exclusive access to the circle at Stonehenge. Flights not included. Departure September 7 2018. Andante Travels (01722 569383; andantetravels.co.uk)
7. Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
Atop a pyramidal peak, in the midst of tea country, sits a lump of dented rock – otherwise known as the sri pada, or “sacred footprint”. Devotees of multiple religions make the stiff climb to worship at this holy heel, which – depending on your faith – might be the mark of Buddha, Shiva, Adam or Saint Thomas. Pilgrim trails lead up the 2,244m mountain via tea estates, shrines, steep steps, long drops and wildlife-filled forest. Make the ascent to see both the devotees making offerings and the spectacular highlands spread out below.
Do it: A 14-day Sri Lanka Tracks and Trails trip costs from £1,695, including hiking up Adam’s Peak. Flights not included. Departures April-December 2018. On The Go Tours (020 7371 1113; onthegotours.com)
8. Mount Kailash, Tibet Autonomous Region, China
Soaring 6,714m high in the wilds of western Tibet, Kailash is more than a mountain. It is a mandala, the navel of the universe, a pyramid of power, source of four of Asia’s great rivers, revered by billions of people – Buddhists, Bons, Jains and Hindus all consider it sacred. The ultimate test is to perform a kora, a circular pilgrimage around the mountain, roughly 52km long and strewn with yaks, prayer flags and literally breathtaking views. Buddhists believe one kora absolves the bad karma of one lifetime, while 108 koras will lead to full enlightenment.
Do it: A 22-day Mount Kailash Trek costs from £4,295. Flights not included. Departure September 8 2018. Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com)
9. Wittenberg, Germany
In 1517, professor and priest Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the heavy doors of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche (Castle Church) and changed the course of history. Luther’s Pope-questioning document kickstarted the Protestant Reformation, a massive shake-up of the Christian world. The wooden doors have since been replaced by heavy metal ones, but the church is open for services, concerts and tours. Visit Luther’s tomb, then climb the 289 steps up the round tower, which is inscribed with the title of one of his hymns, to look over the game-changing medieval city.
Do it: A 10-day Elegant Elbe cruise from Berlin to Prague costs from £3,295, including a tour of Wittenberg. Flights included. Departures May-November 2018. Viking River Cruises (0800 319 6660; vikingrivercruises.co.uk)
10. Crater Lake, Oregon, USA
Science says that almost 8,000 years ago, Mount Mazama blew its top and the deep hole left behind flooded, becoming Crater Lake. According to the Native American Klamath, it was a fight between Llao, Chief of the Below World, and Skell, Chief of the Above, who caused the damage. Whichever origin story you prefer, the resultant landscape is legendary. Native Americans performed tough vision quests here, but you can simply follow the trail to the water’s edge. Or sail to Wizard Island, a cinder cone formed during the ancient eruption – or, maybe, the head of Llao himself.
Do it: A 14 day Classic Northwest trip costs from £1,799, including Crater Lake. Flights included. Departures tailormade. The American Road Trip Company (01244 342099; theamericanroadtripcompany.co.uk)
Sarah Baxter is a travel writer and editor, and the author of Spiritual Places (Aurum, £14.99), published 1 March.