December 14, 2005

Christmas in old, quiet places

There’s something deeply calming about spending Christmas week in an old European town whose cobbles and cathedrals have seen Christmases since the Middle Ages.

The swirl of white lights in the leaded window of an ornament shop in a walled city on Germany's Romantic Road; quiet candles casting a yellow glow inside a crumbling Portuguese church that sits on the sea; the slow, deliberate movement of two dozen Catalans celebrating the holiday by dancing their solemn sardana, arms linked, in front of La Seu, Barcelona's soaring Gothic cathedral.

In an ancient place, on a hushed winter afternoon or evening, such sights both stir and settle the soul. The simplest things often touch us most deeply.

In Tarragona, Spain (above), the unadorned, potted evergreens that sat along the narrow pedestrian passage leading to the cathedral were, there and then in that quiet alley half-hidden from the sun, the most beautiful Christmas trees I’d ever seen.