You know those moments when you think you might be about to be targeted by the Mafia, but it could be worth it if you at least get to see inside a pretty building?
This was what happened with St Mary’s Benedictine Church in Zadar – or so I thought.
Maybe I’m over-exaggerating. Maybe not. Maybe I just need to back up and give a bit of context.
I’d arrived in Zadar earlier that afternoon, knowing little to nothing about Croatia. After checking into my hostel, I spent a few hours wandering around the Old Town. I’d strolled down to the sea, visited St Donat’s and the cathedral, and taken in the sights and feel of some of the towns beautiful buildings. With my feet feeling hot and large in my shoes, I sat in the Roman forum, people-watching and soaking up the atmosphere.
The forum sits at the centre of Zadar’s Old Town, with St Donat’s on one side and the museum on the other. The third side is covered by a large cafe bar overlooking the ancient ruins, and the fourth side leads down to the sea.
It’s about as touristy as Zadar’s Old Town gets (which isn’t really saying much, as Zadar doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves).
As I looked around, I noticed a little church next to the museum, up a set up steps and set back a little from the forum. The circular window on the front of the building was similar to the one I’d seen on the cathedral half an hour earlier. And since the cathedral had been closed at the time, I thought I might be able to look inside here instead.
A group of about 15 American tourists was standing close to the entrance, but none of them made any attempts to go inside. Neither did the 4 Asian tourists standing near them.
Why? Well, this is where we come to the scary Mafia guy.
Alright, so he was probably actually nothing to do with the Mafia. (I don’t even know if Croatia has a Mafia.) But he was stocky and serious-looking, wearing a dark suit and sunglasses and standing with feet apart and arms folded, like a bouncer or bodyguard. I could feel his eyes on me, on the Americans, on the Asian tourists next to them.
Well, I figured: nothing ventured, nothing gained…
I approached him, asking and half-miming, ‘Can I go inside?’
He looked square at me and beckoned me closer, leaning in until he was only centimetres away.
I held my breath.
With a threatening, I-could-come-after-you-if-you-disobey narrowing of his eyes, he growled, ‘No photo.’
‘No, of course!’ I half laughed, relieved that he hadn’t sent me packing.
So in I went, accompanied by a warning glance from Mr Mafia and envious and amazing looks from the gaggle of tourists.
Inside the church, I had no idea what to expect – probably a small, dark chapel with an smothering silence.
What I didn’t expect was the bright, light, airy interior, with white walls and fine carvings and stucco work. It was a calm, peaceful building, high-ceilinged and full of space. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more feminine church.
Even more ethereal was the sound.
There was a service going on, although only one person was sitting in the main body of the church. But the choir stalls were full. Around 30 nuns, all of different ages, were singing beautiful plain chant. Not perfectly, not always in tune, but somehow this made it all the more beautiful. They sang from the heart, from the soul, and believed completely in what they were singing. It was a magical experience.
Two more men came in during the half hour that I sat there, crossed themselves and joined in the service. Other than them, it was just me. No other tourists. Nobody snapping away with a camera (especially not me, after Mr Mafia’s warning – although I did take a photo of the picture I found on an information board outside).
This was an experience that felt so personal, and entirely mine. It was unexpected and serendipitous. But I also felt as though I had earned this special experience through some rite of passage, if only by being the only person brave enough to ask the man standing guad outside.
I still don’t know why there was a Mafia-style bodyguard outside the church. Perhaps it was to protect all of the nuns, or perhaps one of the nuns was somebody wealthy or particulary important.
What I do know is that I’m so glad I didn’t let him put me off going in, like all of the other people standing around on the outside. In the future, when I’m nervous about doing something, hopefully this will remind me to take the chance and run with it. After all, behind every closely guarded door, there may be a beautiful church and a choir of nuns…