Possibly one of the most spectacular and amazing places in all of Italy is the medieval pile of stones that is the Sacra of San Michele monastery. Crowning the Mount Pirchiriano in Northern Italy, the Sacra di San Michele seemingly floats in the clouds, fanned by the incredible landscapes of the Val di Susa. Officially named as the Symbolic monument of the Piedmont region, this jaw-dropping abbey was probably consecrated in 966, but little is known about the early years of this amazing building. Tradition says that the Sacra di San Michele was erected by a pious hermit known as St Giovanni Vincenzo on the orders of archangel Michael – supposedly the angel then miraculously transported all of the stones and other materials to the summit of Mt Pirchiriano (though the miracles stopped there – St Giovanni still had to build the abbey!) Apparently the site was chosen for its isolation and difficulty to reach as this was typical of the Cult of St Michael (think France’s Mont Saint Michel!). The Sacra, part of the Benedictine Order, became part of the famous Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome, even extending beyond to Canterbury. In fact, the route is still in use today, and has seen a recent revival and resurgence of pilgrims (though today’s pilgrims are more interested in the history and culture and food found on the trail, and less in the religious aspect of it). The Sacra di San Michele is also famous for inspiring the abbey at the central of Italian novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Pro tip: Instead of driving, start your adventure at the village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, where you can follow an ancient mule track up the mountain. Following the Signs of the Cross, the trail winds around the mountain, in and out of the forest, past tiny hamlets and ancient sites before arriving at the mountain’s summit. The path, about 3.5 km each way, starts behind the old church and continues upwards from there.
Other Beautiful Medieval Religious Sites in Europe
Boyle Abbey in the Irish midlands, was Connacht’s (one of four traditional regions of Ireland) first Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1142 (though not consecrated until 1218), Boyle Abbey was built alongside the skeletal shell of an abandoned Celtic monastery. Cistercians, also called Bernardines or sometimes White Monks (for their garments), are a Catholic order of monks and nuns from Cîteaux, France (near Dijon) that were a highly influential religious sect under the renowned influenced of famed Bernard de Clairvaux. Widespread across Europe, the Cistercians founded hundreds of monasteries, abbeys and daughter houses. Though the Cistercians seemingly found it difficult to settle down in Ireland, they finally found their home in Boyle, growing quite successful at founding many daughter abbeys and monasteries throughout the region. Unfortunately, much of the beautiful cloisters and other fine architectural details are lost today. In 1645, Boyle Abbey was besieged by the evil Oliver Cromwell and his English army of hooligans, who spent the better part of four years (from 1649–53) murdering, destroying and causing terror and mayhem across Ireland for the sole purpose of conquering Ireland in order to steal their land and force them under English and Protestant rule. Of course, Ireland was predominantly Catholic (and thanks to the misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII, the English were very strongly Protestants) – all of which lead to the Penal Laws that effectively outlawed Catholicism in Ireland. Poor Boyle Abbey was once again ravaged in 1592, this time when it was transformed into Elizabethan barracks – soldiers’ quarters and a base for the English army – because what better way to assert dominance over your colony than use a monastery as a war engine (the British don’t fare well in Irish history…). Archeologists, historians and conservationists have attempted to recover and conserve the abbey as much as possible, carrying out both repairs and archeological surveys – leading to both a new wall and some interesting finds – with the abbey presented as it would have been under the Cistercian command.
Tip: Today, Boyle Abbey is under the care of the OPW (Ireland’s public works office) so check opening hours before you go, and be prepared for poor weather conditions as most of the tour is outside. Afterwards, eat at the deliciously organic Drumanilra Farm Kitchen, or head to the Book Lady for a bit of reading material, Ireland’s self-proclaimed smallest bookshop.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, France (On the Avignon Bridge, France)
Another day, another bridge. In contrast to the super-sleek, ultra-design Zubri Zuri Bridge in Bilbao, the Pont d’Avignon is one of the world’s most famous traditional, historic bridges – not unlike Prague’s Charles Bridge. The Pont d’Avignon is famous largely because of the classic French nursery song about it (Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse, On y danse/Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse tous en rond) – even though the song is wrong. It’s unlikely people ever danced ‘sur’ (on) the bridge; lacking for space, it’s far more likely that they danced underneath…Today the bridge only crosses half the Rhone River, the rest having been washed away (learn more about the Pont d’Avignon’s history here). Rising majestically behind the broken bridge is the Palais des Papes – the Papel Palace – which was the seat of 6 ‘rebel’ popes in the 14th century. During the Avignon Papacy, in 1305 the Palais became the papal residence when French Pope Clement V elected to move the papal centre of authority to Avignon in an effort to avoid facing the chaos in Rome (in all fairness, I’d be inclined to think the same thing…the Eternal City is eternally chaotic). Though succeeding in centralising power and church regulations, the Avignon Papacy also succeeded in consuming most the papacy’s purse by constructing this overwhelmingly extravagant Palais des Papes. Today, this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest and most important constructions in the Gothic style in Europe – with its massive halls, extensive dining rooms, glamorous bedrooms and beautiful chapels, it’s easy to why. You can buy a combined ticket in order to visit both sites. For a nice aerial view, climb up the hill Rocher des Domes afterwards.
Find More Amazing European Gothic Architecture Here
Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia
The Kremlin: probably one of the most infamous places across the Globe, it seems that few people choose to venture inside this massive and widely important complex. In essence, the Moscow Kremlin is a fortified complex snuggled between Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, and encompasses five palaces, four cathedrals, and the Kremlin Wall interspersed with the famed red towers of the Kremlin. It is the Russian version of the White House, serving as personal residence of Russia’s president (today meaning the controversial Vladimir Putin). In the past, versions of the site have served as the seat of the Grand Dukes of Russia, the famous Russian Tsars, Catherine the Great and her extravagant Neoclassical palace and Soviet rulers. The above building is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which contains 22 bells and is now the tallest Kremlin structure. It is not the first bell tower to appear here; indeed, Moscow’s first bell tower was erected here in 1329, called St Ivan of the Ladder Under the Bell. One of Russia’s Grand Dukes, Ivan Kalita, built this massive whitewashed brick version in 1508 – the name is supposedly a nod towards the original tower, but one can imagine that Grand Duke Ivan wasn’t too opposed to name his construction the ‘Ivan the Great Bell Tower’ either! To visit this tower and the rest of the ever-impressive and awe-inspiring complex, one must buy tickets at the entrance, taking care stay with the carefully-allotted paths and buildings unless you’d like to see what the inside of a Russian prison looks like! Visit the exterior of the complex by exploring Red Square and alternatively, take a boat tour of the Moskva River at sunset to see Moscow in a new light!
Are you looking for off-the-beaten-path France? You just found it. The St Cyr Hermitage, perched on the hilltop Mont Cindre above the little village of St Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or about 30 minutes from Lyon, is hard to locate, or even learn about in English. Founded by a monk from the nearby once-powerful monastery, L’Ile Barbe (on the northern outskirts of Lyon) some 650 years ago, St Cyr is composed of les pierres dorées or ‘golden stones’ found in this region of the Beaujolais. It is a place of rest, tranquility and repose, on the outskirts of the world. Because of the altitude, the monk of the hermitage can overlook the rivers Rhone and Saone, the city of Lyon, mountains of the Alps and even the summits of Mont Blanc on a clear day. With little to no architectural training, the hermit’s chapel, garden and dormitory is a creative and innovative mess of stones of all shapes, sizes and textures. Hand-carved statues, arches and other decorations abound, making the heritage feel like a surreal art project from another century. There are two ways to get there. One is via the village St Cyr: simply go upwards towards the tower, and follow the signs. The other, more adventurous way is walk up the trail: from St Cyr, head up Rue Fouilloux and pick up the trail head on your right: Sentier de Puits des Vignes, leading to a right on Montee du Grimpillon, and a left on Chemin Vial until the crosses of the hermitage rise above your head. The hermitage is only open for limited hours during the summer.
6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.
In English: the Swedish Church. In Denmark. Located on the moat banks of the Kastellet, a 17th century star fortress adjoined to the city walls tasked with the protection of Copenhagen. What’s a Swedish church doing there? To understand, we must first look to the church’s history. Denmark and Sweden share many things, including a similarly harsh climate, the Øresund and the Baltic Sea, and even almost a common language (they are close enough for speakers of each language to understand the other). They also seem to share a similar attitude on life: live and let live. Despite a troubled past, the two nations, along with the rest of their Scandinavian sisters, all seem to get along and just live – a marvellous notion that we could all take a page from. Well enough preaching – and back to Svenska Gustaf. The story starts with a Swedish pastor called Nils Widner who went to Copenhagen to educate Swedish sailors living there, but was soon swept into the world of Swedish expats. As his circle grew, Nils realised they would need a church to provide for the growing congregation. In an action of solidarity, his loyal followers agreed to donate 10 øre a week (mere pennies, but dedication counts!) until the church was completed, which ended up being in 1911. The Danish, bless them, provided Pastor Nils with a lovely site along the northern side of the Kastellet, a beautiful island fortress (a stone’s throw away from the St Alban’s, a 19th-century English church, erected for similar reasons 25 years before). A Swedish architect designed Svenska Gustaf, and a Danish architect supervised the construction. Danish and Swedish royalty alike attended the opening ceremony. Everyone got along, everyone worked together, everyone was happy. But then again, what more do you expect from Danes and Swedes, eh?
White and gold-wrapped Hershey Kisses turban the top of the magnificent Smolny Cathedral and Convent in the glittering Russian cultural capital. Originally built to be a religious palace (or prison, depending on how you look at it) for Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, she later rejected monastic life after her predecessor Ivan VI became the victim of a coup d’etat, instead opting to accept the throne in his stead. Smolny Cathedral is the jewel in the crown of the surrounding Smolny Convent, built by famed Italian architect Rastrelli between 1748 and 1764 (the same man who designed the Winter Palace and many other glittering St Petersburg landmarks). Catherine the Great, who did not approve of gaudy Baroque styles, later halted the work on the complex, but it still remains one of the cities finest gems. Today, it houses a concert hall, government offices, and several departments of the St Petersburg State University.
Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland
The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.
The Orthodox faith has always been very important in Holy Russia – though to me, Russian Orthodox churches look like pastries, and Chesme is no exception (I’m licking my lips right now!). Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg in what was once a marsh, largely because he felt like it. He wanted to show off his might and skill to the Russian Empire, Europe, and the rest of the world. He wanted to be close to the Baltic Sea (Russia fought for centuries for access to those frosty Baltic Sea ports…). After many embarrassing failures to control the Baltic Sea trade, finally, he gained minor success in the northern Baltic region. So, he decided to use the bit of land he gained to build his own city. But the ironic thing? Peter didn’t even like religion. He didn’t trust it – and this distrust shook up the entire state of Holy Russia to its core. Yet to this day, St Petersburg hosts some of the most magnificent religious buildings in the entire Christian faith from awesome cathedrals all the way to little churches in the outskirts like this one here – largely because of Russia’s great art patron, Catherine the Great. Built in 1780 by Catherine, Chesme Church commemorates Russia’s 1770 victory against the Turks in Chesme Bay.
Russia does not have the best reputation in the world–and Vladimir Putin is not helping. The current conflict, mingled with the administrative difficulties in visiting Russia is a crying shame because St Pete was once one of Europe’s–and the world’s–top cultural centers. And it still could be, if only they’d let it shine they way it is meant to! The Trinity Cathedral with its beautiful blue domes is only one of many, many beautiful buildings found in Russia’s centre of culture. You can wander the streets all day and STILL find beautiful buildings and elegant boulevards and magical cathedrals, even far from the centre. Aside from Paris and a few other large (and lucky!) European cities, most of the continent’s finest cities lose some of their splendor a short walk from the centre. Here, the beauty lives on. Not only that, but the city is alive with bustling streets interspersed with peaceful parks, busy churches with weddings spilling out on their lawns, cafes and restaurants bubbling over with charm and vivacity. The Russians are stereotyped as cold and hard and rude, and while that may be true of the lady selling metro tickets (but let’s admit, anyone forced to spend uninterrupted hours in a tiny box underground making repeated sales would be a bit charmless), once you get past that hard exterior, the Russians can be quite fun, certainly hilarious, and even adventurous (or is that recklessness?). No matter; a sojourn to discover Europe’s finest art, cultural and religious centers cannot be complete without a visit to St Pete. It is hands-down one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. And as a teensy tip–one can avoid the tedious visa process by visiting on a designated tour (usually by cruise) for up to 72 hours without a visa.
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
Latvia—like its neighbours Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, etc—was once a part of the Russian Empire, and the Russians, as you know, are orthodox. Therefore, in the years 1867-83, the Russians got to work constructing an orthodox house of worship in the centre of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Built in the Neo-Byzantine style, Riga’s cathedral still stands proudly in the in downtown Riga. While other ex-Russian satellite nations have torn down their cathedrals (*cough Poland cough*), Riga still has one right in the centre. Despite the mostly-negative impact of Russian occupation of the Baltic States, it is important to remember and recognise all aspects of history—and to appreciate culture and beauty. Because the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is beautiful! Russian Orthodox cathedrals usually are. The biggest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, it was commissioned by Tsar Alexander II. The church was briefly a Lutheran cathedral—and later a planetarium in the early days of independent Latvia—but since 1991, it has been restored to its original design. And now today, it resembles a delicious gateau enough to make my mouth water…!
Contrast, at its base, is a comparison between two contrasting items in order to highlight their differences. Classic examples include the contrast between light and dark, black and white, hot and cold, up and down, big and small, tall and short, happy and sad, ancient and modern, science and religion. The simple perpendicular lines of the cross populate our world in so many ways. Here, we see two types of crosses found throughout in the world today: one representing the “old” way of thinking, ie religion and faith–and the other representing the “new” way of thought ie modern science and technology. Yet–do they have to be at contrast with each other, or can they complement each other? As Dan Brown says, “Faith is universal ; our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth that which is greater than ourselves.” And on this quiet mountain path in this quiet Italian village, everything seems to come together perfectly !
Zrodełko objawienia (“Spring of Revelations”) near Kluski, Poland
Apparently, this site has been of religious interest for over a 1,000 years, and Christians have been coming here for healing ever since. However, it was only recently that the pope decided it was indeed holy and allowed the building of the stone spring and Mary’s statue (because apparently, we need his permission for that? A Holy Building Permit or something?). Next to the small spring there is a cup, used for dipping into the water in order to drink the magical spring water – which is supposedly capable of healing all wounds. Those healed, or ‘touched by angels,’ leave small angel statues by the spring’s edges, as a way of thanking Mary for her help. People used to gather here once a year, in May, to celebrate the anniversary of the spring’s discovery, but ever since the pope (or his local representative) blessed it and recognised it as holy, they now have much more frequent masses. During the communist rule, they used to take away the angels and the other offerings, since of course, the communists wanted to suppress religion – but the resilient Poles continued to make the pilgrimage to the spring and leave behind the angels anyway, preserving the tradition.
Antica Mulattiera in the Val de Susa (near St Ambroiso), Italy
Hidden among the curves of this ancient mule path (antica mulattiera) that carves its way up the mountain carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years, one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” a reminder to the route’s many pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by millions of pilgrim’s boots line the rugged path that hugs the mountainside. For those who want to leave behind the 21st century–travelling back in time to the middle ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer, take this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views and hillside villages. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
You can’t usually see the original Holy Shroud, as the Church only occasionally brings the famous artefact out for public viewing (the last time being in 2010). However, you can visit the museum to learn a lot about it, later viewing a life-size reproduction displayed in a chapel. The Holy Shroud is an ancient relic passed down through generations and closely guarded, as many believe it is the shroud that once wrapped Jesus’ body after death. And if you study the cloth, it’s true that the wounds evident on the shroud do correspond with the wounds dictated in the Bible (blood stains on the man’s feet from a nail hole as well as on the wrists – interestingly not the hands; this has to do with a lack of difference between ‘hand’ and ‘wrist’ in ancient Greek. The man also has a postmortem cut on his side, his back is injured as result of a whipping and multiple puncture wounds appear on the forehead as well as signs of a beating). However, according to carbon dating, the Shroud is at best 1,000 years old – bringing up the question of how accurate carbon dating is (if contaminated by chemicals, linens especially can be affected). Here, lit from below, is a Polish artist’s rendition of the moment that Christ comes back to life, gasping for air after lying dead and buried for days. Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you think that by staring at the Shroud you are literally staring into the eyes of Jesus, you have to admit that the idea that it could be him is powerful and arresting – and enough to make your spine tingle. “And let there be light,” you whisper as you eventually tear your eyes away from the powerful figure who may or may not be Jesus Christ.
Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse, Béziers, France.
Though the city itself may need a little tender loving care, this cathedral certainly does not! Dating back to the 13th century, the sacred site itself is even older. The cathedral replaced a building that was destroyed during the Massacre of Béziers, a terrible slaughter in 1209 at the start of the Albigensian Crusade – even those who sought refuge in what they presumed to be the sanctuary of the cathedral were killed. Today, the cathedral quietly overlooks the River Orb and rather resembles a castle on a hilltop more than a cathedral. It remains a symbol of the town and can be seen from quite far away!