Nearly every culture in human history has sought to honor the divine, the mysterious, the supernatural, or the extraordinary in some way. Most often this happens at sacred sites - special places where the physical world seems to meet the spiritual world. These might be awe-inspiring natural places, sites connected to a god, a saint, or a hero, places where miracles or visions were reported, or buildings consecrated for worship or ritual.
Svatá Hora (the Holy Mountain), Czech Republic
It is the oldest and most important Marian place of pilgrimage in the Czech Republic. The chapel on Svatá Hora, originally a simple Early Renaissance building was built in the early 16th century. According to the tradition, Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice is the author of the local sculpture of the Virgin Mary with the Infant from the mid- 14th century. The sculpture was brought to Svatá Hora in the 16th century; soon after processions began to come to this place. In 1647 the Jesuits took over the administration of the place and initiated grand construction on Svatá Hora as a place of pilgrimage. The church was completed and consecrated in 1673. The highest honour for the Virgin Mary of Svatá Hora was her coronation in 1732. In 1861 the Redemptorists took over the administration of the place and acted here till 1950. Forty years later they came back again. The great significance of Svatá Hora was strengthened by the administration of the Pope’s title “basilica minor”.
The Church of Our Lady Victorious, Prague
It is a destination for many pilgrims from all around the world, who come to pay homage to the Infant Jesus of Prague. The statue of the Infant Jesus originally came from Spain and is especially venerated by believers from Hispanic countries.
Maria Plain, Austria
In 16th century Germany, a fire broke out in a family's bakery. Everything was destroyed except for a painting of the Virgin Mary that had been miraculously untouched. The painting became the subject of local devotion, and 20 years later, the nobleman Rudolf of Gaming brought it to Maria Plain, an area on a hill overlooking Salzburg. The painting was first housed in a small chapel, but soon so many pilgrims came to pray before the image that a larger church had to be built. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Maria Plain was commissioned by the bishop in 1671 and completed three years later. Benedictine monks assumed responsibility for the shrine. In 1952, the pope raised the shrine to the status of a Minor Basilica, and in 1983, Pope John Paul II prayed before the image of the Virgin at Maria Plain
Mariazell is the most famous place of pilgrimage in all of Central Europe. The extraordinary element of Mariazell is not the age of its foundation, nor is it the statue itself nor some outstanding miracle that has won it fame; Mariazell is most famous because it is venerated by the people of such different and varied nations. The story of the shrine at Mariazell begins in 1157, when the Benedictine monk Magnus left his abbey to retire in the wilderness, taking a statue of the Virgin and Child with him. Allegedly, he could no proceed walking at a certain point because the forest was to thick so he prayed to the Virgin for help and soon after that the bush and the rocks opened up to make way for him. A little further down he stopped, set up his abode and some time later built a little chapel and placed the statue inside. The first, Romanesque church was built around 1200. In 1340, a greater one, built by King Louis the Great of Hungary, replaced the Romanesque church. The third church, in Baroque style, was erected in the late seventeenth century. Nowadays, Our Lady of Mariazell is called ‘Magna Mater Austriae’ (the great Mother of Austria) and attracts about 250 thousand pilgrims every year.
Silent Night Chapel, Austria
The Silent Night Chapel (German: Stille Nacht Kapelle) marks the place where the Christmas carol "Silent Night" was heard for the first time, on Christmas Eve 1818. This simple Christmas carol conquered the world from a small parish church in Tyrol. To this day it has been translated into about 300 languages and dialects all over the world. It was at the Romanesque parish church of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf that the Christmas carol "Silent Night" was first performed in 1818. The Silent Night Memorial Chapel, which stands on the original site of the St. Nikolaus Church, was consecrated on August 15, 1937, after 13 years of construction. Each Christmas Eve at 5pm, a memorial service in honor of the creators of the Silent Night carol takes place in front of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel. Thousands of people from around the world attend this ceremony and sing "Silent Night" in many languages at the conclusion of the ceremony
Melk Abbey, Austria
On the bank of the Danube River between Salzburg and Vienna, Melk Abbey stands crowned by towers and resplendent in golden ochre. The Benedictine monastic community of Melk is over 900 years old and black-robed monks still stroll amidst the marble sculptures and frescoed walls. It is now also a prestigious co-ed monastery school with more than 700 students. Today's impressive Baroque ensemble was built in 1702-1736 by architect Jakob Prandtauer. Noteworthy is the Church with frescos by Johann Michael Rottmayr and the impressive library with countless medieval manuscripts. The library was used by Umberto Eco to research his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose.
Abbey of St. Florian, Austria
The largest monastery in Upper Austria, is an impressive example of Baroque architecture and art. It is also the shrine of St. Florian, patron saint against fire and flood (and therefore patron of firefighters), whose grave lies under the church. The abbey is located in the town of Sankt Florian, 12 miles outside Linz, from which it is accessible by public transportation.
Marija Bistrica, Croatia
The greatest Marian shrine, officially proclaimed a national Marian shrine in 1971, is situated forty km northwest of Zagreb, in Marija Bistrica.Today, this shrine has a beautiful basilica - officially named by Pope Pius XI - and a votive altar which the Croatian Parliament commissioned in 1715. The spacious, unfinished "open-air church", the unfinished "wall of trust and hope" and Calvary - unique Stations of the Cross, are original artistic works by Croatian sculptors from the second half of the twentieth century. Veneration of Mary began in the fifteenth century when the black figure of Our Lady became famous for its miraculous powers. During the Ottoman invasion that figure was walled in on two occasions within the church walls. It was finally rediscovered in 1684 when, thanks to the efforts of the Zagreb Pauline Bishop, Martin Borkovic, the act of veneration strongly developed. The shrine has been constantly modernised and its ongoing, present-day improvement is a direct result of the visit made by Pope John Paul II on 3rd October 1998. The shrine in Marija Bistrica is the site of the greatest and the most important events in the church calendar, and is visited each year by between 500 and 800 thousand pilgrims.
Founded in 996 on a sacred mountain dedicated to St. Martin, Pannonhalma Archabbey is an active Benedictine monastery and World Heritage Site in Hungary. It welcomes visitors to explore its forested grounds and buildings, which include a 13th-century Gothic church with Baroque additions, a beautiful 19th-century library, and an ultramodern reception building.
It is the seat of the archbishop of Esztergom, the primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church. St. Stephen (970?-1038), the first Hungarian king and founder of the country, was born in the castle erected here in around 970. Built on Castle Hill in the first half of the 19th century, the Classicist cathedral on Szent István tér is the country's largest church with the world's largest altarpiece, painted on a single piece of canvas. The cathedral incorporates the early 16thcentury red marble Bakócz Chapel, the only intact Renaissance edifice in Hungary. The Treasury of the Cathedral exhibits the richest collection of Hungarian ecclesiastical art of some 400 items. The private royal chapel, the frescoed castle chapel and a rose window in the vicinity of the cathedral are remainders of a Romanesque royal palace. The Castle Museum (1 Szent István tér) in the restored halls of the palace of Árpád kings traces the history of the castle in Esztergom. The head of the Hungarian Catholic Church resides at the Primate's Palace (2 Mindszenty hercegprímás tere), which also houses the Christian Museum exhibiting the most valuable pieces of medieval Hungarian fine arts. The Baroque ambience on Széchenyi tér is created by middle-class houses and the City Hall. Topped by two spires, its parish church (1724-28) is a unique monument of Italian Baroque architecture.
Einsiedeln gained popularity as a religious tourist destination thanks to its Benedictine Abbey, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Switzerland. More than 100,000 religious tourists visit annually to see the statue of the Black Madonna in the abbey’s lavishly decorated Baroque church. Also on visitors’ agendas are Diorama Bethlehem, regarded as the world’s largest nativity display with 450 hand-carved figures, and Panorama Crucifixion of Christ, a giant circular painting. The town, about 25 miles southeast of Zurich, is close to many scenic hiking trails in the Swiss Alps. Geneva and Zurich have sites associated John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, Swiss leaders of the Reformation.
For more than 500 years this Bavarian town has been Germany’s most significant place of pilgrimage venerating the Virgin Mary. More than a million pilgrims a year visit the Chapel of Grace (built around 700) and its Black Madonna. As history tells it, a child drowned in a nearby river in 1489 and his mother took his body to the altar at the foot of a wooden statue of the Black Madonna. He was miraculously revived, and the news spread quickly across the country. The shrine was expanded with a nave and covered walkway. Today the small chapel, where the hearts of Bavarian kings are stored in silver urns, is one of many points of interest in this town of 12,000 near the Austrian border. The late Gothic, twin-towered Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church) and the Neo-Baroque St. Anna’s Basilica are two of many churches within walking distance of Chapel Square, where Pope Benedikt XVI celebrated Mass in 2006. Across from the Chapel of Grace is the New Ecclesiastical Treasury and Pilgrimage Museum, which is named for the Pope, a Bavarian who has been familiar with Altötting since childhood. Another draw is the Crucifixion Panorama, a 360-degree painting (dating from 1903) that depicts events that transpired on Good Friday in Jerusalem. From May to October, candlelight processions take place from St. Anna’s to the square.
Medugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Apparitions of Mary have appeared before six children since 1981 in this Adriatic town and made the town a popular pilgrimage destination. The site annually attracts one million people, some of whom have witnessed visions in the sky including hearts and crosses around the sun. This once tumultuous region now has enjoyed an economic boom, thanks in part to religious tourism. More than 1,000 hotel and hostel beds are available
Hill of Crosses, Lithuania
From a distance, the Hill of Crosses doesn't look like much, just a small knoll with some crosses. But as you approach, the collection of crosses you will suddenly realise just how many crosses there are. The hill is literally covered in crucifixes of all sizes, materials and colours left by pilgrims through the last couple of centuries. It's estimated that there are more than 100,000 crosses - and more are coming every year.