Among the many sights and experiences I had roaming the streets of Europe, stumbling upon the many churches was quite memorable. Whether a cosmopolitan metropolis or quaint seaside town, every community had a place of worship for locals to gather, celebrate, and mourn. Some were prominently displayed in central plazas while others sat tucked between two modern façades on a busy street. The ornate interiors, magnificent altars, towering stained-glass windows, and opulent domes are too numerous to recount, but the beauty, detail, and care that each of these places emulate are truly special. The sheer age of these structures were often astonishing–hundreds of years beyond the founding of the United States or life of Martin Luther. In my opinion, experiencing this rich and deep history is one of Europe’s many treasures and one I was happy to take advantage of. Therefore, my travel partner and I decided that it was in our best interest to stop at every church we passed, regardless of our current itinerary. And so we did. While the churches themselves were quite beautiful, it was mostly about generating spontaneous adventure. Left unchecked, travel can rush us from one sight to the next, and this was one small step in curbing that tendency.
After a weekend in Amsterdam, we began formulating plans for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Cologne, Germany. We knew little besides the famous Cologne Cathedral, but that was enough convincing for a short stopover on our way to Dusseldorf. It was a rainy morning in northeastern Europe, which made our visit to this prominent Gothic site all the more memorable. After an early morning train ride, we climbed the station steps and were instantly greeted by a looming 13th century structure. Touting itself as the most highly-attended attraction in all of Germany, the Cologne Cathedral is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. The photo below depicts a replica of each spire’s final topping–now that’s perspective!
The amount of detail displayed in each spire, statue, and stained-glass window was incredible. Statues large and small line the exterior arches of the church, each overly-qualified to independently stand on its own as a piece of art. The church is over 500 feet in height and took more than six hundred years to complete. At the time of our visit, the Cologne Church was undergoing restoration work to bring back its original beauty. Inside, stained-glass windows over 100 feet high adorn every wall. This church is an absolute artifact of ancient Europe. What may be most astonishing about the Cologne Cathedral was its resilience during the bombings of World War II. While many of the surrounding buildings were razed, the church sustained only minor damage and remained standing tall after the war concluded. Perhaps Allied soldiers didn’t have the heart to destroy a building so beautiful. It made me reflect on all the world’s artifacts lost to war.
After departing the cathedral, a little walking around gave us the sense of Cologne’s smaller size relative to Amsterdam. And with the right amount of exploring, it felt like the authentic German town I expected to find. The sky began to break and we eventually stumbled upon a rowdy crowd at Cologne City Hall. (We mistakenly thought it was a church for a very long time–so we’ll keep up the misconception here. To be fair, it practically looks like one.) Intrigued by the commotion, we approached a gathering of people with red heart balloons, banners, and flowers. All things seemed to indicate a wedding except for the absurd costumes everyone was wearing. While there are nutty relatives in every family, few people can claim their relation to Captain Hook, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or the Queen of England! Turns out we had stumbled upon a fairy tale wedding. Sappy in any country, and certainly more entertaining in a foreign one.
Moments after our arrival, other locals and tourists began to gather around city hall. Within the hour, people came and left, but we committed to seeing it through. Balancing intrusion with genuine curiosity, we slowly integrated ourselves into the crowd. About an hour later, everyone cheered, clapped, and raised their cameras. To bells and music, the happy couple exited the building among a jubilant crowd of family and friends (…and characters…strangers).
The newlyweds donned a Prince Charming and Cinderella outfit–quite appropriate for the occasion. After running through a human tunnel of their nearest and dearest guests, they completed three tasks to signify their new life together. First, they cut hearts from a large cloth, one small heart individually and a larger heart together to signify their union. All the while, cheers and remarks were exchanged in German, yet fell on our deaf ears. Secondly, they released dozens of red heart balloons with what appeared to be well wishes written on cards and affixed to the strings. Last, the bride and groom sawed a log in half–yes, a log. Nearly 8 inches in diameter. Now I’m not really sure what type of tradition this was, but it was symbolic nonetheless–teamwork? That said, they should’ve found an easier log to split. Both of them worked up quite a sweat while the Queen heckled them from the sidelines. As awkward tension and anticipation grew, they finally got through the damn thing. Once all the magical symbols of unity were completed, they hopped into a semi-truck cab decorated with wreaths and balloons, and presumably drove to the nearest biergarten, although we can’t be for certain.
This experience is out of the ordinary by most Germans standards, but one thing is certainly true: it was an experience we will never forget. Planning something like this into our travels is a fool’s errand; for these opportunities only exist if you slow down enough to find them. We could’ve strolled down another cobblestone street, or showed up on another day altogether. And even if it wasn’t a fairy tale wedding, it might’ve been a Japanese-German baptism or a Louisiana-style brass band playing a funeral procession. One of my great joys of traveling is finding moments like that.
After an eventful morning in Cologne, we made our way north to the German city of Dusseldorf, an international business and finance hub named one of the world’s most livable cities. Complimenting the pristine boulevards and canals, Dusseldorf also housed one of the most modern churches we saw in all of Europe. Rather unremarkable from the outside, the white-washed interiors, frosted glass staircase, and brushed steel railings all communicated something different. Fortunate to have some remarkable mid-afternoon sunshine (and an empty building), the reflections danced all around the bright white spaces. Compared to the cathedral’s musty interior, Johanneskirche had freshly-cleaned tile floors, immaculate pews, and the fresh scent of renovation. Event the stained-glass windows maintained a round, modern look. The whole place was almost angelic, and added a very contemporary element to our journey.
Southern Germany was calling our name, so we scheduled an overnight train to the state of Bavaria and it’s capital city Munich. It was the last week in February which meant increasing temperatures and sunshine as we approached the Mediterranean. While the beer halls are plenty (and we certainly tried our fair share), we dedicated the mornings and afternoons to urban exploration. During our time there, we bounced between a few beautiful churches. After visiting a handful of regionally and artistically diverse buildings, there were a few things I began to notice. Nearly all of these places of worship had a seat, staircase, or pulpit on the left-hand side of the cathedral pews (notice the teal-tinted staircase in photos above). I’m not sure if this was sheer happenstance, or of a greater architectural and religious purpose. They were usually quite ornate, so we suspected it to be a seat for dignified guests or leadership. As we continued through Munich, the morning light served our photos well.
En route to the hostel, we came upon the incredible gem of St. Ludwig München (that’s how you spell Munich is German), just west of the famous English Garden. It was built in neo-romanesque style and as we later discovered it also contains the second largest altar fresco in the entire world. We had a very real Travel God moment where beams of light broke through the southern windows of the church, illuminating the central altar. It was a moment of absolute beauty.
After a handful of days in Germany, we continued tracing the European spine south through the Tunscan countryside to the breath-taking city of Florence. After an early morning wake-up, the first Florentine site I laid my eyes upon was Il Duomo, literally meaning “the dome”. Serving as the city’s central cathedral, Il Duomo attracts Italians, foreign tourists, families, artists, and architects alike. Unlike the Gothic buildings seen before, Il Duomo’s exterior evokes an entirely different experience. Decorated in endless colors and textures, morning sun glistened off thousands of multi-colored marble walls, steps, and sculptures. Terracotta shingles adorn the dome, bell tower, and every building within kilometers.
During our time wandering inside and around Il Duomo, we got to know an American named Mary who was a university student studying architecture at one of the many local schools. We heard a rumor that there are more American students studying abroad in Florence than any other city in the entire world (it seemed plausible!). We chatted with her for a while and ascended the steps of the copula until reaching the highest point of the church. The dome itself is 45 meters in diameter and was erected using revolutionary building techniques at the time. We could see the bell town, surrounding plaza, and neighboring streets below. The Tuscan hills rested quietly in the distance as clouds rolled over the sky. It’s incredible to fathom how many natural disasters, political changes, and global meltdowns this building has survived. Thankfully the Florentine people hold it remarkably close to their heart.
Days after climbing the stairs of Il Duomo, we gathered at one of the world’s most holy sites: St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican. The epicenter of the Catholic faith, the Vatican rivals only the Colosseum for #1 must-see attractions in Rome. While staying at a cozy B&B, we happened to share our itinerary with the Italian staff. To much Italian yelling, we discovered the Pope would be speaking that day! What a coincidence, we thought.
Upon arriving at St. Peter’s Basilica, we were greeted by the Swiss Guard and a few thousand people with the same idea. We had inadvertently went to the Vatican on Ash Wednesday. Clearly no good Catholics in our bunch. Call it a snafu, pure luck, or divine intervention, we were treated to an incredible scene at the Vatican that day. Illuminating the two crowd-flanking jumbotrons, Pope Francis appeared regal in his Pope-mobile. During his short procession through the crowds, we were lucky enough to stand but a few meters from one of the world’s most influential leaders. It was a remarkable experience. You could feel the joy, passion, and energy igniting the air. Babies were being thrown in his direction.
The unfortunate trade-off of this experience was the remarkable crowds and 11-hour long line to St. Peter’s Basilica. Hence, we opted against seeing (what is most likely) the most-ornate and beautiful churches in all the world for a trip to the Sistine Chapel. Not a bad trade-off, but it certainly gives me a reason to return to the Vatican! The Sistine Chapel had too many guards to count, and like most security staff, they spent most of the time socializing with peers. Every once in awhile, they would ask for silence in four or five languages. The chapel was about three stories tall and covered in one of the most massive paintings I’ve ever seen. The main wall was titled The Last Judgement and naturally depicted Christ’s return and the end of time. Directly above the room’s center was the very famous Creation of Adam, showing a personified God giving life to Adam.
This painting would have been completed upside down making it a very impressive piece of art. As a whole, the Sistine Chapel lived up to its name. However, I’m sure it lost a little bit of the “awe” factor simply because we witnessed so many impressive pieces of art in the previous two weeks. I’m by no means saying that it was not worth it, but I do think it would have been far more impressive if we had seen it first. Despite all the signs prohibiting photos, I was able to sneak a few worthy of a frame. Aside from this magnificent chapel, I can’t recommend the churches of Europe enough, where the line between church, museum, relic, and work of art all seem to blur together.