Culture and religion, Destinations, Europe, Trekking

European Sacred Destinations – Pilgrim’s starter kit (I)

There’s no holiday like visiting sacred monuments for any Christian out there who’s attracted by pilgrimages and spiritual life. And Europe’s one of the most abundant places on Earth where any religious (or simply curious) traveler can find inner peace while wondering at architecturally marvelous and spiritually meaningful opulent constructions. Christianity is not something very popular among tourists, but it is certainly a fact – the dozens of millions of people visiting all kinds of houses of worship that have made the subject of their belief are only to confirm that religious tourism is yet to be promoted.

Fatima

It is, perhaps, the most popular Christian attraction in Portugal. It’s where back in 1917 a Marian apparition is believed to have happened before three peasant children, event that shook the foundation of every religious person there is, just to add some more reasons to their value system. The symbolical value of the apparitions is believed to be an unusual way of interference in people’s conduits on Earth, which is what makes this appearances crucial for Christianity. Beyond the attributed significance of the representation, what makes Fatima one of Europe’s top Christian pilgrimage destinations is the Chapel of Apparition, celebrated on May and October 13. During this time, millions of pilgrims try to make their way to the holy place, and the good news is there are other interesting cultural monuments, churches and monasteries to be visited in the area. The site is quite agglomerated during the two annual anniversaries, but if you’re booking a hostel/hotel a month or two earlier you can save up to 50% of the accommodation expenses.

It is believed that on July 13, Virgin Mary told the secrets of Fatima in one of her apparitions. There are believed to be three: the first one describing a frightening version of Hell, the second depicting the end of WWI and the beginning of WWII, concerning the ‘consecration of Russia to the Immaculate heart of Mary’. When Pope John Paul II gave a blessing over the world in 1984 it is believed that this request of Virgin Mary was fulfilled, although there is a controverse whether Sister Lucia agreed with this state of things. As for the third secret, it was only made public in 2000 at Easter, and when told it seemed very uncertain and open to interpretations. The prophecy speaks of a pope being murdered at the foot of a cross, on top of a mountain, along with many other important religious figures, by some soldiers. While the public and official interpretation speaks of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, there are numerous voices who believe that the secret was not entirely revealed because of the conflictual causalities.

Lourdes

It is the second most popular Christian sacred destination for pilgrims in Europe. Even though at a first glance the similarity with Fatima seems only superficial, experts in religion and theology sustain that there are many things these two sites have in common – some of them even think they are the two sides of a single, unitary religious fact. Lady of Lourdes has shown herself in many epiphanies during time and the place is highly popular for the miraculous healing that have happened among the pilgrims. Annually, over 5 million people come to visit the sacred monument – you shouldn’t concern for accommodation here either, there are over 270 hotels in the city that could even accommodate all the tourists at once if it would be necessary. The Marian apparition from 1858 is what makes people come year after year from April to late October and visit this place with far-famed healing properties, while the official day of maximum importance is August 15th, the day when the Christian world commemorates the death of Virgin Mary. While the registers say that over 200 pilgrims have visited the site since 1858, up to six million pilgrims are expected here annually.

The history of this holy destination starts with a fourteen year old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who saw the apparitions of a white-robed lady eighteen times, in Massabiele, near Lourdes – the story says that during these epiphanies the girl was told to advise the priest of the small grotto to build a chapel that would become famous, a place where many would come for prayer and faith, for piety and humbleness.

During the 16th apparition, the lady confessed to be Virgin Mary and Bernadette was found to have dug on the ground until a puddle of water appeared, which during the following days became as large as a pool and has remained until today as the sacred spring for which the site is so famous among religious wanderers.

There are numerous cases of miraculous healing, people who have been to Bernadette’s spring have recovered over night and even after minutious medical investigations there are some cases whose evolution cannot be medically explained, while the healing process was thoroughly verified.

Camino de Santiago

The perfect place in Spain for hiking, and one of the most beautiful cultural and historic lessons of Europe, thanks to the stunning landscapes. As for the hiking trails, thousands of people come back year after year. And yet none of these is the main reason why it is widely popular. It stretches across Spain, and the first stop is Santiago de Compostela. This route means a lot, different things for different people. Catholics come here to pay the respects to the remains of St. James. The relics are held on the basement of the cathedral, and the pilgrimage takes place annually with a tradition of over a thousand years.

Finisterre is the even older destination, beyond whose horison the ancient pagan Celts believed that paradise lies. If you decide to become a pilgrim for Santo Santiago, you should know that the trail is not only a natural wonder, it’s also beleaguered with carvings, paintings and sculptures dating from Middle Eve and depicting pilgrims on their way to the holy place. The pilgrims are a united community, connected not only by their religious beliefs, but by the love for nature and respect for better places.

While the trail is well marked, there have been lots of cases (because of the large number of pilgrims) when there were deviations. During the pilgrimage, looking for the next sign to confirm you the trail you’re following is right is what keeps the pilgrims united, even if they don’t share the language of the cultural backgrounds. They all get to the cathedral as one.

If you have been to Spain before, well…it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing like you’ve pictured, it’s mostly rural, so off the beaten path that you’ll barely have any social contact with locals during the trail. But the ones you’ll find are of the most helpful and the friendlies people you’ll get to see in your travels, patient and always prepared with a good joke to give you the strength not to quit. From the trail to football, politics and good movies, the locals here are willing to share all their experiences with you, as long as you know a little Spanish – they’ll also volunteer to accommodate you on your way back, so that you find more about their amazing culture.

 

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