Visita Iglesia: Ish Meets the Best Churches In Europe

It’s summertime once again and before everyone heads out to the beach, the holy week prompts us Catholics to uphold the traditions which we grew up with and one of those is the VISITA IGLESIA.

Being struck with wanderlust, I decided to do it differently. Instead of doing the traditional Visita Iglesia, I would like to share with you my list of favorite churches that I have visited around Europe. I am hoping this will suffice as my own version of visita iglesia for this year.

1. Santa Maria Real de la Almudena-MADRID, SPAIN

Of course, the first Cathedral on my list is located in Madrid. As Filipinos, we owe our faith to our Spanish conquerors. I must say, I’m more than thankful that they left us Catholicism!

The Almudena stands opposite the Palacio Real and at first glance I mistook it TO BE THE PALACIO REAL 🙂 

Being from the Philippines, I have the Disney- influenced concept that castles have towers, domes and spires. The actual Palacio Real is Grand but it’s a rectangular building. It certainly does not look like the Almudena, which fits the fairytale castle image a bit more. 

Sadly, unlike in the Philippines, I observed that most church-goers in Spain are over 50 years old. I also hardly ever saw a Church that was open unless it was a Sunday.

This Cathedral was built on the site of a medieval mosque which I find interesting in terms of the symbolic ‘replacement’ of the mosque to a church. Many parts of Spain still hold remnants of its moorish past but thanks to the efforts of the Spanish Royals particularly Fernando and Isabel Catolica, Spain was able to become a unified Catholic state. Incidentally, their Grandson, Charles V also became a Holy Roman Emperor. 

The Cathedral was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. On May 22, 2004 and this was the venue for the marriage of Felipe, then Prince of Asturias to Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano. They are they current King and Queen of Spain. 

One of the few remaining monarchies of Europe that are still in power, the controversial union of Letizia, a divorcee newscaster to the crown prince of Spain showed the necessary adjustments that Royal families are forced to make in order to remain relevant in the modern age. Remember guys, before Kate Middleton, there was Letizia. 🙂

Here’s the actual Palacio Real in front of the Cathedral. The Church looks more like a Castle 🙂

2. Milan Cathedral (Italian: Duomo di Milano; Milanese: Domm de Milan) LOMBARDY, ITALY

This Cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Nascent and is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. 

Admittedly, I visited Milan on a different kind of pilgrimage. No, it does not involve fashion like most people would think since this is the fashion capital of the world. Instead, I went to visit the SAN SIRO football Stadium (officially Giuseppe Meazza Stadium) After all, the most dedicated religious person is THE FOOTBALL FAN (according to a wise man)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Milan is home to the fourth largest Catholic Cathedral in the world and one of the most beautiful. It is constantly being restored like most other ancient sites in Europe and I found it amusing that the panels used to cover the construction was painted to reflect what the building behind it looks like (If you look closely at the pic, both sides have a large wooden panel). That makes photos look nice even with the ongoing restoration.

This Cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete and is still constantly being improved. Although I am a bigger fan of southern Italy, I must admit that this Cathedral deserves a place on this list 🙂

3. Notre Dame Cathedral-PARIS FRANCE

One of the most widely recognizable churches in the world, thanks to a certain hunchback. I guess it is a bigger tourist attraction than it is a church. 

Although the iconic Eiffel tower has become the symbol of Paris, I’m a bigger fan of gothic architecture than uhm, metal towers. 🙂 

The Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture in France and in Europe. Construction began in 1163 and lasted well into the 1240’s 

Architecture students will find it interesting that the Notre Dame was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress (arched exterior supports). 

This was one of the few European Churches that was constantly open not just for tourists but to actual worshippers. I must admit I found it awkward to step inside and take pictures of the interior while a mass was going on hehe. (I still did by the way) But the most interesting feature of the church would have to be the world-famous gargoyles. They are not nearly as large and scary as they were in the cartoon but only the French would think of creating water spouts in the scary shape of gargoyles for a church. 

Incidentally, along the side streets outside the church, one could find the best comfort food in Paris. I don’t mean all the little courses with names I can’t pronounce but the rows and rows of Greek and Moroccan restaurants that serve kebabs, doners and other hearty and affordable meals. I suppose this is blasphemy to any Frenchman but hey, some days are for lamb kebabs while others are for foie gras, ok? 😛

Here’s an actual service inside the Notre Dame.. and I was the calloused tourist taking pictures:

4. Basilique du Sacre Coeur-Paris France

Standing on top of a hill, the trek up proves to be widely enjoyable with all sorts of entertainers (jugglers, musicians, magicians etc.) However, one needs to be vigilant as there are a lot of gypsies lurking about and waiting to take advantage of the huge crowd of tourists. The area outside the church mildly resembles a circus and I can hardly imagine Jesus being too happy about that (looking back at the fit he threw about those vendors outside places of worship back in the day :P) 

The Sacre Coeur for those of us who only speak French on selective compromising situations, is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is also a popular Parisian landmark like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc du Triomphe, Louvre….ok Ok Paris has too many Landmarks :p

While not as famous as the other landmarks, (esp since the discovery of the Moulin Rouge thanks to the film), the basilica is not to be missed. It is located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city. 

Regular masses are still held here and for those of you who dream of a Parisian wedding, THIS is the place to do it if you can manage to book it.

Check out the circus out front…you’d think BON JOVI was performing

5. St. Peter’s Basilica- ROME, ITALY

Of course, how can I exclude the St. Peter’s Basilica. Perhaps the single most important church for us Catholics, visiting this place was one of the top experiences in my life 🙂

The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter is officially known in Italian as the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and commonly known as St. Peter’s Basilica.

Every single Roman Catholic has seen this place on TV numerous times during Catholic Holidays. The Pope often addresses all of Christendom from St. Peter’s Square in front of the church, of from the nearby balcony overlooking the square.

It is a Late Renaissance church located within Vatican City. It is one of the few places in the city-state which are open to the public. I was disappointed to find that I can’t charm my way past the charming albeit clownishly clad Swiss Guards. 

St. Peter’s Square in front of it is part of Rome and is open to the public. The site of numerous significant gatherings, my hair can’t help but stand on end while I stood in the middle of the square. St. Peter’s Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world and as the center of the Catholic faith, it is one of the holiest sites on Earth. 

The basilica is the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He was the first Bishop of Rome and therefore first in the long line of Catholic Popes. This is the reason why this place stakes a claim to be the rightful location of the seat of the head of the Church. However, this also caused decades of conflict with the Catholics based in Constantinople who established themselves first. There were even times when there were 2 popes, one in Rome and one in Constantinople. 

Saint Peter’s tomb is allegedly directly below the altar of the basilica. Apart form him, many Popes have been interred at St Peter’s. I was able to visit this church when Pope John Paul was alive and subsequently was also able to visit his tomb when Pope Benedict was already the new Pope

I got reprimanded by a Swiss guard for sitting on Pope John Paul’s tomb marker :/ errr soweeee

6. Pantheon- ROME,ITALY

I’m obviously a big fan of really really old buildings. This has got to be one of the oldest churches that I visited which is still functional to this day. Originally built as a pagan temple, this church even out-dates Christianity.

The Pantheon, like many other popular Roman landmarks, sits quietly hidden in a small piazza in the middle of the city. Lying in the middle of a labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets and espresso cafés, I find it amazing how such an ancient structure blends in perfectly well with a modern, cosmopolitan city.

Despite being in a bustling square, the walk up to it is a series of small streets where you would never expect to turn a corner and find this amazing ancient structure. Commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD, this building was not built as a Catholic Church.

It was only converted when the Roman Empire turned Catholic. In the 7th Century, it was given the official Catholic name of The Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. However, the name Pantheon has stuck to this day.

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. It has a hole in the middle or an oculus which also serves as a sundial. It is one of the best preserved of all ancient buildings, Roman or otherwise.

7. Sagrada Familia- BARCELONA, SPAIN

I know I always diss Barcelona…I never even intended to visit the city because I’m much too loyal to Madrid (football reasons).. however, when flights from Paris got well… f****d up (forgive the French), I found myself flying to Barcelona just to escape France and the hell of LOST IN TRANSLATION. 

Barcelona, came to the rescue with its Spanish speaking and therefore understandable people (although of course they primarily speak Catalan) I must admit, It has its charms.

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família commonly known simply as the Sagrada Família, is a large Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain.. I’m certainly not kidding when I say large. It’s spires tower over the city and it has become a challenge to take a complete photo of it unless you walk several blocks away. 

The Barcelona skyline is dominated by its spires and its design is one of the most eccentric that I have ever seen. The Church was designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926). He was not able to complete it because he was run over by a slow moving Barcelona tram ( I can’t imagine how that happened since trams run on tracks and are quite slow…for a smart guy, he can be a bit uhm, clumsy). 

The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site,and it was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. 

Construction of the Sagrada Família started in 1882 and the architect Gaudí became involved in 1883. Looking closely at the church, many details are derived from themes of nature which is unlikely in a church. Columns look like trees and there are baskets of fruit accenting the spires. At first glance, the old spires looked like a slowly melting tower of chocolate. Closer inspection revealed the amazing intricacy of design. 

What amazes me most about it is that the parts completed while Gaudi was alive looked old while the parts that were and are still being built after his death up to this day look a lot more modern. However, upon inspection of the original plans on display in the church, this was exactly how he designed it! It was as if he knew that it would not be completed until the 21st century!

Construction passed the mid-point in 2010 with some of the project’s greatest challenges remaining and an anticipated completion date of 2026—the centennial of Gaudí’s death. Hopefully, I will be able to visit it again in its completed form. 

God knows the people of Barcelona love their city like New Yorkers love theirs. This is definitely one good reason why they should be proud. Even if their football team will never be as great as Madrid’s (sorry I had to say it :p) 

Closer detail of the old and new parts of the Sagrada Familia

8. St. Basil’s Cathedral- MOSCOW, RUSSIA

Although an Orthodox Church, I have to mention St. Basil’s Cathedral. Hands down the most fascinating church in my opinion. The architect who made this was rumored to have been blinded after its completion so that he can no longer re-create something as beautiful. What fascinates me the most about it is how old it is and how decidedly modern it looks. 

Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1555 and finished in 1561 it was built to commemorate the Russian reclamation of Kazan and Astrakhan from the Muslims.

The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Mother of God on the Moat (Russian: Собор Покрова пресвятой Богородицы, что на Рву) is popularly known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. It stands on Red Square in Moscow. 

Many people mistakenly think that this is the Kremlin because most images of the Kremlin feature it prominently. I remember once seeing a CNN broadcast with the correspondent standing in front of the Church and his location being labeled as the Kremlin.  Haha! the Kremlin is in fact right beside it, but looks a lot more boring. 

That completes my list of the best churches in Europe. I’m looking forward to going back to discover more of them. If you have any suggestions, hit me up in the comments!