For sheer size and shock value, few buildings surpass Milan’s Duomo. It is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral (the only larger cathedral in any style is St. Peter’s in Rome), begun in 1386 under the Viscontis and not completed until 100 years ago.
Its 135 marble spires and 2,245 marble statues could keep you busy looking at it for days, though well- heeled Milanese women, Zegna-suited gents, and too-cool teens pass through the spacious piazza without giving this mad wedding-cake confection so much as a fare-thee-well.
An elevator to the roof offers the chance to stroll amid the fanciful forest of white marble pinnacles (which take on a rose tinge if the light is right) and to study the flying buttresses up close. There are stunning views over Italy’s most frenetic city, while a glimpse of the Swiss Alps 50 miles away can be had when the notorious Milanese fog and pollution aren’t obliterating the view.
The interior is spartan and almost always virtually empty despite the potential seating for 40,000—whom were they expecting? Shelley swore this was the best place anywhere to read Dante as it remains naturally cool even during the hottest of afternoons. True, if you can ignore the gruesome statue of St. Bartolomeo who, flayed alive, is depicted holding his own skin.
Because of its artistic riches, the city that so inspired El Greco makes for a rather frantic day trip from Madrid—the average time unsuspecting tourists allot. Better to spend a little more time. But any visit, brief or leisurely, should start at Toledo’s famous cathedral.
Ranked among the world’s greatest Gothic structures, it was built between the 13th and 15th centuries on the site of an old Arab mosque. This layering and juxtaposition of the artistic, architectural, and historic legacies of Toledo’s Catholic, Moorish, and Jewish communities are what make the city fascinating.
After Alfonso VI captured Toledo from the Moors in 1085, a cosmopolitan tolerance endured for five centuries, encouraging intellectual exchange and trade. The ensuing prosperity and Toledo’s role as a center of culture and learning filled the city with master craftsmen, whose superb talents can be admired in the cathedral’s exquisite details.
El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz, hangs in the nearby Iglesia de Santo Tome (Church of St. Thomas), but the sacristy here has close to thirty of his paintings as well as works by Velazquez, Titian, and Goya.
Toledo’s best restaurant, Hostal del Cardenal, is housed in an elegant 18th-century cardinal’s palace, which is also the most charming place to spend the night, guaranteeing the luxury of seeing this intriguing city before and after the daily deluge of day-trippers.
To finish or not to finish? The enormous Sagrada Familia remains the incomplete, roofless masterpiece of the eccentric genius Antoni Gaudi. The Catalan architect, a national hero, was run over and killed by a tram in 1926 before he could complete his most bizarre, controversial creation.
The most famous proponent of modernismo (the Catalan avant-garde style, unique to the region, that flourished from 1890 to 1920), Gaudi put Barcelona on the architectural map. The Sagrada Familia is his most emblematic and idiosyncratic work, Art Nouveau with a twist.
Gaudi tapped into the same playful Catalan spirit one sees in the work of Picasso, Miro, and Dali, and more often than not avoided straight lines in favor of flowing, organic forms. He created a number of other surreal works, such as Parc Guell, the apartment and office building of Casa Batllo, and several private homes.
But the fantasist is best known for the Sagrada Familia, a melted sand castle frozen in mid-creation. Only the crypt, apse, and facade were completed before his death. Gaudi is buried in the crypt, where a museum displays scale models showing how he envisioned the church. Authorities say it may not be completed until well into the 21st century—if ever.
Follow in the footsteps of El Cid, Louis VII of France, and St. Francis of Assisi along the 1,000-year-old Way of St. James (also called the Road to Santiago). Along with Rome and the Holy Land, the city of Santiago de Compostela is one of Christendom’s three principal pilgrimage destinations.
Since the 9th century, millions have come from all over Europe and the British Isles to the cathedral, said to house the relics of Sant Iago (St. James, the Apostle), Jesus’ cousin (St. John the Divine), and Santiago Matamoros (Slayer of the Moors).
As with their medieval predecessors, the motives of those making the “route of forgiveness” today can be spiritual or not, but all say it is a trip that stays with them for life.
Modem pilgrims can pick up the Camino de Santiago at Roncesvalles, in the Spanish foothills of the Pyrenees, the most popular of the eight routes that make up the Way of St. James. They travel 500 miles through the vineyards of the Rioja and the former kingdoms of northern Spain.
Those who don’t have the time or stamina for the four-plus-week journey by foot walk the final 90 miles through the green and enchanting region of Galicia. Tired but elated travelers typically get their first glimpse of Santiago’s cathedral and its twin towers from Monte de Gozo, 2 miles from the finish line.
Construction of the extravagant Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was begun in 1078 on the site of a 9th-century basilica that had been destroyed by the infidels (who took the bells back to Cordoba as a souvenir).
The cathedral’s elaborate, two-towered Baroque facade was added in the 18th century, covering and protecting the original Door of Glory, which becomes visible as you enter; pilgrims press their fingers into the holes made in the stone by a millennium of their predecessors.
The impact of the cavernous interior, as plain and simple as the facade is ornate, is heightened by the golden-cloaked, bejeweled statue of St. James in its place of honor above the main altar.
Outside, the spacious Plaza del Obradoiro (“work of gold”) and the magnificent 16th-to 18th-century buildings that flank it evolved around the cathedral. The plaza is also home to the Hotel Reyes Catolicos—allegedly the oldest hotel in the world—with what must be the world’s most beautiful hotel doorway.
In 1499 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella founded the Royal Hospice in Santiago to serve as a respite for the countless pilgrims who were pouring in from all corners of Europe. The hotel is the oldest building on the square, and if you’re lucky enough to get a room overlooking the cathedral, you’ll feel like one of the reyes catolicos yourself.
If not, console yourself with a lovely view over one of the four cloistered courtyards, with original fountains and open loggias, formed by the building’s cross-shape design. The Reyes is one of Spain’s most glorious paradores (historical sites transformed into government-owned hotels). If it’s all too grand in proportion and price for the pilgrim in you, you can still drop in for a simple but excellent dinner.
Begun in 1205, the walls of Leon’s Gothic cathedral were built more with glass than stone. One hundred twenty-five stained-glass windows, three giant rose windows, and fifty-seven oculi fill the lofty interior with bejeweled shafts of light. In the cathedral building mania of the Middle Ages, European cities strove to outdo each other with the highest steeples, the biggest rose windows, the largest churches.
Leon’s contribution was certainly the boldest, amazing even modern-day critics and architects with its illusion of weightlessness and the profusion of light. Some of the windows soar as high as 110 feet and are the original 13th-century glassworks; cumulatively, they cover more than 18,000 square feet.
Designated the capital of Christian Spain in 914, Leon is now a charming provincial town that retains the aura of its regal past. Some of the country’s most important and interesting sacred art can be found in the Cathedral Museum. Once an important stop for pilgrims on the historical Road to Santiago, it is an obligatory stop today for anyone interested in medieval architecture.
The Parador San Marcos deserves a prize for its entrance alone—a sumptuous “plateresque” facade (so called because of its resemblance to lacy silver plate work) that seems to stretch forever. The entrance hall is replete with an elaborate coffered ceiling and a 16th-century grand staircase.
Awed visitors might even miss the 10-foot-high cast-iron chandelier overhead. One of Leon’s principal attractions and one of Spain’s finest examples of Renaissance architecture, San Marcos is also Spain’s largest parador since the addition of a modern annex. Its original wing was completed in 1549 upon the earlier orders of King Ferdinand to shelter knights and weary pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
Only 30 of the 250 rooms are housed in the historic wing, as is the regional restaurant with views of the Rio Bemesga. Both the Antiguo Monasterio de San Marcos and Museo Arqueologico, all part of the same landmark edifice, are open to the public. Vast common areas are distinguished by precious antiques, a remarkable mudejar ceiling, tapestries, and museum-quality artwork, creating high drama that is carried over in the suites.
The 14th-century poet Petrarch thought Cologne’s twin-towered Dom one of the finest cathedrals in the world. Take a 509-step hike to the windswept gallery high in the 515-foot south tower and you have climbed the highest church tower in the world, in its day the tallest manmade construction of any kind.
It took more than 600 years to complete the Dom. Construction was begun over some Roman ruins after Frederick Barbarossa donated the relics of the Three Magi to Cologne, establishing the city as a major pilgrimage destination. They are still on display in their original 12th-century reliquary behind the high altar, which itself dates back to the early 14th century.
Head into the far more distant past at the nearby Germano-Roman Museum, just south of the Dom. While building an underground air-raid shelter in 1941, workers unearthed ancient Roman foundations, including a perfectly preserved mosaic floor from a Roman trader’s villa.
Once you surface, you can head back to the future at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Museum Ludwig, on the other side of the Dom. Housed in a huge art complex, the Wallraf-Richartz contains paint ings from the 14th to the 20th centuries. The Ludwig is devoted exclusively to 20th-century art, its collection rivaled only by that of New York’s Guggenheim. In effect, you can view 2,000 years of Western art and architecture without leaving the shadow of the cathedral.
At the end of the day, put your feet up at the Dom Hotel, nestled up against the great Gothic cathedral. The Dom Hotel proudly offers suave, old-fashioned, but friendly service that few hotels even aspire to anymore, with an almost one-to-one ratio of staff to indulged hotel guests.
Deluxe rooms face the Dom Platz and have an angled view of the cathedral, which may also be admired from the glass-enclosed Atelier am Dom, the hotel’s see-and-be-seen outdoor cafe. A view like that calls for a glass of the popular Kolsch beer, a light, clear local brew. Then you have an appointment with Petersglocke, the world’s largest church bell, which tips the scales at 24 tons. When it rings out the hour, you’ll know.
Sicily’s remarkable cultural diversity is the result of twenty-five centuries of tumultuous history, and no other city in Europe has hosted such a variety of civilizations and waves of conquerors as Palermo. The most breathtaking window on this unique heritage is nearby Monreale’s 12th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria la Nuova.
Built of golden Sicilian stone by King William II on a mountaintop overlooking his sprawling capital, the cathedral combines Moorish and Norman styles and is famed for the matchless multicolored mosaics that glorify every centimeter of wall space. Most of the Old and New Testament stories you’re likely to have heard are depicted here, dramatically visualized with a host of human and animal figures.
A huge, majestic Christ the Pantocrator broods over it all in the central apse. From the incense-filled interior and its 6,000 square yards of dazzling mosaics, step into the blinding sunshine of the equally famous cloisters of the adjacent Benedictine abbey. None of its 216 slender pillars are alike, and the hush is broken only by the splash of a fountain reminiscent of ancient Araby.
Maintain the Middle Eastern illusion with a trip to La Vucciria, Sicily’s greatest market. Its crowded, souklike passageways are another reminder that from Sicily, just “one hop and you’re out of Europe,” as D. H. Lawrence wrote.
La Vucciria is not just about shopping—it is a vibrant spectacle, full of merchants screaming, yelling, shouting, arguing, and singing about their wares, vying for volume and ribaldry—if the local vernacular were not unintelligible (it’s like no other on earth), outsiders would catch comparisons of succulent pomegranates to parts of the female anatomy.
You can eat your way through (if you enjoy sandwiches stuffed with tripe, goat intestines, or sliced spleen) or just succumb to the heady smells, from briny octopus to anchovies and fresh mint, basil, saffron, capers, and oregano. This being an island, expect awesome displays of fish and unrecognizable sea creatures, and from the interior hills, the proudly displayed carcasses of goats, insides intact, attesting to their freshness. And who knew so many different kinds of olives existed?
St. Francis’s humanity, humility, and love for nature somehow survive the unashamed commercialization of this small pink-hued Umbrian hill town: The spirit of the young, barefoot monk—Assisi’s favorite son—lives on.
The enormous basilica built in his honor (which would have mortified him) was a medieval architectural feat and is still considered one of the engineering marvels of that period. In the early 13th century, Giotto covered much of the upper and lower basilica with remarkable frescoes, the first to break with the static icons of the Byzantine school.
His masterpiece depicts the life of St. Francis in twenty-eight scenes. A devastating earthquake in 1997 caused extensive damage not only to the structure itself but to the priceless artwork. A remarkable degree of restoration was accomplished in time for Italy’s Jubilee celebration in 2000, but painstaking repair will continue for years.
Most tourists visit Assisi in an afternoon; the stillness and beauty that so moved the young St. Francis are most apparent in the evening and early morning. Consider spending the night at the comfortable family-run Hotel Umbra. Housed in a 15th-century building that rests on ancient Roman foundations, its back rooms afford serene views of the Umbrian Valley and the charming sound of birdsong.
People still flock here in the thousands the way they did in the Middle Ages when St. David’s Cathedral was one of the British Isles’ most popular pilgrimage spots. Small by English standards, the medieval cathedral dedicated to Wales’s patron saint is the largest in the country, overwhelming what is officially Britain’s smallest city (the presence of a cathedral designates the village as a city despite its size). St. David founded a monastic community in this coastal comer of southwestern Wales around A.D. 550 that grew to great importance.
The cathedral, begun in the 12th century, is believed to stand on that site, flanked by the once magnificent Bishop’s Palace; then boasting lavish apartments, it now sits quietly in glorious ruins. Together they constitute Wales’s most sacred site, and one of its most visually evocative—the setting is a remote and tranquil part of the valley of the River Alun barely inland from the coast whose jagged terrain protected it from marauding pirates. A number of ecclesiastical buildings grew up in the shadow of the centerpiece cathedral. Dating back to 1860, the Choir School is one of the more recent, and is the site of today’s Warpool Court Hotel, whose manicured lawns lead down to the Irish Sea.
It is all part of the 250 miles of unspoiled coastline whose inlets, coves, and huddled bays make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, one of three national parks that cover Wales’s most scenic landscape and the only one in Britain to include its balmy coastline. Its 182 miles of marked serpentine footpaths provide excellent walks in the company of wildflowers and seabirds.
A must-visit on the cathedral city circuit, ancient York is surrounded by 3 miles of beautifully restored medieval walls built on Roman foundations; its walltop footpath is one of England’s finest pleasures. Within lies an architecture-rich city that is a joy for strollers, with all paths leading to its famous showpiece cathedral, the Minster. A wonder of Gothic architecture, it is the largest medieval cathedral in Great Britain and the largest north of the Alps: a breath-sapping climb up the central tower’s spiral 275-step staircase provides the chance to appreciate the scale of this massive building (offset by views of the Yorkshire Moors beyond) and the genius of the buttresses that hold it up—a sophisticated engineering feat completed before America was even “discovered.”
The present cathedral was begun in 1220 on a site where previous cathedrals and churches had stood, possibly as far back as 627. It is famous for its 128 intricate stained-glass windows, some of which date back to the Minster’s earliest days as do the elaborately carved Choir Screen and the rich interior of the Chapter House. Churches, like castles, represented power and importance (the archbishop of York is second only to the archbishop of Canterbury in the hierarchy of the Church of England), but even prior to the Minster’s construction, York was an important location.
There was a major Viking settlement here from 867 and some streets still retain their Danish names; ruins dating to the 10th century are at the center of the extremely popular Jorvik Viking Center (Jorvik was the Nordic name for the city) in Coppergate, bringing you back to the year A.D. 975, long before the Minster’s first block was laid.