Combining current trends, academic theories, and historical insights, this travel guide brings both lesser-known and famous European spiritual locales into perspective by explaining the significance of each sacred site. The cultural relevance, history, and spirituality of each site—including Stonehenge, the Acropolis, Mont Saint Michel, Pompeii, and Saint Peter’s Basilica—are explained, creating a moving and artistic travel experience. Each destination—with selections spanning more than 15 countries throughout Europe—is accompanied by easy-to-follow maps and directions.
Brad gives an overview of the book:
Introduction to the European Continent
When you go in peace, when you move in peace, exist in peace, the mind is still, the soul serene, and the heart is tranquil; and you move in harmony with the rhythm of the spheres, partake of the sense of oneness of all that is, and realize the connection between yourself and the divine. –Pythagoras
Due to its wide appeal, the European continent offers something for everyone. Europe is especially ideal for travelers seeking adventurous destinations in close proximity. Begin a first-time European adventure in Ireland or Great Britain, where English is spoken. The British Isles are filled with ancient history and history in the making—more crop circles appear every summer in southern England than in any other place in the world. Plan a visit during July or August when the crop circle season is in full bloom.
Mainland Europe can sometimes seem like a world apart. Hundreds of individual cultures and languages remain crammed together in Europe, each taking on unique characteristics that have evolved throughout time. Travelers from large homogenous countries like Canada, Australia, and the United States are routinely amazed at how quickly everything can change in such a very short distance. From the earliest cave painters to modern-day artists, Europe remains a treasure-trove of diverse Western culture featuring a dazzling array of beautiful sacred places.
Although Europe was host to earlier Paleolithic cave artists and Mesolithic hunting tribes, the continent reached a pinnacle of prehistoric sophistication during the Neolithic Era. The engineering techniques of the late Stone Age still puzzle modern experts. The most common Neolithic monument is the dolmen, consisting of two portals with side and end stones, creating a single large chamber. The portals are usually pronounced and the chamber is roofed by a cap-stone, usually an enormous slab of rock. Dolmens are frequently found on hillsides and usually feature an easterly orientation to capture the rising sun. Sometimes dolmen structures are accentuated by large, single standing stones called menhirs. The menhir may stand alone as a sighting stone or part of a long row, or processional avenue, of erect standing stones.
Another ingenious invention of the late Stone Age is the henge. The Neolithic henge is a round ritual enclosure made of earthen mounds, wooded structures, or standing stones surrounded by an outside ditch. The most famous henge is Stonehenge, located in southern England. The modern science of archaeoastronomy has demonstrated that Neolithic henges served an astronomical purpose, and may well have been the source of our “sciences” to observe the heavens and predict the seasons. Our Neolithic ancestors made the profound realization that the world was also a vast clock. Rotations of time, like the circular henge, were viewed as cyclical. Winter thawed into spring, which warmed into summer. Then summer surrendered to cool autumn, until the first freeze of winter descended and the cycle renewed itself. Knowledge of the heavens kept time with the earth. The sun dependably marked off sequential time as it made its yearly march across the sky and back again. Capturing the predictability of the sun, moon phases, and star sightings within the henge was perhaps the greatest advancement of knowledge for prehistoric people.
The Neolithic Era flourished from 3300 BCE until 2000 BCE. The sphere of influence stretched from the tiny Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea, around the Atlantic coastlines of Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Germany, and north into the British Isles and Scandinavia. Because the megalithic architecture is usually located near the ocean or a waterway, it can be surmised that the Neolithic people were skillful mariners. They were also prolific stone carvers. Lending credibility to the theory of cultural diffusion, via watercraft travel, distinctive spiral carvings repeat as a pattern throughout Neolithic Europe. The dolmen structure design is also universal. Unfortunately, most of the dolmens of Europe have lost their original covering of smaller stones—called cairns. What usually remains is the skeleton of the structure, the dolmen. The slowly-eroding forces of nature took far less of a toll on the Neolithic monuments than the early Christians did, who superstitiously viewed the monuments as work of the devil. What could be carted off or destroyed almost always was. The sheer size of the enormous stones used in Neolithic architecture became their only saving grace.
The European continent has long been a crossroad for countless generations of wanderers and mystics. From a Paleolithic artist painting animals in European caves, to the rise of indigenous pagan rituals and eventually the monotheistic faith of Christianity, European paths became the interchange for Western cultures and religions. A select group of historians believe that Jesus Christ himself traveled from the Holy Land to Glastonbury, England with his merchant uncle, Saint Joseph of Arimathea. This would have been when the pagan Roman and Celtic religions ruled the land. After Christianity swept the continent a few centuries later, pilgrim routes converged on sacred cathedrals all across Europe.
The earliest form of non-warfare travel in Europe was pilgrimage. The Church encouraged its adherents to take a pilgrimage as penitence or as a spiritualized form of extradition. The goal of a pilgrimage was to view holy relics and thereby receive heavenly rewards. Medieval pilgrims believed that praying in front of a reliquary containing the body part of a saint would persuade that particular saint to intercede with God on their behalf. The medieval pilgrim also believed that by visiting a famous place of pilgrimage a faithful individual could be cured of an ailment, come into closer contact with the divine, or even be exonerated for a crime committed in the past. The most important place of Christian pilgrimage was Jerusalem, located in present-day Israel. As is the case today, travel to that part of the world was unpredictable and at most times unsafe. It was better to stay in Europe, or one’s own home country, and receive equal rewards. The most famous European pilgrimage was along the Compostela Route bisecting France and northern Spain. Another popular road was to Rome where the Pope presided. But many other lesser known pilgrimage destinations are scattered across Europe.
The golden age of medieval pilgrimage was not to last. The Reformation period of the 16th century was a time of intense fearfulness for both Protestants and Catholics. There were violent repudiations of the past, bitter condemnations, the terror of heresy due to doctrinal deviation, an obsession with hell, and a hyperactive awareness of personal sin. It was a period of extreme anxiety and anguish. It pitted countryman against countryman. Lines were drawn all across the European continent. Many great works of art were destroyed. Priceless church frescoes were whitewashed over to protest the “idolatry” of saint worship. Yet after the terrible years of the Reformation a new kind of society was beginning to emerge, one based on reason, technology, and science. Europeans blossomed beyond their own continent and began to colonize and influence the rest of the world.
With the advent of international sea travel a new type of pilgrimage emerged. Riding along with the merchant ships to faraway ports were the priests and ministers, who sought to convert “heathen” nonbelievers. The Puritans of Britain and Holland crossed the Atlantic to settle in New England. Jesuit missionaries traveled even farther: the Spanish Francis Xavier (1506-1552) converted thousands in India and Japan, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) evangelized China, and Robert de Nobili (1577-1656) took the Gospel deep into the jungles of India. The Jesuits also conducted widespread missionary work in Africa, other parts of Asia, and North and South America. Since the Jesuits were (and are still today) headed by a “superior general” in Rome, they encouraged their newly converted brethren to make a pilgrimage there, to the holy city of the Pope. Suddenly, European pilgrimage redefined itself and has since included parishioners from the nearly 100 nations where the Jesuits established their schools and monasteries.
Whether conscious or not, the human spirit tends to follow the same paths long venerated by our ancestors. Travel is food for the soul, especially when those trips help us grow. Journeys to sacred places open our minds to the world around us, our collective history, the cosmos above, and to each other. The openness to regenerate oneself at a sacred site can be the first step. When we arrive at a spiritual destination, we find ourselves closer to our own individual reality, not only in time, but in space. Something magical happens that triggers an unconscious memory. To learn about sacred places is to learn about ourselves.
Sacred places help us to understand our own existence and the universe around us.
Ancient wisdom combined with recent scientific discoveries help transform the way we attune ourselves at sacred places. By understanding our relationship with the cosmos we can comprehend the eternal rhythms of nature and the very order of existence. The old maxim “as above, so below” might also mean “once ancient, now modern.” For example, consider how modern crop circles have profound similarities with ancient stone circles. Both emit high frequencies of ultrasound that include healing properties to all living things. Hundreds of people have reported spontaneous healings at newly created crop circles. Such is the case at ancient stone circles, standing stones, and earthen rings. The universe appears vastly complicated, yet also very simple. Scientists tell us there are at least 13 dimensions surrounding us, but in our limited capacity we can only perceive three. Just because something is invisible to the naked eye doesn’t mean the space is void.
BRAD OLSEN's passion for travel goes far beyond his seven currently published travel books. As a professional writer, artist, photographer, producer, and publisher, Brad Olsen wears many hats and enjoys the challenge. When it comes to extensive world travel, few in the...