Pilgrimage Churches – What are they, and Why bother going out of the way to see them?

We’ve seen 2 pilgrimage churches so far – both spectacular – when leads me to wonder 3 things – why were they built, how do you find them in the guide books, and why bother going?

Which leads right into a fourth thing I’ve wondered about – is it worth renting a car in Europe.

Starting with the fourth thing first – why rent a car? In the cities – a car is the last thing you want. What you want is a hotel within walking distance of everything – and baring that – a good public transit system. The challenges of finding a place to leave a car are absolutely mindboggling. Car parks are few and far between – aided and abetted by the authorities – which at least in Switzerland have decided that no new parking spots will be built-in Zürich. You build a new building with 100 spots underground for cars – you’d better find 100 other spots to get rid of. sheesh.

So – no point having a car unless you are trying to tour the countryside or visiting towns way outside the beaten path. And since we had decided to tour and part of our touring required some pretty out-of-the-way places – we needed a car. So seeing pilgrimage churches became a possibility.

So how to find them. I’ll be honest – Regine (our friend in Zürich – who really ought to consider a career as travel guide) suggested both. And thus we visited them. But there must be another way. I did find Vierzehnheiligen in Bad Staffelstein in Fodor – with a star (Fodor choice). And once I knew to look for it – even the Insight Guide has a picture. So it’s there – if you know about it. The 2nd pilgrimage church – which honestly I thought even more impressive is called the Wies Church – it’s well documented on the internet – and knowing the name – I found it in Fodor – labeled “Off the Beaten path” – with which I must agree. So – maybe the best thing is to rely on the ‘you’ve really got to see this’ network!


The Wies Church – located rather conveniently between Neuswanstein Castle and Linderhof Castle – is just there. Middle of nowhere. Not near a town, or even a decent highway. It was built in 1745 because a local woman claimed that she saw the wooden figure of Christ crying in 1739. Said Figure of Christ is enshrined in the altar (Fodor described it as a painting – I thought it was a craved statue)- clearly visible to all who visit the church. But it’s the church that will blow you away. It is a glorious love affair with Rocco – abounding with cupids, light, white statues of saints, prophets, or even just unknown heroes tipped in gold, and a mystery that still resonates. Did the painting indeed cry? We will never know – but the fact remains that the church is well worth visiting.

Even better – dessert at the guesthouse/restaurant right opposite the church entrance. My Hexenstrudel (witch’s strudel?) was amazing.


Picture note: All the pictures below are from the Wies Church – but trust me – seen one cupid, seen them all. The differences are the structure of the church – and the reason it got built!

Vierzehnheiligen near the tiny town of Bad Staffelstein is actually a lot easier to find. It’s located just 40 km from Bamburg – which in itself is a delight. So this church clearly gets a lot more visitors – so many that starting Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday – all visitors must park at least 1/2 mile away from the church.

But again – oh so worth the trouble!

The first time you see the church is actually from the main road – it is situated on a fairly high hillside – and is clearly something remarkable.

Because we went on a Tuesday, and fairly late in the day as well, the road, the parking lots, and the church were relatively empty. Even better – a group was getting a tour of the organ loft – and had brought with them someone to play the organ – so as we gazed in wonder at the glorious architecture – we were surrounded by magnificent music. They sure knew something about acoustics in those days.

This pilgrimage church was built to celebrate the vision of a Shepard, who in 1445 apparently saw 14 saints along with Christ – striding along the hilltop. The church was built between 1743 and 1772 – in true over the top Rocco style. The shape of the church is exremely unusual. It’s almost completely round – and huge. So large that the main part is called “Gods Ballroom”. Smack in the center, and neatly dividing the church in two, is the altar – decorated of course with cupids, saints, heroes, and images of Mary. White, Gold, sunlight, and over-the-top carvings make the entire church seem to dance. No photo’s allowed – so we just got to look, stare, and wonder at the energy and money spent to build something so out-of-the-way!

Unlike the Wies Church, vendors selling religious (and not so religious) souvenirs line one side of the entrance way. Kinda tacky. But on the other side of the church is a former monetary that has partly been turned into a visitors center. All in German, but at least there is some attempt to document and explain the architecture.

Bottom line – they wouldn’t be pilgrimage churches if they weren’t worth visiting. So go. Enjoy. And say I sent you!





2 thoughts on “Pilgrimage Churches – What are they, and Why bother going out of the way to see them?

  1. I like to see the architecture of churches but I have to say I find it amusing, being extremely not religious, that a church was built because some shephard who maybe wanted a little fame for himself or was just bored and wanted to stir up some excitement claimed to see a vision of christ and some saints walking on a hilltop. Did ANYbody else see it? No (to my limited knowledge), but hey! We’re all bored too, so why not build a church and use that as our excuse?! LOL Sorry for my irreverent view. 🙂

    • Ah – but if you want to believe in something – isn’t it splendid that it should be positive? And it wasn’t the shepard that built that church – it was Frederick the Great. Clearly he bought into the vision idea.

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