World's Most Beautiful Churches
Just in time for Easter, we've rounded up 10 of mankind's most miraculous odes to faith. Consider this slide show a little piece of heaven on earth.
You might recognize Ely Cathedral from the big screen. In the 2010 movie The King's Speech, the inside of the cathedral was transformed into the interior of Westminster Abbey to such effect that we awarded the film our own Budget Travel Oscar for inspiring a desire to travel to England. The church has also had cameos in 2008's The Other Boleyn Girl and the 1998 film Elizabeth. The history of the Ely Cathedral is fascinating enough for Hollywood in its own right. The foundations for this spectacular stone church, set amid poppy fields in the countryside outside of Cambridge, were laid by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. But for hundreds of years prior, the site lured religious pilgrims to visit the shrine of Etheldreda, a Saxon princess who left her husband to pursue a religious life. Etheldreda established a monastery here in the 7th century and is said to have planted a staff in the ground that then blossomed into a tree overnight—a miracle that led people to believe she was a saint. For hundreds of years after, pilgrims made their way to a shrine to Etheldreda inside the cathedral; a plaque now marks where the shrine once stood. Today, the church is best known as a shining example of Norman architecture, marking the Romanesque style's arrival in Britain (the cathedral's nave and south transept are considered perfect Norman examples).
How to go: Ely is an hour's train ride north of London (£23.50 or about $38.25). Admission for adults, including a guided ground-floor tour, is about $9.30.
Church of the Assumption
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Unless you're a fit swimmer (and don't mind cold water), you'll have to hire a local pletna boat to make the short crossing to the Church of the Assumption, perched on a fairy-tale island in the middle of Lake Bled in northwest Slovenia. The first masonry church on the island was constructed in 1142, though the structure you admire today was built in the 17th century following an earthquake that destroyed the prior incarnation. The popular mountain resort town is surrounded by scenic Alps and has long lured tourists, visiting dignitaries, and world leaders (none other than Marshal Tito had his private retreat here during Yugoslavian times). During the summer months, in particular, a steady stream of lovebirds flock to the island church to say their vows in the idyllic setting (from afar, the church appears to float in the lake). Local tradition dictates that grooms must carry their brides-to-be up the 98 steps from the boat dock to the church—if they fail, locals say, then they aren't yet fit for marriage. To improve your own luck, whether you're married or single, you can follow the locals' lead and ring the church's bell before boarding your boat back to town.
How to go: Lake Bled is a one-hour train ride northwest of Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana (€4.80 or about $6.90). To reach the island church, arrange a pletna ride with the boatmen stationed at both the Health Park and the Rowing Center in town. For about $17 per person, you get a pleasant boat ride and half-hour stop on the island. Church admission is free.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Deep in the Ozark Mountains, near the community of Eureka Springs (one of the coolest small towns in America according to Budget Travel's 2011 poll), lies Thorncrown Chapel. The church is so far off the beaten path that even the best new GPS devices don't quite get the coordinates right—but it's worth seeking out. The stunning pinewood structure seems to be built almost entirely of glass (425 windows stand in for walls), which brilliantly illuminates the interior with natural light and seems to pull the surrounding forest right inside the church. In fact, many call Thorncrown a "forest within a forest." It was built by the Frank Lloyd Wright–trained architect E. Fay Jones in 1980. Jones himself liked to call his creation "Ozark Gothic" because he based the design and use of natural light on the classic Gothic Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris. Still, he seemed to have the Eureka Springs area in mind, as well: Jones used only local pine, and in pieces no larger than what could be carried through the woods by two men, all in an effort to preserve the church's natural setting.
How to go: Thorncrown Chapel is about a mile-and-a-half west of Eureka Springs, on Highway 62 West. As stated, neither GPS nor Google Maps correctly show the chapel's location, but the Thorncrown's website has an accurate map. There is no admission fee.