churches

10 Most Instagrammable Places in Mexico City's Centro

A photographer’s tour of the CDMX historic district, from the Palacio de Bellas Artes to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México.

CDMX, as the cool kids call it, is full of stunning design, a mind-blowing mix of colonial architecture and modern marvels. Here are some of our favorites to help you get started on a cultural and Insta-worthy tour of the city’s historic heart.

Centro Histórico

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

1. Sinagoga Histórica Justo Sierra 71

Start your tour with this hidden gem, built and established by the Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jews who arrived in Mexico City as refugees escaping persecution in the early 1940s. The Historic Synagogue, or Templo Nidje Israel, is entered through an interior courtyard beyond the building’s colonial façade (and a somewhat grumpy guard).

The interior contains a rather plain assembly hall on the first floor, but the sanctuary located on the second floor is impressive, said to be modeled after a synagogue in Lithuania. Make sure to look up at the vaulted clerestory ceiling intricately painted in hues of rust, mustard yellow, blue and green. An elaborately carved platform stands in the center of the room and faces the richly ornamented aron kodesh, or holy ark, surrounded by folk art elements typical of Eastern European villages. The sacred Torah scrolls were once kept behind the blue velvet curtain panel embroidered with silver thread.

Justo Sierra 71

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

2. Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

A block or so down from the synagogue is a former Jesuit boarding school that has since been transformed into a museum and cultural center. After the Jesuits were expelled from the city, the building temporarily served as barracks for the Mexican army before becoming the National Preparatory School. The site is considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican muralism movement and features murals painted by David Alfaro, José Clemente Orozco (Wally’s personal fave) and Diego Rivera.

Justo Sierra 16

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

3. La Casa de las Sirenas

The frieze on the façade of this former 17th century colonial abode features a Caravaca cross flanked by a pair of mermaids, which gives the restaurant its name, the House of the Mermaids.

We ate a delicious lunch on the rooftop terrace with a spectacular view overlooking the extremely disappointing Templo Mayor and the back of the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, while an organ grinder played a whimsical tune over and over from the street below.

República de Guatemala 32

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

4. Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

This massive Baroque-style cathedral dominating the northern side of the Zócalo plaza was built in stages between 1573 to 1873, shortly after Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors defeated the Aztec Empire. Among the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas, much of it was built using stones pilfered from the Templo Mayor. (Maybe that’s why the temple’s ruins are so unimpressive.) Step inside to see the large, ornate Altar of the Kings, collection of paintings, pipe organ and statuary.

Plaza de la Constitución s/n

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

5. Gran Hotel Ciudad de México

After binge-watching the Spanish soap series Gran Hotel on Netflix, we had to go inside this historic Art Nouveau gem of the same name. It was originally the city’s most luxurious department store, known as el Centro Mercanti — in fact, you can still see the monogram “CM” in the stained-glass ceiling designed by French glass artist Jacques Grüber as well as the railings. Fun fact: The interior is featured in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Spectre.

16 de Septiembre 82

This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

6. Casa de los Azulejos

Meaning “the House of Tiles” in Spanish, the exterior of this 16th century building is embellished with tin-glazed ceramic tilework known as azulejos, from Puebla, Mexico. The property was originally the residence of the Valle de Orizaba counts, one of the wealthiest families in the country. It was purchased by brothers Walter and Frank Sanborn in 1919 and converted into the flagship location of Sanborns, a Mexican department store and restaurant chain.

Av Francisco I. Madero 4

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

7. Palacio Postal

Also known as the Correo Mayor, the Postal Palace was built by Italian architect Adamo Boari and Mexican engineer Gonzalo Garita and has been in continuous operation since it first opened in 1907. The interior was restored to its original gilded splendor with the help of Boari’s granddaughter, who had the original building plans in Italy. The money shot is of a pair of grand interconnecting staircases embellished with vegetal brass balustrades that almost appear to be alive. My only regret is that we weren’t able to send a postcard home while there.

C. Tacuba 1, Cuauhtémoc

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

8. Palacio de Bellas Artes

We didn’t get to go inside on this visit. But the secret to an amazing aerial shot is to head over to the Sears department store directly across the street. (If you don’t want to have a snack or drink on the balcony café, just go up one more floor and press your camera against the glass as we did.)

Designed by the same architect as the Palacio Postal, the building’s gorgeously photogenic Art Nouveau exterior is topped by a lattice of iron and a shimmering iridescent ombre-tiled dome. At the very top, the Mexican eagle perches on a cactus with a serpent in its beak, with the four figures beneath representing the personifications of the dramatic arts.  

The plaza includes various sculptures, including four Pegasus statues designed by Catalan Agustí Querol Subirats, as well as the famous Mexico City Olympics logo — way too popular with tourists to get a good picture of.

Av. Juárez

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

9. Alameda Central

This leafy park was created in 1525 on what was previously the site of an Aztec marketplace. Its name comes from the word alámo, Spanish for poplar tree — which can be found in abundance throughout the park. You’ll encounter children playing in empty fountain basins and locals of all ages meandering or sitting on benches along the many paths. The Kiosco Morisco was located there briefly and used as a pavilion to announce lottery winners before being moved to make way for the semicircular Neoclassical Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument, dedicated to the former Mexican president.

Av. Hidalgo s/n

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

País de Volcanes  ( Country of Volcanoes ) by Ricardo Legorreta

País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes) by Ricardo Legorreta

10. Fuente de Vicente Rojo

Across from Alameda Park, tucked into the courtyard of the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia surrounded by governmental offices is a fountain designed by Mexican visual artist Vicente Rojo and architect Ricardo Legorreta. Titled País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes), it features more than 1,000 small burnt red concrete pyramids emerging from a sunken reflecting pool, a reference to the coarse volcanic tezontle stone widely used by the Aztecs. –Duke

Av. Juárez 44

The Magnificent Parroquia San Juan Bautista

Don’t miss la Iglesia de Coyoacán, a striking example of Spanish colonial history and one of the oldest surviving houses of worship in Mexico City.

Add la Iglesia de Coyoacán to your itinerary when exploring this boho neighborhood

Add la Iglesia de Coyoacán to your itinerary when exploring this boho neighborhood

After lunch at Los Danzantes, Wally and I made our way from the leafy Jardín Centenario and crossed Calle Carrillo Puerto, the street that separates the adjacent Plaza Centenario and Plaza Hidalgo.

Presiding over the south side of the Plaza Hidalgo and directly in our line of vision was the Parroquia San Juan Bautista, known locally as la Iglesia de Coyoacán, the Catholic church and former mission dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The Spanish first introduced Christianity to the indigenous Nahuatl people in the early 16th century.



In front of the church entrance is a cobblestone square that originally extended into what is now Plaza Centenario. During the colonial period, the square was used to host religious one act dramatizations known as autos sacramentales. Rather than completely abandon old beliefs, the missionaries adopted a strategy to spread the new faith by incorporating indigenous ritual practices that had similarities to Christianity.

A four-story bell tower, which was added later, in the 18th century, stands to the west of the main church and was once topped by a dome, lantern and cross. Sadly, the dome collapsed during an earthquake in September 2017.

The church was built on the site of a school for Aztec nobles

The church was built on the site of a school for Aztec nobles

San Juan Bautista was built upon the site of a calmecac, a school for Aztec nobility, whose ruins still exist beneath the cloister.

The relatively plain façade is in the Herrerian style, named after Spanish architect and mathematician Juan de Herrera. This architectural style is characterized by clean geometric lines and is almost entirely absent of ornamentation, with the exception of grooved classical pilasters, columns of the Ionic order set into the face of the church. An inscription in Latin above the door translates to, “There is none other but a house of God, and this a gate of the heavens.”

The exterior is plain, but the interior is anything but, as this ornate altar attests

The exterior is plain, but the interior is anything but, as this ornate altar attests

Above in bas-relief, are the coat of arms of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans. The petals of the fleur-de-lis cross symbolize the 12 apostles. Another carving depicts a sort of monogram of the Virgin Mary — a crown with the intertwined letters A and M for Ave Maria.

Gorgeous archways and ceiling frescos adorn San Juan Bautista

Gorgeous archways and ceiling frescos adorn San Juan Bautista

Construction of the church happened in fits and starts, between 1527 and 1552, on land donated to conquistador Hernan Cortés by the native Ixtolinque chief, who was baptized into the Catholic faith under the name of Juan de Guzmán. Under the direction of the Dominican order, San Juan Bautista was built upon the site of a calmecac, a school for the sons of Aztec nobility, whose ruins still exist beneath the cloister. The original structure was designed as a basilica, with a simple rectangular floor plan used in temple architecture.

In 1934, the church was declared a historic monument by the government of the republic.

The sides of the church’s interior are gloriously gilded

The sides of the church’s interior are gloriously gilded

Going for Baroque

If you’re like Wally and me, you can’t go to a city without exploring a few churches, and the Parroquia San Juan Bautista did not disappoint. Stepping inside, we immediately noticed the exuberant interior, modified between 1926 and 1947 to reflect the prevailing Baroque style and reduced to a single nave flanked by seven small chapels on either side.

If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

Among the most striking works are the illusion-inducing ceiling frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ by Catalan painter Juan de Fabregat. Angels perch high above the column capitals lining the walls and culminate in the magnificent Chapel of the Rosary, with its lavishly decorated high altar embellished with the glow of gold leaf.

The ceiling depicts scenes from the life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount

The ceiling depicts scenes from the life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount

It’s certainly worth popping into Coyoacán’s main church for a quick wander

It’s certainly worth popping into Coyoacán’s main church for a quick wander

An angel guards over the dome at the front of the church

An angel guards over the dome at the front of the church

We paused to admire the vitrine with (the admittedly creepy) el Cristo de los Milagros, Christ of the Miracles, with a mystical assemblage of gold and pewter milagros, healing charms, pinned to a sea of red ribbons. Milagros of a specific body part, such as a leg, are used in a prayer for the improvement for some condition associated with a leg, such as arthritis or a bad knee. Some of the milagros had photos of the person to be healed.

The creepy, life-size Cristo de los Milagros

The creepy, life-size Cristo de los Milagros

If you want to be healed of an ailment, leave a milagro of the proper body part and maybe a photo, then tie a red ribbon and pin it to the wall

If you want to be healed of an ailment, leave a milagro of the proper body part and maybe a photo, then tie a red ribbon and pin it to the wall

Oh, baby! One of the strange icons to offer devotions to at the Iglesia de Coyoacán

Oh, baby! One of the strange icons to offer devotions to at the Iglesia de Coyoacán

Other works were designed to appeal to the emotions of the faithful and feature biblical depictions of the lives of the saints of the Franciscan order, including the Vision of Saint Teresa, the taking of the habit of Santa Clara, and the stigmatizations of San Francisco, Saint Domingo and San Juan.

Expect an inundation of elaborate ornamentation

Expect an inundation of elaborate ornamentation

Converting the infidels

Converting the infidels

Gold-painted statuary and frills line the sides of the church

Gold-painted statuary and frills line the sides of the church

Corpse-like mannequins can seem a strange inclusion to a church

Corpse-like mannequins can seem a strange inclusion to a church

One of the niches on the right-hand side of the church

One of the niches on the right-hand side of the church

We passed through a doorway into a small chapel, where a small group of students was sketching. This led out to an arched arcade of Tuscan columns. This was the cloister of the convent, perhaps founded by Friar Juan de la Cruz, an indigenous man who spoke Castilian Spanish. Within the convent’s walls, Nahuatl people were baptized and taught the tenets of the Christian faith.

Out back you can explore the quiet cloisters

Out back you can explore the quiet cloisters

This might have been where indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic faith

This might have been where indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic faith

A group of students was sketching when we visited

A group of students was sketching when we visited

Like the neighborhood itself, the church is a destination full of rich culture. So if you should find yourself in Coyoacán, make sure to spend some time exploring the Parroquia San Juan Bautista. Like us, you’ll be glad you did. –Duke

La Iglesia de Coyoacán

La Iglesia de Coyoacán

Parroquia San Juan Bautista
Plaza Centenario 8
Villa Coyoacán
04000 Coyoacán
CDMX, Mexico

A Perfect Afternoon in Artsy Coyoacán

Follow our six-stop walking tour of Mexico City’s bohemian neighborhood, including Plaza Hidalgo and Los Danzantes restaurant.

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

There’s much to do in the charming neighborhood of Coyoacán beyond La Casa Azul, the lifelong home and studio of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The municipality’s name comes from Coyohuacan, Nahuatl for “the Place of Coyotes.” This colonia, or neighborhood, features meandering streets filled with well-preserved colonial buildings, delicious restaurants and handicraft markets waiting to be explored.

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

All you’ll need for a perfect afternoon in Coyoacán is a comfortable pair of shoes and a sense of adventure — the area is walkable, and all of the stops listed below can easily be explored by foot.

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

Make a Splash

Stop 1: Plaza Hidalgo

Your journey begins in the historic heart of Coyoacán, just a few blocks from La Casa Azul. On Avenida Francisco Sosa, you’ll find not one, but two public squares: Jardín Centenario, which memorializes the 100th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, and the Plaza Hidalgo. Together they form a typical colonial town square, complete with benches for people-watching, gazebos for music and vendors selling balloons.

Near the entrance of Plaza Hidalgo, a street artist was selling woven palm-leaf crickets. We purchased a pair for 50 pesos each (about $2.50), and as the vendor was handing them to us, a woman seated on a nearby bench offered her advice by telling us to use hairspray to keep them green.

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

Here you’ll find a circular stone fountain known as the Fuente de los Coyotes, or Fountain of the Coyotes, the animals from whom the borough takes its name. The iconic landmark occupies the center of the plaza and features two bronze coyotes by sculptor Gabriel Ponzanelli. Numerous spouts located around the perimeter spray graceful arcs of water into the air over the playful pair.

Be sure to stop into the exquisite Iglesia de Coyoacán, the large cathedral, across the way.

Ignacio Allende Esquina Avenida Miguel Hidalgo

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Let’s Dance

Stop 2: Los Danzantes

On the periphery of the square is Los Danzantes, the Dancers, a multi-story restaurant in a colonial-era building with panoramic views of the park. Wally’s coworker Juls lived in Mexico City, and this is one of her favorite restaurants. We were seated outside on the patio terrace, and similar to the cafés of Paris, it was a great place to watch the world go by and enjoy a leisurely meal. While we were there, a guitarist paused for a moment as he passed by, looking to see if there might be an interested party willing to pay him to play a song or two. The restaurant also has its own mezcal distillery and grows seasonal produce in garden plots called chinampas in Xochimilco.

The bar at Los Danzantes

The bar at Los Danzantes

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Plaza Jardín Centenario 12

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Get Crafty

Stop 3: Mercado Artesanal Mexicano

After lunch, visit the Mexican Craft Market and walk beneath garlands of fluttering papel picado, colorful cut-tissue paper bunting. The two-story market has dozens of craft stalls featuring a wide variety of traditional Mexican handicrafts and regional specialties from all over the country, all in one place.

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

We headed upstairs first, but it seemed to be endless stalls of tattoo artists and not many handicrafts. The first floor, though, was more our speed. Wally and are were especially drawn to the colorful Oaxacan alebrijes, traditional folk art depicting fantastical creatures embellished with brilliant patterns and colors. (We have a thing for the surreal.) Each small wooden totem is carved by hand, often using nothing more than a simple pocket knife. We brought home a strange little skeleton, a green and orange insect and a black cactus with a bright pink flower and hummingbird on top of it.

When I purchased an unusual-looking doll made from a bulbous gourd with coarsely braided rope pigtails, two tiny breasts and coconut shell limbs (200 pesos, or $10), Wally replied, “You like things that look old, are a little bit cuckoo and are unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere.” He knows me so well.

Stalls often sell the same crafts at different prices, so shop around — but don’t expect to bargain for a lower price.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto 25


coyoacanchurchaisle.jpg

BONUS STOP!

Pop into la Iglesia de Coyoacán (aka Parroquia San Juan Bautista) across the square.

The façade looks plain, but the inside is awash in gilded niches, sweeping arches and hand-painted ceiling frescos, with a peaceful cloister around back.

If that hasn’t convinced you, you can hunt down the creepy life-size mannequins of Christ and a dead baby!


Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Take a Coffee Break

Stop 4: Panadería Pública

If shopping has worn you out, we recommend stopping for a delicious pastry paired with a great cup of coffee at the Panadería Pública for an afternoon pick-me-up. There’s an array of options here, including traditional conchas, campesinos and orejas, as well as French baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat to name a few. I ordered a café con leche and Wally got his latte con leche light. We also purchased a pastelito de guayaba, a puff pastry similar in size and shape to a turnover, filled with cream cheese and guava paste. Stop to chat with the friendly staff.

Higuerra 22
La Concepción

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

Goin’ to the Chapel

Stop 5: Plaza de la Conchita

A short stroll southeast is the leafy Plaza de la Conchita in the colonia La Concepción, a quiet sanctuary that feels worlds away from the crowds of tourists visiting La Casa Azul just a few miles away. The small square contains a pale yellow, timeworn and weather-beaten beauty of the 16th century, the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque-style, chapel known as La Conchita. One of the oldest in Mexico, it’s said that the conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered the church to be built on top of a Toltec altar soon after he settled in Coyoacán. The village was used as the base for the conquistadors after they conquered the Aztec Empire.

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

Duke sits on the steps around back

Duke sits on the steps around back

Unfortunately, the chapel was closed, so we couldn’t venture inside, but the building itself is a charming example of colonial architecture.

The fellas love to take jumping shots

The fellas love to take jumping shots

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Fernández Leal
La Concepción

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Park It

Stop 6: Frida Kahlo Park

Just steps from the Plaza de la Conchita is Frida Kahlo Park. Here you’ll find a menagerie of topiary animals at the entrance and a fountain with a bronze sculpture of a nude woman with her legs drawn up, also by Ponzanelli. A group of teenagers was practicing salsa routines under an arbor of bougainvilleas.

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Wally loves Frida

Wally loves Frida

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

The park is a bit small in scale, but it’s worth stopping by to take a photo with the larger-than-life figures of Frida and Diego and to see the brightly colored mural by Dan Silva aka Polvoe, across the way on Tepalcatitla street.

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

Fernández Leal and Avenida Pacifico
La Concepción


Coyoacán was easily one of our favorite places we visited in CDMX. You can see why this enchanting and storied part of the city has attracted artists and intellectuals over the years. –Duke

 

The Chicken Church of Java, Indonesia

Bukhit Rhema is such a bird-brained idea that it’s a kitchcy — and dare we say egg-cellent — side trip to the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur.

Known as the Chicken Church, it’s actually neither a chicken nor a church

Known as the Chicken Church, it’s actually neither a chicken nor a church

The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

And sometimes that means a church that’s built to look like a dove actually comes out looking more like an ignoble chicken.

To add insult to injury, the building known as the Chicken Church wasn’t ever supposed to actually be a church.

It’s the type of rundown place you’d imagine some doomsday cult taking over.

In fact, it’s rumored to be haunted by vampiric female ghosts.

I know the man behind this unusual structure had a different vision in mind, but the end result is really quite comical. The “dove” has liberty spikes atop its head, crosses on its eyes and what appears to be a studded collar, giving it the look of a blotto punk rocker.

This is what it looks like when doves cry: The now-run-down structure was the vision of a man who was called to build a house of prayer

This is what it looks like when doves cry: The now-run-down structure was the vision of a man who was called to build a house of prayer

This unusual structure has taken roost in the middle of the jungle in Magelang, Indonesia on the island of Java, near the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan and the Buddhist temple of Borobudur.

Cars must park down the hill in a lot. A bit up the hill, you’ll see a ticket booth (the admission price is 10,000 rupiah, less than a buck). Then it’s a five-minute walk up a steep hill to get to the chicken. Think of it as a mini-pilgrimage.

Duke had seen images of an abandoned interior, covered in dust and graffiti, and to be honest, that’s what he was hoping to find. But the building has been renovated — though don’t expect too much.

The building would make a lovely setting for cult meetings

The building would make a lovely setting for cult meetings

The cavernous interior is still quite bare-bones, featuring a cluster of seats in rows but no altar or anything else, in fact, that recalls a place of worship. It looks like a depressing concrete community center. The tilework on the floor is the most impressive part. It’s the type of rundown place you’d imagine some doomsday cult taking over.

It wasn’t ever fully furnished because its builder ran out of money.

It’s rumored to be haunted, home to kuntilanak, vampiric female ghosts from Indonesian folklore.

Heavenly rays of light illuminate the decaying interior

Heavenly rays of light illuminate the decaying interior

Whose birdbrained scheme was this, anyway? The idea came to Daniel Alamsjah in what he describes as a “vision from God.” One night after praying, he saw a dove with snow-white wings resting at the top of a hill. A voice asked him to build a house of prayer for all nations.  

The end result went a bit fowl (#sorrynotsorry), and locals started calling the structure Gereja Ayam, the Chicken Church.

The angels out front are a nod to the builder’s Christian beliefs

The angels out front are a nod to the builder’s Christian beliefs

“Perhaps because of my Christian faith, people thought I was building a church,” Alamsjah told the Jakarta Globe. “I was building a prayer house, not a church, but a place for people who believe in God.”

In the 1990s, he was able to purchase the land, which was said to be offered at Rp. 2 million (a mere $170 at the time).

Looking back at the tail feathers from the lookout on the bird’s head

Looking back at the tail feathers from the lookout on the bird’s head

Bird’s-Eye View

Duke and I wanted to do the head first, so, upon entering the building, we turned to the right and began climbing up the back staircase. On the first landing, we were delighted to find a series of brightly painted cautionary tales, much like those tiny free comic booklets missionaries hand out on street corners (apparently they’re called Chick tracts). Inevitably, they’d have a scene where some poor sap suffered the flames of Hell, coming to the realization — too late — that he didn’t accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

The mezzanine is covered with brightly painted murals that display bad behaviors

The mezzanine is covered with brightly painted murals that display bad behaviors

From there, we continued our climb to the inside of the chicken’s skull. To access the lookout, you have to head up a tottering spiral staircase and step out onto a small platform atop the bird’s head. Thin metal guardrails encircle the lookout. My vertigo sent my head swimming, so I stayed as close to the center as I could (except, of course, to pose for a picture with a volcano in the background).

Duke and Wally atop the chicken’s, err, dove’s head

Duke and Wally atop the chicken’s, err, dove’s head

Two girls were also on the platform and asked if they could take our picture. We found that the kids on Java were fascinated by us — at the tourist sites, we couldn’t go 5 feet without being begged to pose for a photograph.

Looking out one of the windows on the ground floor

Looking out one of the windows on the ground floor

After practically tumbling down the spiral staircase, Duke and I headed to the first floor to check out the chicken’s butt. Toward the back of the building, there’s a strange area with dirt and an exposed wall. Photos of people touching the wall, ecstatic glows upon their faces, revealed that they believe there to be magic lying within.

Perhaps they’re scenes from the Chicken Church’s past: A dozen unfinished chambers lie underneath it, which were once used for rehabilitation.

“The rehabilitation that happened at this prayer house was for therapy for disabled children, drug addicts, crazy people and disturbed youth who wanted to fight,” Alamsjah says.

The “dove” has liberty spikes atop its head and crosses on its eyes, giving it the look of a blotto punk rocker.
This truck will take you up the hill if you don’t want to walk

This truck will take you up the hill if you don’t want to walk

We climbed up the back stairs, gave a girl our ticket for a free local treat that came with our price of admission. The snack turned out to be bahn cay, fried cassava root, the Javanese version of home fries.

We munched our carbs, gazing out at the lush green hills beyond, glad we made time for this quirky stopover.

Don’t be chicken: If you’re hitting Prambanan or Borobudur, make a chicken run (can’t stop making puns!) and include a visit to this unintentionally goofy site. –Wally

The Bukit Rhema was supposed to actually resemble a dove, the symbol of peace

The Bukit Rhema was supposed to actually resemble a dove, the symbol of peace

“Take me to my leader”

“Take me to my leader”

Bukhit Rhema
Gereja Ayam, the Chicken Church

Dusun Gombong
Kembanglimus, Kurahan, Karangrejo
Borobudur, Magelang
Jawa Tengah 56553
Indonesia

Discover the Charms of La Ciotat

A little-known port in the South of France, where you can hike up to Parc du Mugel botanic gardens and see the Eden Théâtre, where the Lumière Brothers screened the first moving picture.

An on-the-fly decision brought us to La Ciotat, France

An on-the-fly decision brought us to La Ciotat, France

The plan was to take a day trip to Aubagne in the South of France. But because of the all-too-common and unpredictable rail strike, we were unable to take the train. So Wally, his parents and I decided we’d try out the bus. We bought tickets and boarded the 72 bus from Aix.

The picturesque port of La Ciotat

The picturesque port of La Ciotat

During the ride, Wally struck up a conversation with an adorable young woman with large expressive eyes and chestnut-colored hair tousled in a loose braid. She asked us in French where we were going, and when she heard that our plan was to hit Aubagne, she instead suggested La Ciotat, saying, “It’s super!” pronouncing the word “soo-pair.”

It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their movie, ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station,’ which sent some viewers running from their seats in terror.
Many of the buildings of Provence are pastel-colored, with shuttered windows

Many of the buildings of Provence are pastel-colored, with shuttered windows

We decided to follow her advice; after all, she knows the region better than we did. And so we got off the bus early, to explore La Ciotat.

Duke on the beach at La Ciotat

Duke on the beach at La Ciotat

The charming seaside town was the birthplace of cinema and the setting for many of the pioneering Lumière brothers’ first moving pictures. The quaint old port is now filled with luxury yachts and fishing boats bobbing upon the gentle waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Yachts, sailboats and seagulls in a postcard-perfect setting

Yachts, sailboats and seagulls in a postcard-perfect setting

A delightful place to spend an afternoon

A delightful place to spend an afternoon

Fishing boats line the harbor at La Ciotat

Fishing boats line the harbor at La Ciotat

Apparently the town also holds a yearly festival in October to celebrate its miraculous immunity from the Great Plague of 1720. Nearby Marseille did not fare so well and lost about 50% of its population! Historians believe that the ancient fortified stone walls surrounding the hamlet acted as a barrier to the wave of destruction caused by the bubonic plague, helping the townsfolk of La Ciotat to avoid a terrible fate.

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption

Once you arrive in La Ciotat, you have a choice of adventures. If you make your way from the port like we did, you’ll pass the town’s largest church, Our Lady of the Assumption, with its single belltower. Built at the start of the 17th century, it has a restrained Romanesque style façade. Pale rose-colored limestone used to construct the church came from the ancient quarries of La Couronne.

Unfortunately, we were unable to see inside, as the doors were locked.

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption
25 Rue Adolphe Abeille

Eden Théâtre, where the first movie was screened

Eden Théâtre, where the first movie was screened

Eden Théâtre

Built in 1889 and facing the Mediterranean seafront, the landmark Eden Théâtre, with its butter-yellow façade, is the world’s oldest surviving public movie theater in operation.

It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their black-and-white silent movie, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which shows a steam train pulling into a station. The scene certainly made quite an impression, sending some viewers running from their seats in terror as the image of an oncoming train hurtled towards them.

Eden Théâtre
25 Boulevard Georges Clémenceau

The gorgeous blue waters of the Mediterranean

The gorgeous blue waters of the Mediterranean

The botanic garden of Parc du Mugel is worth the hike uphill

The botanic garden of Parc du Mugel is worth the hike uphill

Parc du Mugel

Wally and I decided to check out the botanic garden of Parc du Mugel, while Shirley and Dave explored the small cobblestone-lined streets. The park is quite a hike but ended up being a highlight of our trip.

Since we weren’t completely sure where we were going, we stopped in at Au Poivre d’Ane, a bookstore, to ask directions to the park. A white cat named Dickens slept in the front window. The shopkeeper told us to follow the Avenue des Calanques until we reached the iron gates at the end and becomes Avenue du Mugel.

As we walked up the gradual incline of the road, we passed derelict port buildings covered in graffiti. A fine wire mesh, presumably to prevent erosion, covers the lower half of the cliffs like a hairnet keeping errant stones and soil in place.

When we reached the top, we were rewarded with the natural splendor of Parc du Mugel.

Graffiti decorates the walls along the thin slivers of rocky beaches

Graffiti decorates the walls along the thin slivers of rocky beaches

The Park’s History

In 1923, the land was purchased by Marseille coal merchant Louis Fouquet. A man of considerable wealth, Fouquet created a great arboretum, planting plane trees, cork oaks, chestnut trees, bamboos, mimosas and bougainvilleas.

The town eventually bought back the entire property, and in 1982, the nature preserve was opened to the public.

Wally went in the water. It was cold

Wally went in the water. It was cold

Located at the foot of a massive calanque, or seaside cliff, the 270-foot-high Bec de l’Aigle, Eagle’s Beak, shelters the site from the mistral, the powerful, cold dry wind that blows through the Rhône Valley to the Mediterranean coast. The Bec is composed of a conglomerate called poudingue or puddingstone. The “pudding” is made up of a fine-grained sediment composed of silt and limestone, flecked with small round pebbles the color of pomegranate seeds.

Elderly sunbathers with dark, leathery skin are a common sight in the South of France

Elderly sunbathers with dark, leathery skin are a common sight in the South of France

Wally and I followed a steep but shaded trail filled with chestnut trees, Aleppo pines and laurels before reaching the belvedere, a fancy name for a lookout point, to enjoy the panoramic view of the sun-dappled Mediterranean Sea. It was worth the effort.

Fishermen try to catch their dinner on the shores of La Ciotat

Fishermen try to catch their dinner on the shores of La Ciotat

The park has an impluvium irrigation system, which collects rainwater runoff for water-thirsty plants, and calades, retaining walls hidden by the lush greenery that act as ribs along the slope to hold back the earth in certain areas.

These lovingly arranged gardens contain wildflowers, cactuses, roses, aromatic and medicinal plants as well as a citrus fruit orchard.

Parc du Mugel
Calanque du Mugel

A pleasant stroll around the port 

A pleasant stroll around the port 

If you’re in the Aix or Marseille area and want to take an off-the-beaten path, follow our bus acquantaince’s advice and visit La Ciotat. The charming town, with its beautiful landscape and historic theater, deserves a visit for a few hours. –Duke

Windows with laundry hanging outside are another common sight in Provence

Windows with laundry hanging outside are another common sight in Provence

A Tour of the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur

Looking for things to do in Aix-en-Provence? Travel through time at this historic church.

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

Cathédrale Saint Sauveur
34 Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance
13100 Aix-en-Provence, France

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Tucked amongst the pastel-colored 17th century mansions and narrow streets of the charming vielle ville, or old town, of Aix-en-Provence, France lies one of its oldest and most interesting monuments, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur. (Try pronouncing it something like, “Seh So-Vurr.) Rising majestically, it occupies the site where the ancient forum of Roman Aquae Sextiae once stood.

During the French Revolution, the statues of the kings of France were decapitated.
Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

A Brief History of Saint Sauveur

Located at a point along what was the Via Aurelia, the principal highway from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor during the dominition of the Roman Empire, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur evolved in fits and starts, beginning in the 5th century. Delays between the laying of its foundation and its completion due to wars, la peste (bubonic plague) and lack of financing bear witness to the amalgam of ecclesiastical architectural styles that make up the religious landmark.

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Saint Maximinus and Mary Magdalene’s Voyage

According to Christian tradition, Saint Maximinus arrived in Provence from Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, accompanied by Mary Magdalene on a rudderless boat belonging to her brother, Lazarus. It was expected that they would perish at sea — however, the voyage brought them to the southern coast of France, landing in the city of Marseilles, where they achieved success in converting the French people to Christianity. In fact, Maximinus became the first Archbishop of Aix. He built a modest chapel here and dedicated it to Saint Sauveur, Christ the Savior.

There’s a popular theory (written about in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) that says Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of her journey — with the baby daddy being none other than Christ himself! The descendants of that child eventually married into the French royal family and started the Merovingian dynasty.

ANOTHER “DA VINCI CODE” CONNECTION: Saint-Sulpice and the Mystery of the Rose Line

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

The Baptistery Rotunda

The oldest part of Saint Sauveur is the baptistery, which was built at the beginning of the 5th century and predates the current cathedral by almost 700 years. As the town grew, the cathedral was renovated in the 16th century in the Romanesque style, evidence of the growing economic clout of the Catholic diocese.

This is the area off to the right when you enter the cathedral, and indeed, it has an ancient feel to it.

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

Allegedly, French historian Jean Scholastique Pitton uncovered an artifact, the orphaned leg of a statue, while excavating the site. He presumed this to belong to the sun god Apollo, and this became the origin of the Provençal myth that the church was built atop a pagan Roman temple dedicated to Apollo.

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

Eight slender columns of granite and green marble with Corinthian capitals surround the octagonal Merovingian baptismal basin. It was fed by the warm waters coming from the Roman baths. Its eight sides are a symbolic number of regeneration.

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

A Tale of Three Naves

The cathedral consists of three naves, compositionally connected to one another but nevertheless clearly distinguishable. The north is in the Baroque style, the south Romanesque, which served as the main nave prior to the construction of the central Gothic nave.

 

Romanesque Nave

At the beginning of the 12th century, the principal nave was constructed next to the baptistery in the Romanesque style and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The front of the nave was demolished during the 15th century and replaced with a new Gothic façade and bell tower.

The cloister, just beyond the baptistery and accessed through the Romanesque nave, was built next to the cathedral between the late 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. It was reduced in size in the early 18th century to expand the west corridor. At the corners, pillars are decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

 

Gothic Nave

About 200 years later, further expansion occurred, and a second massive Gothic nave and apse were added. The wings of the transept were begun in 1285 and completed in 1316. Bay by bay, the Romanesque church was embellished and transformed in the Gothic style. This is the area you’ll see first if you walk straight into the cathedral.

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

Baroque Nave

Just to the left of the Gothic nave as you enter the church, you’ll come to the small Baroque nave. To either side are green and gold organ cases in the Louis XV style, built by Jean-Esprit Isnard. The instrumental part by De Ducroquet dates from 1855. Both are listed historical monuments. An identical but false organ chest was built on the opposite side — just for the sake of symmetry.

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

A fascinating stone altarpiece commissioned by the Aygosi family, originally installed in the church of the Carmelites in Aix, can be seen in the Baroque aisle. Carved from stone by Audinet Stephani and installed in 1823, it depicts a variety of saints: Marcel, Anne with the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus and Marguerite of Antioch emerging from the shoulders of a dragon who had swallowed her whole.

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Apse and Artwork

The cathedral underwent extensive renovation in the 19th century. The nave was redecorated with painted and sculpted neo-Gothic elements added between 1857 and 1862.

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

The choir gallery of the Gothic nave contains the high altar with a pair of carved giltwood angels, a modern sculptural cathedra, or bishop’s throne, which looks a bit like a gray tankless toilet backed by three wavy, glittering bronze panels symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Nineteenth century stained glass windows feature the coats of arms of high-ranking church clergy.

Check to see if the  Triptych of the Burning Bush , by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

Check to see if the Triptych of the Burning Bush, by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

The cathedral’s most famous work is the Triptych of the Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment. Commissioned by King René for his funerary chapel in the church of Les Grands-Carmes, it is considered one of the most beautiful 15th century paintings in Europe. Painted in 1475 and 1476, it has resided in the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur since the 19th century. Due to its fragility, they only open the case on specific days; sadly, ours was not one of those days.

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Western Façade

With the completion of the nave, attention was drawn to the western façade, which was demolished and replaced in the Gothic style. Figures representing the Apostles flank the cathedral doors. Above the portal are the figures of 12 sibyls, pagan fortune tellers from antiquity, surrounded by foliage, fruit and flowers.

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

During the French Revolution, the statues on the façade, believed to depict the kings of France, were decapitated, and the heads were lost. The current ones are replicas.

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

The centerpiece of the façade is a statue of the Archangel Saint Michael vanquishing Satan with a cross, made in 1507 by sculptor Jean Paumier.

 

If you’re in Aix-en-Provence, pull yourself away from the delightful open-air markets to spend an hour or so exploring the choose-your-own-architectural-adventure of the Cathédral Saint Sauveur. It’s a bit like traveling through time, as you make your way from the ancient baptistery to the modern bishop’s throne. –Duke

The Secrets of Saint-Sulpice

Dan Brown got some details wrong in The Da Vinci Code, but this large church is still worth a visit — especially if you’re planning to hit the Luxembourg Gardens.

If you’re in Saint-Germain-des-Près or visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, be sure to stop by Saint-Sulpice Church

If you’re in Saint-Germain-des-Près or visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, be sure to stop by Saint-Sulpice Church

Église Saint-Sulpice
12 Place Saint-Sulpice
75005 Paris, France

It might be the second-biggest church in Paris, but Saint-Sulpice isn’t a major tourist attraction — now that  Da Vinci Code  fever has died down

It might be the second-biggest church in Paris, but Saint-Sulpice isn’t a major tourist attraction — now that Da Vinci Code fever has died down

  • Saint-Sulpice is the second-largest church in Paris, behind Notre-Dame.
  • It’s located in the 6th arrondissement, in the fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Près district.
  • The Catholic church is dedicated to Saint Sulpicius the Pious, a 7th century bishop of Bourges, who spoke out against the Merovingian kings.
  • Construction of the church ran from 1646 to 1745, dragging out for a century mostly due to inconsistent funding. It’s done in a muted Baroque style.
  • Saint-Sulpice was where the S&M enthusiast the Marquis de Sade and the poet Charles Baudelaire were baptized, and it hosted the wedding of author Victor Hugo.
  • It boasts iconic mismatched towers.
  • The church is home to one of the most magnificent organs in the world.
  • It’s known as the Cathedral of the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank.
  • Saint-Sulpice became even more famous by being featured in a scene in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code involving its gnomon, an astronomical instrument erroneously depicted as the site of the Rose Line.
  • How do you pronounce Saint-Sulpice? Try saying “Seh Sool-Peez.”
The fountain was built by Louis Visconti in the mid-1800s

The fountain was built by Louis Visconti in the mid-1800s

We had spent the morning wandering the Luxembourg Gardens. Our friends Kent and Michael, who live in Paris, suggested we make the short walk to see l’Église Saint-Sulpice. We’re glad we did.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown calls the gnomon the Paris Meridian, or the Rose Line — but apparently that’s pure fiction.
Wally never misses a chance to photograph depictions of lions

Wally never misses a chance to photograph depictions of lions

Fontaine Saint-Sulpice

A block from the gardens, we entered a small square with a fountain dominating the space. It’s quite an impressive work, with lions lying down but roaring grumpily, just like our cat Caribou. The Fontaine Saint-Sulpice was constructed between 1843 and 1848 by the architect Louis Visconti, who also designed Napoleon’s tomb.

The impressive fountain in front of Saint-Sulpice, with one of its mismatched towers in the background

The impressive fountain in front of Saint-Sulpice, with one of its mismatched towers in the background

Wally, far right, and his friends at the Fontaine Saint-Sulpice

Wally, far right, and his friends at the Fontaine Saint-Sulpice

At the top, in a rectangular structure built of arches, four assumably famous dudes sit majestically, starting out in each of the cardinal directions. Apparently, they were all created by different sculptors and represent religious figures who were known for having the gift of gab.

st-supliceinterior.JPG

Église Saint-Sulpice

The Church of Saint-Sulpice now stands where a small Romanesque church once catered to the neighborhood, long before the Saint-Germain-des-Près district was home to the existentialists (Sartre and the gang) or the posh hot spot it is today.

Thinking of changing careers? Pray to Saint Sulpicius, to whom the church is dedicated; he’s the patron saint of delayed vocations. ( The Martyrdom of Saint Sulpicius , Eugene Delacroix, circa 1847)

Thinking of changing careers? Pray to Saint Sulpicius, to whom the church is dedicated; he’s the patron saint of delayed vocations. (The Martyrdom of Saint Sulpicius, Eugene Delacroix, circa 1847)

Like many large churches, it took a long time to build — about a century — mainly due to touch-and-go funding, with various architects contributing different designs along the way. Construction began in 1646 but stalled from 1678 to 1719. It then resumed, mostly wrapping up by 1745.

A funerary niche at Saint-Sulpice

A funerary niche at Saint-Sulpice

Some of the statues at the church are simply heavenly

Some of the statues at the church are simply heavenly

Nicknamed the Cathedral of the Rive Gauche (Left Bank), Saint-Sulpice is one of the largest churches in Paris, second only to Notre-Dame. Its design is actually quite plain for the typically frilly and ornate Baroque style. You’ll also notice that it’s slightly asymmetrical, as the south tower was never finished. Construction was interrupted by the French Revolution and never completed. Stacks of open colonnades line the exterior, evoking the Roman Colosseum.

Light a candle and say a prayer, even if you’re not religious — it certainly can’t hurt, right?

Light a candle and say a prayer, even if you’re not religious — it certainly can’t hurt, right?

Saint-Sulpice Church is renowned for its massive organ, considered one of the finest (and largest) in the world. It dates back to 1781 and was the highlight of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s career. Because of this impressive instrument, concerts are frequently held in the church.

A down and out man in front of the church

A down and out man in front of the church

A wedding was taking place at the far front of the church. We caught the bride and her father as they headed up there

A wedding was taking place at the far front of the church. We caught the bride and her father as they headed up there

Nowhere near as popular as other churches, like Notre-Dame or Sacré-Cœur, this feels very much like a neighborhood place of worship, and chances are you’ll be able to wander it without many other tourists around. When we visited, there was a small wedding going on at the very front of the church, and we watched the bride and her father weave their way through the space, heading up the aisle.

There aren’t any pews at Saint-Sulpice…

There aren’t any pews at Saint-Sulpice…

…just row after row of small wooden chairs

…just row after row of small wooden chairs

One thing that particularly struck us is the lack of pews — instead, there are rows upon rows of small wooden chairs with woven seats.

 

The Da Vinci Code Connection

There it is.
Embedded in the gray granite floor, a thin polished strip of brass glistened in the stone … a golden line slanting across the church’s floor. The line bore graduated markings, like a ruler. It was a gnomon, Silas had been told, a pagan astronomical device like a sundial. Tourists, scientists, historians, and pagans from around the world came to Saint‑Sulpice to gaze upon this famous line.
The Rose Line.
…. It was an ancient sundial of sorts, a vestige of the pagan temple that had once stood on this very spot. The sun’s rays, shining through the oculus on the south wall, moved farther down the line every day, indicating the passage of time, from solstice to solstice.
–“The Da Vinci Code,” Chapter 22, Dan Brown
Look for the gnomon, which leads to an obelisk against one wall. This line marks the solstices and equinoxes

Look for the gnomon, which leads to an obelisk against one wall. This line marks the solstices and equinoxes

Saint-Sulpice has another claim to fame: It’s featured in Dan Brown’s fun puzzle romp The Da Vinci Code — both the book, quoted above, and the crappy movie version.

The narrow brass strip is used as a clue by Silas, the murderous monk, in his quest for the Holy Grail. One end is found near the middle of the nave on the right, by a stone statue with a Latin inscription. From there, it runs north, leading to an obelisk next to a statue of Saint Peter.

This is the famous gnomon — technically, the projecting piece on a sundial that shows the time by the position of its shadow. In this case, it’s a line that’s used as an astronomical instrument from the 1700s to determine the suspiciously pagan date of Easter each year (the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox — it doesn’t get any more pagan than that!). The sun’s rays enter the church through a missing panel in the south transept’s stained glass window and fall upon the line at various points throughout the year. On the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun hits a bronze table, and on the winter solstice, it illuminates the obelisk.

Brown calls this line the Paris Meridian, or the Rose Line, but apparently that’s pure fiction: Zero longitude of the meridian line is actually in Parc Montsouris, according to Travel France Online.

Because of the influx of Da Vinci Code aficionados (visitations increased 25% after the publication of the novel, apparently), Saint-Sulpice posted the following note in English:

Well, The Da Vinci Code version makes a good story. But even the facts are not without interest, in providing an example of the cooperation of science and religion. It would not be unreasonable to expect the church was built on a pagan temple; this was a regular practice. However, it seems unlikely that the sundial, especially if known to be pagan, would have been preserved or reconstructed in the new church building.

Despite the fact that Brown manipulated the facts a bit to make a more compelling story, Saint-Sulpice is definitely worth a wander, especially when paired with the Luxembourg Gardens. –Wally

7 Fun Facts About the Milan Cathedral

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

Somehow the Milan Duomo was even more beautiful in the rain

If there’s one thing you absolutely have to include on a trip to Milan, Italy, it’s the massive Milan Cathedral. (Unless, of course, your tastes lean a bit more to the macabre, in which case, I recommend spending an afternoon wandering the impressive artistic grounds of the Cimitero Monumentale — see the photos here.)

Locally, the cathedral is known as the Duomo, which confused me since there’s no visible dome like the one in Florence. Its white exterior features delicate carvings so fine you could almost imagine they were made of lace. Despite its size, it feels a bit dainty — odd for a church in the Gothic style.

My favorite part of the Duomo is the part closest to Heaven: the rooftop, where you can look out at the bustling city beyond.

Holy moley! Here are 7 stunning facts about this breathtaking cathedral:

Delicate spires topped with religious figures are part of the elaborately decorated Duomo

1. The Duomo is big. Like really, really big.

In fact, it’s the second-largest Catholic church in the world, behind only Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome — which was built after the Duomo. Milan’s cathedral takes up an entire city block.

A carving of David slaying the giant Goliath. Somebody send that boy to juvie!

2. It boasts more statues than any other building in the world.

That’s what the tourist literature tells you, at least. And it’s hard to argue: The entirety of the façade is covered with carved architectural elements portraying flowers, fruits and fantastical beasts, including delightfully grotesque gargoyles. There are plenty of saints sprinkled throughout as well. Sources disagree on the exact number, but it seems to be over 3,300 statues total, including about 100 gargoyles and 135 spires.

Milan’s most popular attraction, the cathedral, took over six hundred years to be built

How can this Christian take a nap with all those wolves baying?

The best part of the Milan Cathedral is its expansive rooftop

3. It has the best views in the city.

My favorite part of the Duomo is the part closest to Heaven. You can go up to the rooftop (accessible by stairs and an elevator) and look out at the bustling city beyond, as well as get closer views of the needle-like spires, each topped with a religious figure.

The terraza atop the Milan Duomo is a popular (and absolutely stunning) hangout spot

There’s one main area of the roof, the terraza, and, indeed, I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to go up there. Businessmen in suits, young kids playing games and canoodling couples filled the space. Imagine having a rooftop like this as one of your regular lunch spots.

Wally wandered around to the back of the roof and found a quiet spot to read in the sun

I noticed a side walkway and set off on an exploration. The path wound its way around the roof, underneath the arches of flying buttresses. The crowd thinned out, until it was just me and the odd visitor. I found a secluded nook, got out my book and read for an hour or so in the sun, atop one of the largest churches in the world, utterly delighted.

4. One of the statues has gained fame and is part of a local legend.

The symbol of the city and patroness of the Milanese people, the gilded Madonnina (the Little Madonna), stands atop the main spire of the cathedral. The tallest of all of the many statues on the cathedral, the open-armed Madonna rises 354 feet high. Built in 1774, tradition holds that it must be the tallest man-made object in Milan. So, when a modern building surpassed this height, a replica of la Madonnina was placed atop it.

During World War II, the Madonnina was covered with a cloth for five years to avoid providing an easy target for fighter-bombers.

The Duomo is gorgeous at night as well

5. The construction of the Duomo took over six centuries.

Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo, supported in the endeavor by the Lord of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, began building the cathedral in 1386. At least 78 different architects from around Europe were invited to work on the structure, and construction dragged on. By 1418, they had decided it was time to consecrate the cathedral, even though only the nave was actually finished at the time.

For the next two centuries, construction continued, but politics, lack of funding and local frustration with a massive, seemingly endless project smack-dab in the middle of the city kept causing delays.

Napoleon helped finally wrap up construction of the Duomo’s façade — so he could be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral

6. Napoleon played an important role in the Duomo’s construction.

How did the façade finally get finished? This was accomplished by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, in the early 1800s, after he had conquered the city. He wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the Duomo and wanted the exterior completed beforehand. A generous (if vain) guy, he offered to pay all expenses — after a talk with the French treasurer. Seven years later, the façade was completed, and the ceremony took place as the diminutive leader wanted. This explains why there’s a statue of Napoleon atop one of the many spires.

Milan’s Navigli District is a restaurant and art hotspot

Milan’s Navigli District is a restaurant and art hotspot

7. The Duomo’s construction is responsible for the navigli, the city’s canal system.

The cathedral’s edifice is made of Candoglia marble from Lake Maggiore to the north of Milan. To transport it from the quarries, canals were constructed, some of which remain to this day. In fact, the Navigli District is quite a hotspot, known for its restaurants and art galleries. –Wally
 

A Perfect Afternoon in Málaga Centro

What to do in Malaga? Hit these three sites: the Malaga Cathedral, a hidden abbey and a shop filled with amazing local ceramics.

One of the highlights of Málaga Centro is its impressive cathedral

There’s no shortage of centuries-old landmarks in the historic Málaga Centro — the entire city center is an open-air museum of sorts, dotted with monuments, restaurants, cafés and shops.

When we found ourselves leisurely wandering through the Moorish-inspired cobblestone streets of Málaga Centro one afternoon with our friend and guide Jo, she did not disappoint, sharing a few of her favorite spots with us.

Here is our short list of three sights worth checking out (the food and drink stops will follow shortly in other posts). From iconic landmarks like the Catedral de Málaga to hidden gems like the Santa Ana Abbey, these are all within a short walking distance of each other.

 

The quiet Santa Ana Abbey was a fun discovery

The quiet Santa Ana Abbey was a fun discovery

Stop 1: Santa Ana Abbey

Tucked into a narrow alleyway in Málaga, we stumbled upon the Santa Ana Abbey. More commonly known as the Cistercian Abbey, the vibrant coral-hued façade contains an 18th century statue of Santa Ana.

A statue of Jesus in a niche at Santa Ana Abbey

This could be Santa Ana herself…or it might be Mary

The abbey comprises a sole nave and includes works by celebrated Spanish Baroque sculptor Pedro de Mena and his daughters, Andrea and Claudia, both of whom were Cistercian nuns. De Mena dedicated his life's work to producing sculptures depicting religious imagery, just as his father had done before him.

Off to the right of the sanctuary is a small candlelit nave

Originally from Granada, de Mena had a studio in the nearby Calle de los Alfligidos, and by his request was interred and buried at the entrance. According to local lore, the artist’s wish was “that he should lay in a place where his remains could be trodden on by the faithful because of his humble person.”

 

While shopping at Alfajar, Duke and Wally ended up buying this ceramic handcrafted dove, a symbol connected to Picasso, who loved to paint them

Stop 2: Alfajar

You’re bound to find something at Alfajar, a boutique shop specializing in high-quality contemporary handmade ceramics created by local artists.

The store is located within the historic Zea-Salvateria Palace, a Baroque-period structure built in the late 17th century. The building was originally host to the City Council of Málaga during the reign of Isabel ll and subsequently home to the post office for many years after.

The fanciful signed pieces are displayed on open shelving among the white walls and high ceilings of the former estate. Inspired by the heritage of regional pottery craft, the shop’s philosophy is to celebrate these divergent influences and breathe originality into the medium.

Wally and I knew we had to take one home, but it was difficult to make a decision, as each piece was unexpected and unique. The colors employed are the result of metallic oxide glazes that are only revealed once the piece has been kiln-fired and cooled. We finally decided upon a ceramic dove on a wooden stand — emblematic of hometown hero Picasso — and a horse in the Nazari style. These pieces were quite affordable, and the shopkeeper took great care in wrapping our purchases.

 

The single tower gives the cathedral a lopsided feel — and earned it the nickname la Manquita, the One-Armed Lady

Stop 3: Catedral de Málaga

It’s time to go for Baroque (amongst other styles)! Across from Alfajar is the Catedral de Málaga, the main church of the city. Built on the foundations of a former mosque, the cathedral façade is Baroque, the floor plan Gothic and its interior Renaissance. This mishmash of styles is due to the fact that construction took more than three centuries to complete.

Apparently the original plan of its architect, Diego de Siloe had two towers. However, the second is incomplete and earned the structure the nickname la Manquita, the One-Armed Lady.

Jo and Wally on the front steps of the Malaga Cathedral

Jo and Wally on the front steps of the Malaga Cathedral

A plaque located at the base of the tower states that funds raised by the parish were sent to aid colonists who had fled Great Britain to gain their independence — although there is evidence that the money actually went to fund emergency public works in the province.

The cathedral gardens are worth exploring

We were unable to enter the cathedral proper that day (get there before 5 p.m.), but followed a wedding party smoking cigarettes in the side garden before the ceremony in the Church of El Sagrario, an ancillary chapel on the property filled with impressive religious artworks. We popped into the church only briefly, not up for actually crashing the wedding (as Wally pointed out, Catholic mass takes way too long).

We decided not to crash the wedding at the Church of El Sagrario after all

Returning the following day, we were able to see the cathedral’s interior. The space is majestic, with ribbed vaulted ceilings, an impressive 18th century pipe organ and finely carved statues of the saints by de Mena. 

Photography was not permitted, as a service was taking place, and I got yelled at by one of the guards who were watching us closely, and quickly put my camera away. (Wally, however, is more fearless than me and was able to sneak in a shot.) Don’t dare try taking interior photos if you don’t want to get scolded. 

Wally took this one shot of the interior of the Málaga Cathedral, before the guards gestured violently at him

If you don’t make it inside, don’t feel too badly — the exterior courtyard and gardens are worth exploring. I’m not sure if the no-photography policy was only when services are taking place, but you can always wander around the over-the-top Church of the Holy Martyrs instead. They let you take as many photos as you want. You can see ours here. –Duke

 

ALSO ON THE MALAGA CENTRO LIST: The Alcazaba Fortress

The Gilded Glory of the Iglesia de los Santos Mártires in Málaga, Spain

The ornate interior of the Iglesia de los Santos Mártires in Málaga, Spain

As our photos attest, this church, dedicated to Ciriaco and Paula, the patron saints of Málaga, is a wonderment of Catholic excess.


It's quite unassuming from the outside. A trio of Mudejar-inspired brick-lined arches, devoid of ornamentation, carved into the side of the structure. No steps leading up to a grand entrance. You'd think it was a side entrance, situated as it is on a jag of a narrow street.

But inside! The Iglesia de los Santos Mártires (the Church of the Holy Martyrs) is utterly dazzling, white arches everywhere, lined in gold, gilded and glittering. Altars accented with slabs of marble, one a deep crimson niche. The style could be considered Rococo Loco.

The Iglesia de los Santos Mártires is utterly dazzling. The style could be considered Rococo Loco.

We entered, overwhelmed. Your eyes don't know where to focus. So we turned to our right and began to work our way around the edges of the church.

The first thing we saw was a lifesize statue depiction of the Last Supper behind a wrought iron fence. We couldn’t help but giggle. Sometimes the ostentatiousness of Catholics is astounding. But it makes for a fun exploration.

We walked the periphery of the sizable space, snapping away photos of the various niches, each with its own interpretation of the Virgin Mary and/or Jesus.

And unlike the city’s main cathedral, photography is allowed here.

 

The Patron Saints of Málaga

The church is dedicated to the two patron saints of Málaga: St. Ciriaco and St. Paula. These two were part of a Christian sect forbidden by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The Christian community had a secret meeting place in Málaga. But on June 18, 303, Roman soldiers learned of the spot and raided it. Ciriaco and Paula were among those captured.

Even though they were tortured, the pair refused to renounce Christ. So they were tied to trees along the banks of the Guadalquivir River and stoned to death.

Not wanting anything that could be venerated, the soldiers built a massive bonfire to destroy the remains. But the skies opened up with a torrential downpour and doused the flames. When the soldiers left, the surviving Christians took the bodies and buried them in an unknown locale.

Fast forward to the Reconquista, when the Catholics started taking back the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim rulers. A monk named Fray Juan de Carmona told the Catholic kings of a vision he had: Build a church dedicated to Ciriaco and Paula — and they would be victorious in the battle for Málaga in 1487.

It seems just the promise was good enough, for they did end up winning. They then dispatched a letter to Pope Innocent VIII, who approved construction of the Iglesia de los Santos Mártires.

Thus began a cycle of destruction and rebuilding from incidents including a cannonball (1854), earthquake (1884) and looting (1936).

In 1490, Ferdinand and Isabella appointed Ciriaco and Paula the official patron saints of Málaga.

Every June 18, there's a solemn procession through the historic quarter to honor the martyrs.

The church is home to four Semana Santa (Holy Week) brotherhoods.

Iglesia de los Santos Mártires, located in the city center, is certainly worth exploring. –Wally

 

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