From mountaintop cathedrals to monasteries in the desert, we go on a pilgrimage to some of the world’s holiest spots…
1. Sistine Chapel – Rome, Italy
From the outside, the Pope’s private chapel is nothing to write home about. But like the Tardis, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Every inch of the ceiling is covered with frescoes – the handiwork of a certain Michelangelo. His brief was to paint the Twelve Apostles but the Renaissance maestro had grander designs in mind – he painted over 300 figures.
2. El Koutoubia Mosque – Marrakech, Morocco
Mr T beware! According to legend, the gold orbs that adorn Morocco’s largest mosque are made from melted-down jewellery. A sultan made his wife give up her finest bling for snacking on grapes during Ramadan. The mosque is closed to non-Muslims but pass by when the muezzins call the faithful to prayer and you’ll see Marrakech at its atmospheric best.
3. St Catherine’s Monastery – Sinai Desert, Egypt
You half expect to bump into Charlton Heston here. After all, this 3rd-century monastery is set on the spot where Moses found the Burning Bush. Plus it’s at the foot of Mount Sinai, of Ten Commandments fame. Climb the 4000 steps to the summit for soul-stirring views of the desert – worth remembering when you’re running out of puff on the way up.
4. Wailing Wall – Jerusalem, Israel
At any other holy site you’d be branded a litterbug. But at the Wailing Wall, stuffing little bits of paper in between the bricks is actively encouraged. In fact, it’s the custom. Orthodox Jews in signature black hats and trench coats nod back and forth in trance-like prayer and slide little handwritten notes between the cracks of the wall. Each scrap of paper is a prayer.
5. Monreale Cathedral – Palermo, Sicily
The saying ‘all that glitters is not gold’ doesn’t apply here. Golden mosaics completely cover the walls of the nave, aisles, transept and apse of this Norman sanctuary – that’s about 68,000 square feet of tiny shimmering tiles in total. Your eye is immediately drawn to the far end of the cathedral where a huge image of Christ Pantocrator sweeps across a dome.
6. Temple of the Tooth – Kandy, Sri Lanka
It’s ironic that this shrine is in a place called Kandy. The Temple of the Tooth, or the Dalada Maligawa to give it its proper name, is home to Sri Lanka’s most important relic – the upper-left canine of Buddha himself. It’s a very big deal here. So much so, white-clad pilgrims bearing lotus blossoms and frangipani come here daily to honour the holy gnasher.
7. Mahadeva Temple – Goa, India
Hidden away in a remote forest, Goa’s oldest Hindu temple dates back to the 13th-century. It’s dedicated to Lord Shiva and legend has it a king cobra lurks in its dimly-lit interior. Like Stonehenge, the origins of the temple are a mystery. It’s built from striking black basalt, which is nothing unusual in itself – beside the fact it’s nowhere to be found in Goa.
8. Mount Athos – Halikidiki, Greece
Dressed in black robes and pillar box hats, around 1,700 Greek Orthodox monks call these cliff-hugging monasteries home. Prince Charles is a big fan and regular visitor. But he’s one of the lucky few – access extremely limited. What’s more, women are forbidden from coming within 500 metres of the place. But boat trips provide a sneaky peek at goings-on.