hidden europe

Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Old cemetery on Barra's west coast (photo © hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

Islands breed patience – among both the living and the dead. Especially in mid-winter in Barra, when the storms can be relentless. For us, however, there is a rare pleasure in being at the mercy of the elements. One feels connected with nature in a ...
Classic spa architecture in the Czech town of Frantiskovy Lázne (photo © hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

Relaxation is compulsory in Frantiskovy Lázne, a small spa town in the far north-west corner of the Czech Republic. There are two outstanding churches, one a very fine Catholic church executed in graceful Empire style and the other a rather ...
image © Tamarindarts / dreamstime.com
Letter from Europe

Today is International Women's Day (IWD). In the ecclesiastical calendar, Rome assigns 8 March to St John of God, who died on this day in 1550. He was, as it happens, a thoroughly decent guy who in the latter years of his life worked in Granada ...
photo © Wideonet / dreamstime.com
Letter from Europe

Berlin is not normally a place for liturgical theatre, at least not of the Catholic variety. But St Afra is a place apart. And the musical flourishes in this service are remarkable for their provenance. One of the great English organs of the ...
John Henry Newman was admitted to Trinity College Oxford (pictured here) in December 1816 (photo © Julian Fletcher / dreamstime.com).
Letter from Europe

One day, a learned and able writer will surely pen a spiritual geography of England, looking at the relationship between faith and landscape in that country. It is a book that just waits to be written. The story of John Henry Newman should figure ...
The Augustinian abbey on Inchcolm - an island in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh (photo © Creativehearts / dreamstime.com).
Letter from Europe

Would you ever consider buying an entire island? This autumn has seen a couple of Scottish islands on the market. For a mere two million pounds, you might consider Tanera Mòr, the largest of the Summer Isles just off the coast of north-west ...
Roman Catholic Basilica of St Servatius at Vrijthof Square in the Old Town of Maastricht (photo © hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

Do you not find that some towns have instant appeal? That's how we feel about Maastricht, a medium-size city tucked away in the southernmost part of the Netherlands - a region called Limburg. It's forty years since the last of the Limburg coal ...
Our image shows just one portion of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; the wooded area in the background is the Tiergarten (photo © Matyas Rehak / dreamstime.com).
Letter from Europe

As I walked deeper into the complex, surrounded on all sides by the chunky columns, I heard the animated chatter of two kids from time to time - two young English voices in a forest of memories in the very middle of Berlin. I met some Spanish ...
The former monastery at Chorin in Brandenburg is a fine example of Brick Gothic architecture, made all the better by its serene setting (photo © hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

Summer is slipping into autumn and the leaves in forests around Berlin are already falling. We walked through mixed woodland pondering the sounds and smells of beech, oak, hazel and pine. Before long, we came to Chorin where the remarkable ...
photo © Radius06 / dreamstime.com
Letter from Europe

For millions of Brits of my generation, the EU gave an exit route, a chance to escape. It gave me a chance to feel truly European, to be truly European. It has given me the opportunity to explore other languages, other faiths, other freedoms, that ...
Letter from Europe

There's a touch of the wild west about Ferizaj. It has a frontier feel. When the English traveller Edith Durham travelled through Kosovo in 1908, she stopped just briefly in Ferizaj, remarking that this was a community created by the ...
The centrepiece of Geneva's Mur des Réformateurs: sculptures of Beza, Calvin, Farel and Knox (photo © hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

All who make their way to Geneva are struck by the sheer beauty of the city's setting. It is also a place that has always made space for radicals of all persuasions. Three hundred years after Calvin's death in 1564, the city emerged as a hotspot in ...
Letter from Europe

In some parts of Europe, 27 June is marked as the day of the Seven Sleepers. In Germany, the weather on Siebenschläfer is seen as indicative of what sort of summer we can expect. Stable weather on 27 June bodes well for the weeks ahead. But wild ...
The Chapel of Grace (Gnadenkapelle in German) - the centrepiece of Altötting's main square and the heart and soul of Bavaria (photo © hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

It rained last night on the hills above the Inn Valley in Bavaria. Lucky were those pilgrims who had the luxury of a bed in one of the many small inns and guest houses which are to be found along the route of Saint James. Nourished in body if not ...
Letter from Europe

You might expect the most striking building in Plzen to be a brewery. But there's more to Plzen than beer. In fact the most impressive building in the Czech city is the Great Synagogue on Plzen's main ...
Letter from Europe

It is the season for shadows. No other week in the ecclesiastical calendar comes with such a hefty dose of liturgical theatre as that which concludes with Easter. It is a week which has its highs and lows, its exuberant periods of light balanced by ...
Letter from Europe

Today is an ordinary working day, though if history had taken a different turn, October 13 could so easily have become a national holiday in England. Many of the men and women who have occupied the English throne in the last 1000 years have aspired ...
Letter from Europe

The island of Gozo, Malta's kid sister, is indeed a sanctuary, a place apart. All the more so during these last days of June when a sequence of Catholic feast days are the cue for village ...
Letter from Europe

There was often much ado around San Marco on Ascension Day. At least if Canaletto's celebrated paintings of Venice on the Feast of the Ascension are to be believed. The particular ceremony that caught Canaletto's attention was the annual dedication ...
Greek Catholic church at Ruská Bystrá, a small community in Slovakia about six kilometres west of the border with Ukraine (© hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

From villages in the Ukrainian hills above Uzhhorod west through the Bieszczady Mountains to remote communities in south-east Poland, there is a Paschal theme this Sunday morning: "Christos voskrese," it runs in Church Slavonic. "Christ has risen." ...
Letter from Europe

Travelling through north-east Hungary earlier this month, we could so easily have missed Sárospatak. It was a drizzly Sunday afternoon and we turned off the main road merely on a whim. Sárospatak was to us little more than a name on a map. Of ...
Bach statue outside St Thomas' Church in Leipzig (© hidden europe).
Letter from Europe

March 1714 was a good month for Johann Sebastian Bach. On the second of the month, he was promoted to the plum job of Konzertmeister at the Weimar court. This was quite an achievement for a man who was only 28 years old. The terms of the new ...
Letter from Europe

The monastery on the Isola di San Francesco del Deserto is a place apart, an island retreat in the shallow recesses of the northern lagoon well away from the hustle and bustle of Venice. It is an island where blessed solitude is punctuated by the ...
Letter from Europe

The sky takes on a different quality in the run-up to Christmas. The grey cloud-folds of Advent have rolled back, and suddenly the air is brighter, drier and clearer. The trees have been flayed by autumn. Only bare skeletons remain, their outlines ...
Letter from Europe

The winter snows have come to higher parts of the Carpathians, and already the beech woods and forests of fir are clad in white. Kroscienko, a little village in the Polish hills, is very quiet this time of year. Were it not for the fact that the ...
Letter from Europe

The second of the spas - the Apple Spas - is marked today over much of central and eastern Europe. It coincides, as every year, with the Feast of the Transfiguration - a milestone in the ecclesiastical calendar. The Apple Spas is a day when great ...
Letter from Europe

It is Good Friday again, a day that jolts much of Europe out of its regular routine. It is a day for pilgrimages - some avowedly secular, others more religious in character. Large crowds from the Saarland region of Germany will flock over the ...
Letter from Europe

Today is Candlemas Eve, definitively marking the end of the Christmas season in western Europe. Modern custom in secular Europe is often to dismantle Christmas decorations well before the Epiphany, but in many churches across the continent cribs ...
The Church of the Resurrection located on the rock above the Black Sea in Foros, Ukraine (photo © Andybor / dreamstime.com).
Letter from Europe

Foros is a place for holidays and for history. During the Soviet era, this resort at the southern tip of the Crimea was much favoured by Kremlin leaders looking for a little summer relaxation. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was at his dacha in ...
Letter from Europe

Have we lost the ability to wait, to keep vigil, to be patient? This weekend, much of Europe marks the start of Advent. In many countries this is still a season defined by quiet reflection in anticipation of Christmas. For some, these weeks in the ...
Letter from Europe

I walk by dusk along the dirt road that sweeps through the fields of corn. I do not go as far as the hills, where each distant terrace jumps out in sharp relief. During the heat of the day, the high sun drains the landscape of energy. But, come ...
Letter from Europe

You probably don't chart your progress through the year with an ecclesiastical calendar. We do, but in truth we cannot really recommend it as a sensible way of confronting modernity. It is all too easy to miss dental appointments, dinner dates and ...
Letter from Europe

Well, we survived Walpurgis Night. Did you? Or were you abducted by ghouls or goblins? Did you sell your soul? Across much of Europe, May is ushered in by a night of bonfires and revelry. "All a matter of keeping the witches at bay," says our ...
Letter from Europe

The stretch of coast north from Boulogne (in the direction of Calais) is a good place to reflect on England. We took a local bus along the coastal road last month, and it made for a fine ride on a perfectly clear, crisp winter day. Beach ...
Letter from Europe

Over the recent holidays, a friend and fellow-traveller popped the 'church question'. Is it okay to slip into Mass or Evensong to enjoy the splendours of Venice's Basilica di San Marco or York's magnificent Minster when the principal intent is not ...
Letter from Europe

It is the season for good cheer. Or so they say. And this Advent we have caught a dash of Christmas spirit in several different countries across Europe. Mulled wine comes with a variety of accents, sometimes with hints of cinnamon and citrus, ...
Letter from Europe

Many English readers will know the rhyme that recalls the failed terrorist action in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the English Parliament. But the majority of those who gather at bonfires across England ...
Letter from Europe

Europe's Protestant reformers were not, on the whole, men who took kindly to statues. Indeed, thousands of statues in Catholic churches across Europe were smashed to pieces during the Reformation. So it's hard to fathom what Martin Luther would ...
Letter from Europe

The steppes on the drive east from the capital are parched and dry. Vehicles are few and far between. They are in the main old Soviet-era jeeps and trucks, the progress of each one marked by a trail of dust that hangs heavy in the afternoon ...
Letter from Europe

Ramadan, the annual month of prayer and fasting for the world's Muslim population, is just starting, so it is worth sparing a thought for Muslims who live in Europe's northern regions. To refrain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset is a ...
Letter from Europe

Are not some landscapes genuinely therapeutic? We crested wave after wave of rolling forests as we drove through Karelia last week. Writers looking to plot the spiritual geography of Europe might do well to start here, for Finnish Karelia is a ...
Letter from Europe

Come on, grab your camera and join us as we explore one or two spots along the coast this Easter morning. It is a stunning spring day, the blue waters of the Mediterranean seem an even deeper blue than yesterday, and the air is so clear that we'll ...
Letter from Europe

We journeyed through Macedonia last week. We stayed at the country's only World Heritage Site at Ohrid and then hugged the Albanian border as we travelled north through Debar to Tetovo. This is territory that has long fascinated travel writers and ...
Letter from Europe

Head out along the Bristol Road and you get an eyeful of Birmingham's suburbs. Leaky ipods and restive mobiles mix with discarded newspapers and chip wrappers on the upper deck of Bus 61 that runs all the way out to Frankley. An empty Red Bull can ...
Letter from Europe

Cut off the main highway to Norwich, dive into the countryside through meadows full of deep green grass and you will reach Quidenham - a cluster of cottages and uneven lanes that were never meant for fast cars. Across England there are a thousand ...
Letter from Europe

If you have ever travelled extensively through continental Europe, you will surely have noticed chalk inscriptions on door lintels. These chalk marks are intimately associated with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated today (6 ...
Letter from Europe

St Nicholas is the ultimate all-purpose saint. His patronage extends to virgins, sailors, children and pawnbrokers. And he is patron saint of Bari in Italy, where the local fishing community makes much of the ...
Letter from Europe

Boris and Gleb are as saintly a duo as Peter and Paul or Cyril and Methodius. Travel round Russia and you will come across no end of churches dedicated to Boris and Gleb. The two were in fact brothers and evidently their tender humility marked the ...
Letter from Europe

Major liturgical feasts like Palm Sunday are reminders of the calendrical divide that still splits Europe in two. The Iron Curtain may have gone (twenty years ago this autumn, according to those commentators who see the breaching of the Berlin Wall ...
Letter from Europe

Bitterly cold temperatures over central and eastern Europe last evening and this morning do nothing to diminish enthusiasm for the celebration of the Orthodox Christmas. While Orthodox Christmas is underway, daily demonstrations in Belgrade dilute ...
Letter from Europe

Santa Lucia is patron saint of Siracusa, the island fortress city on the Sicilian coast, where Lucia was born in the late third century. The story tells of her being martyred in her home city at the tender age of twenty. Of course, Santa Lucia's ...
Letter from Europe

Father Dymytrij Sydor is a determined man. No-one quite believed him when he asserted that he could raise the funds to build a massive new cathedral at Uzhgorod. This southwesternmost province of Ukraine is hill country, and it is home to the ...
Letter from Europe

Visit Jutland in Denmark and listen out for the local dialect, Sønderjysk or South Jutlandic, which some in the region feel should have the status of a minority language. In some schools in this part of Denmark, Sønderjysk is part of the regular ...
Letter from Europe

Tykocin is a gem, a town that graciously captures the awful history of a thousand former Jewish shtetls across central Europe. This was a community, like so many in the region, that was Jewish to the core. Tykocin had its heart ripped out in August ...
Letter from Europe

When the celebrated English travel writer Edith Durham arrived at the monastery at Gracanica one hundred years ago, she came to a place that had virtually no experience of the twentieth century. It is an episode that Durham recalls in her book High ...
Letter from Europe

To cross the threshold of the Wilmersdorf church today is truly to enter another world. For today, in the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical calendar, it is Christmas Day. The twin virtues of ardent faith and a strong sense of attachment to a diaspora ...
Letter from Europe

In the heart of the City of London, there used to be all manner of Strangers Churches (as churches for foreigners are commonly termed). There was a Spanish church, a Scots church and a Lutheran church from Hamburg. The Dutch community at Austin ...
Letter from Europe

Tromsø¸ has many charms, though they may not be quite evident at this time of the year when deep winter darkness still shrouds the town in Arctic Norway. The island town can pop a few surprises, however, for it turns out that Tromsø¸ has a small ...
Letter from Europe

From Zürich it was just three hours on happily empty trains via Landquart and Klosters to Zernez in the Inn valley. There is something rather nice about entering the long tunnel at Klosters, knowing that, in a matter of minutes, one will be ...
Letter from Europe

Christmas generates its own extraordinary traditions across Europe - but they differ greatly from country to country. Even the date on which the celebrations reach their apotheosis varies across the continent. In Germany, Belgium and the ...
Letter from Europe

Early European travel was hugely driven by Christian virtue. Those of the truly devout who had the resources would try to visit Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela. The fifteenth century English mystic, Margery Kempe, managed all three, and ...
Letter from Europe

Bila Krynytsya? It turns out that this small village in southwest Ukraine, just a stone's throw from the Romanian border, is a household name among many Russian Old Believers. From Alaska to the Danube Delta the name evokes important religious ...
Letter from Europe

The upcoming days see a couple of quirky festivals in Corsica, each marking the Catholic feast of the Nativity of Mary on 8 September. At Lavasina, in Corsica's northeast corner, locals gather on the beach for midnight Mass in honour of the gifted ...
Letter from Europe

Walk the royal road south from Kraków's magnificent central square and you cannot miss the great hill of Wawel with its palace and cathedral overlooking the Wisla river. Walk up to the cathedral in the quiet of night, or at dawn on a summer ...
Letter from Europe

Across much of Europe, today is a public holiday on account of the Catholic solemnity of Corpus Christi. It is a feast that comes with a heavy helping of curious cultural customs. Wander through many small towns in central Europe this afternoon, ...