Heavens above: 8 beautiful churches along the Alpe-Adria Trail

10/03/2020 15:43

Written by Rudolf Abraham

Remote pilgrimage churches are a common sight along the Alpe-Adria Trail. Here's our pick of the most impressive – why not take a break from the trail and explore these holy sites? 

Church of St Vincent of Saragossa, Stage 1

The Church of St Vincent of Saragossa was built in the late 14th century on the site of a smaller, earlier church. Pilgrimages to the church – to see the vial of ‘holy blood’ once carried by the 10th-century Danish knight Briccius – are recorded as far back as 1273. 

Church of St Vincent of Saragossa Grossglockner Alpe Adria Trail Austria by © Franz Gerdl, Kaernten Werbung  

The interior contains a 16th-century High Gothic altar, a crypt containing the tomb of Briccius, and a book clad in wrought iron containing the names of climbers who have lost their lives on the Grossglockner. For the best view of the church with the Grossglockner as a backdrop, follow the road SE from town for a couple of minutes. 

Church at Materle, Stage 4

Marterle is the location of the highest pilgrimage church in Austria, perched on the hillside at 1,861m below a crest of jagged mountain peaks, and commanding a spectacular view of the Kreuzeck Group across the Möll Valley. The word marterle means ‘wayside shrine’ in the local Carinthian dialect, and the site takes its name from a rough, wooden cross which once stood here, said to have been built by a pious local shepherd.

Pilgrimage Church Materle Austria Alpe-Adria Trail by Franz Gerdl, Kaernten Werbung© Franz Gerdl, Kaernten Werbung

In the 1850s the cross was replaced with a small wooden chapel by a local farmer; as the number of pilgrims visiting this chapel increased, it was in turn replaced with the present church, built between 1902 and 1904. An annual pilgrimage to the church from Stall still takes place in July, and it is this pilgrimage route which is followed, in reverse, on Stage 4. The church is also a popular place to get married.

Church of St George, Stage 8

The Church of St George dates from the 12th century, and is built on the highest point of Danielsberg. The frescoes on the apse probably date from the 16th century, and include St Barbara, patron saint of miners – mineworkers having formed a significant proportion of the congregation in past centuries (the mine owners would mostly have attended church in Obervellach).

Church of St George Danielsberg Alpe Adria Trail by Rudolf Abraham© Rudolf Abraham 

There are bits and pieces of the Roman temple that once stood on Danielsberg incorporated into the church – an inscription stone from ad175 beside the entrance, a relief sculpture near the altar. A short distance in front of the church a rock bearing what appear to be cup-and-ring marks is believed to have been a sacrifi cial altar during the Celtic period. 

St Catherine’s Church, Stage 16

St Catherine's Church Alpe Adria Trail Slovenia by Bad Klirchenheim Tourism© Bad Kleinkirchelm Tourism 

St Catherine’s Church (Kirche St Kathrein), which dates from 1492, was built above thermal springs, the original medieval tapping of which can still be seen in the crypt (now renovated and modified to function as a baptistry). The Gothic winged altar has carved wooden figures of St Catherine, St Barbara and St Vincent, and the single bell in the belfry dates from 1496. 

Russian Chapel, Stage 23

The road over the 1,611m high Vršič pass, known these days as the Ruska cesta or ‘Russian Road’, was built by the Austro-Hungarian authorities as a supply line to the Isonzo Front during World War I, using Russian prisoners of war (POWs) as labour. Construction began in 1915. In March 1916 a large avalanche swept down from the surrounding mountain slopes, slamming into a POW camp, and killing many occupants and several guards.

Russian Chapel Triglav National Park Slovenia Alpe-Adria Trail by Rudolf Abraham© Rudolf Abraham

Later that year Ruska Kapelica (or Russian Chapel) was built nearby as a memorial, initially covered with bark then later with wooden boards, with two wooden towers with cupolas and a shingle roof. The simple interior contains an altar made from logs. The Cyrillic inscription on the stone pyramid next to the chapel reads ‘To the sons of Russia’. No one knows exactly how many Russian POWs died building the road or in the avalanche, with figures varying between 170 and over 300 Russian POWs and 10 to 80 Austrian soldiers. 

Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Stage 25

Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Dreznica Slovenia Alpe Adria Trail by Slovenian Tourist Board Archive© Slovenian Tourist Board Archive  

Drežnica’s most prominent landmark is this church, the 56m-high spire of which is visible for miles. Built in 1911 on the site of an earlier medieval church, it miraculously survived the ravages of World War I despite lying right on the front line of the Isonzo Front. The bell tower was completed in 1986.

Planica Chapel, Stage 26

The small Planica Chapel was built during World War I, in memory of the Italian fallen on this section of the Isonzo Front, at around 1,200m on the slopes of Planica, near the former location of an Italian Army supply camp. The chapel has a cylindrical roof and a semi-circular chancel, and an inscription on the lintel, Consolatrix Afflictorum, meaning ‘Comforter of the Afflicted’ which is taken from a litany to the Virgin Mary. 

Planica Chapel Slovenia Alpe Adria Trail by Slovenian Tourist Board Archive© Slovenian Tourist Board Archive  

Not much is known about the chapel, other than it was supposedly an Italian captain, a certain Celestino Bes, who ordered it to be built (and after whom the chapel is also sometimes referred to, as the Bes Chapel). In any case it’s a poignant memorial in a lonely spot, which I found shrouded by veils of cloud on my visit, the surrounding landscape carpeted with primroses, the paths alive with the slow awkward gait of salamanders.

Church of Santa Maria, Stage 36

Santa Maria Church Siaris Monte Carso Italy Alpe-Adria Trail by Rudolf Abraham© Rudolf Abraham

Regardless of whether you intend to hike up Monte Carso, walk up to the spectacularly situated church of Santa Maria in Siaris. The church is first mentioned in the 14th century and was enlarged in the 17th century (there’s also an unlikely legend that Charlemagne built the church and had intended to be buried here). There’s a good view of the Rosandra waterfall from its terrace.

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