From a forbidden city in Morocco to a dog shrine in Vermont, we explore odd and fascinating mystical journeys
Discovering an oasis of baroque art in Atotonilco, Mexico
Just a dusty dot on the map, Atotonilco would be another forgotten pueblo were it not for its 18th-century baroque sanctuary. The architecturally spartan building is decorated from top to bottom with murals depicting the life and death of Jesus. Some call it the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas” — but the frescoes couldn’t be further from the harmonious Renaissance aesthetic. The images are gruesome, grotesque, chaotic and clearly the product of a very fertile imagination. The suffering and pain immortalized here inspires thousands of pilgrims to flock to Atotonilco, often on their knees with crowns of thorns and flagellating whips (if you forgot yours, you can buy the necessary equipment at the stand outside). Pleasure-seeking visitors from nearby San Miguel de Allende often make a less pain-oriented stopover here after a day at the nearby hot springs. Map it.
Following the Buddha’s footsteps in Sujata Village, India
Every year pilgrims galore flock to Bodh Gaya to see the spot under the Bodhi tree where Siddhartha Guatama attained enlightenment. However, Siddhartha, who’d left his kingdom to pursue liberation, would never have made it to Bodh Gaya if not for the help of a little girl in nearby Sujata Village. The girl, for whom the village is named, fed a weak and emaciated Siddhartha a bowl of rice milk, giving him the strength to cross the river and sit in meditation. Bodh Gaya has transformed greatly in the intervening 2,500 years, and is now full of Internet cafes, restaurants and hotels. However, just across the river, Sujata Village is much as Siddhartha would’ve seen it: lush with rice paddies, small temples, hut-filled villages, smiling children and ambling water buffaloes. It is a sweltering, extravagant, vibrant destination; just as essential to modern Buddhism as its neighbor, yet hardly as touched. Map it.
Hiking atop Sagrada Familia’s twin sister in Catalonia, Spain
Montserrat (meaning Serrated Mountain in Catalan) is the stone crown of Catalunya, and Sagrada Familia’s wind-sculpted sister. One wonders if Gaud
Discerning your Tao from sunset to sunrise in Hua Shan, China
Even after taking the cable car up to the North Peak, the climb over to the West Peak of Mount Hua is still a panting, sweaty hike for the average Zhou. Time it right, however, and you can enjoy your own personal sunset from 2,000 meters. After a few sleepless hours in a clammy, damp hostel bunk, you’ll be ready to take to the trails again. Allow the glow of your cellphone to guide you along the path that leads from west to east, and pause at the first clearing to take in the Milky Way as your ancestors must have seen it thousands of years ago. Continue to the edges of the East Peak for the grand finale — dawn slowly breaking through the clouds and mist. Each ray traces the outline of one mountain ridge after another, as those in the valleys sleep on in darkness. Let the view inspire you as it has inspired Taoist pilgrims for centuries. Map it.
Invoking the spirits in Glastonbury, England
Tor blimey, guv! If your morals have been meandering, a bit of old school penance never hurt anybody and legend has it that medieval pilgrims used to walk the 512-feet-high Glastonbury Tor with peas lining their medieval shoes for that very purpose. If you follow their lead, you will be in fine company on the list of those who have traversed this tranquil site: from King Arthur to St. Patrick to alleged sightings of passersby from other galaxies, trying to discover what all the fuss is about. Rarely, you see, has such a simple, panoramic view-filled hill climb been enveloped in such a depth of folklore, legend, fantasy and mystery to the degree that many believe the powerful spiritual invigoration of this ascension can induce personal transformations.Map it.
Visiting the (not-so-forbidden) city of Moulay Idriss, Morocco
The holy town of Moulay Idriss is a shining white labyrinth crowning a hill surrounded by green valleys and olive groves. Guidebooks have long steered tourists away from this “forbidden city.” It is, in fact, a very holy place of pilgrimage founded in 788 by the great grandson of the prophet Mohammed, Moulay Idriss. His tomb and the mosque at the center of the town are, indeed, barred to non-Muslims — but all travelers are welcome to explore the warren of winding streets and stay in the guesthouses and hotels. Climb to the top of a nearby hill, and you’ll get a spectacular view right into the mosque. A short hike out of town will take you to the Roman ruins of Volubilis with its truly impressive mosaics and columns topped with storks’ nests. Exploring human history here is a bit like peeling an onion: The Roman city was built on the site of a Carthaginian town, which, in turn, was built over a neolithic site. Map it.
Watching horses race through the streets in Sedilo, Sardinia
Like a shot from a cannon, the leader careens through the streets of Sedilo in an explosion of pounding hooves, rifle blasts, clouds of dust, and religious fervor. Tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the island of Sardinia are packed together to witness L’Ardia di San Costantino — this heart-stopping (and dangerous) reenactment of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in Rome in 312. After the dust has settled, the pigs and eels start slow roasting over wood fires for the formidable feast at sundown. A single glass gets passed from person to person — take a swig of the local wine and pass it on. Map it.
Flying back in time on the helicopter of Abydos in Egypt
The ancient Egyptians believed the entrance to the underworld lay just beyond Abydos, and that Osiris himself was buried there. For 4,500 years this huge necropolis was an important pilgrimage site, and the ultimate place to be buried. Which is why the temple of Seti I seems a little out of place: It looks more like the entrance to a multistory parking lot than the underworld. But once your eyes adjust to the dim interior, you can discern that the walls are covered with the most exquisitely delicate bas reliefs. Each of the shrines is alive with brightly colored gods and goddesses, shifting and dancing among the flickering shadows. The most intriguing reliefs look remarkably like a helicopter, and other advanced flying machines! Combined with all the latent spiritual energy said to infuse the site, no wonder Abydos has become a Mecca for pharaonic New Agers. Map it.
Savoring serenity at the luminous Lotus Temple in Delhi, India
To reach the Baha’i Lotus Temple, one must navigate Delhi’s honking flood of cars, buses, bikes, trucks, motors scooters and darting rickshaws, weaving clamorously between each other, often within half an inch — without regard to lanes, traffic controls or signal making. Nowhere is an oasis of calm more urgently needed or more completely realized. The Lotus Temple — a half-opened white marble “flower” with nine petals — gleams above 26 acres of sculpted green gardens and pools. This serene monument has no straight lines, each perspective is harmoniously curved. Those of all faiths, or no faith, are bid to enter, maintain complete silence and recharge their spirits. More than 50 million have, making it one of the world’s most visited structures since it opened in 1986. The interior is a half-sphere of smooth white marble with tan wooden pews and a simple lectern. Nothing more. The Lotus Temple is a sacred hush, a swirl of shining curves, a prayer for peace, an insight sought, a cocoon from cacophony, the solace of serenity. Map it.
Pedaling to the patron saint of cyclists’ chapel in Magreglio, Italy
If you come upon the small, 17th-century Madonna del Ghisallo sanctuary by chance, you instantly know it’s no ordinary chapel. The thing is, few people come here by chance. Most make it part of a tough two-wheel pilgrimage (up 5.5 miles and 1,500 feet from Bellagio, the resort town on shores of Italy’s Lake Como) to the Beata Vergine Maria del Ghisallo, patroness of cyclists. Dressing every inch of the interior are glass-framed bike jerseys signed by the world’s greatest riders and, literally packed into the rafters, are famous bikes used by Italian luminaries of the sport. Next to the shrine is a museum of cycling and, dressing the panoramic lookout, the dramatic pope-blessed Monumento al Ciclista. Map it.
Venerating the undying body of a Buddhist monk in Buryatia, Siberia
Can a human body be buried for 75 years and not decompose? Can it continue resisting decay after being exhumed and placed in a room with no temperature or moisture control? Apparently, it can — at least this is the case with the body of Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov (1852-1927), the 12th leader of Russia’s Buddhist community. Since 2002, Itigelov’s body has been housed at Ivolginsky Datsan, the center of Russian Buddhism opened in 1945 in Buryatia, Siberia. On certain designated days, anyone can walk up to the venerated lama, sitting in the lotus position in an ornately carved palace, and receive his blessing with the help of monks who will touch your head with the ends of special prayer scarves held by the awe-inspiring Itigelov. Map it.
Hiking to the heights of Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Most visitors take motorbikes or “song thaews” (pickup truck taxis) to the top of Doi Suthep, the 5,498-foot mountain rising just west of Chiang Mai. Many get motored the 20-minute trip only to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the venerated northern Thai temple gleaming near its heights. Alternatively, if you believe in karmic merit, try the original hiking trail — the only way up the mountain until the road was built — through thick and glorious forest. Rest stops and interpretive signs add value to this ancient path via Wat Pha Lat, a little-visited, heavily weathered, forest-cloistered temple complex. From the Doi Suthep National Park entrance, plan on two ambling hours — sometimes steep — to Wat Phra That. Map it.
Rowing to an idyllic island church on Lake Bled, Slovenia
There is only one way out to the church in the middle of Lake Bled — a tranquil boat ride. No engines are permitted on the lake, and the guided boat (a pletna) is pushed forward by a large Slovenian man pulling the oars through the water and chatting up the other passengers. Once on the island, you can circumnavigate its shores enjoying the imposing view of the mountains towering overhead and climb up the 99 steps — or carry your sweetheart up silently, as is traditional for romantic pilgrims — to the 15th-century baroque church. Tales of the location’s beauty inspired romantically inclined travelers to visit long before the advent of postcards and guidebooks; Živa, the Slavic goddess of fertility and love, once had a temple here. Although it’s a small island, it’s easy to find a quiet corner where you can soak up the peace and calm of the beautiful alpine lake and surrounding scenery. Map it.
Paying tribute to man’s best friend in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
Dog Mountain is the creation of the artist Stephen Huneck, who was inspired to build this folk-art gallery and singular tribute to furry best friends after a serious illness, which he survived in part due to the companionship of his dogs. The highlight of Huneck’s masterpiece is the chapel, which is a perfect replica of a small, New England-style church, complete with steeple, hand-carved pews (with sitting dogs at the ends), dog-themed stained-glass panels, and an anteroom whose walls are covered with sticky notes left by pilgrims in remembrance of dogs who have gone before. Alas, Huneck himself tragically took his own life in 2010, but his wife and a few volunteers have kept the mission of Dog Mountain alive. They do not charge admission, but keep the grounds open every day, selling Huneck’s remaining art out of the adjacent gallery. In the warmer months, there are dog parties, an exercise course, and miles of hiking trails. Wayfarers will find Dog Mountain tucked away at the top of a large, scenic hill; in inclement weather the approach roads can become difficult to travel without all-paw drive, but for dog lovers, it will be well worth the trip. Map it.
Every Sunday, Salon presents a feature from Trazzler spotlighting surprising travel stories from across the globe. Unexpected discoveries and strange, wonderful treasures are condensed into slide shows that entertain as much as they educate.