Sacral tourism is fast gaining ground in the Czech Republic. Although it is perceived as one of Europe’s most atheist countries the Czech Republic has an impressive network of cathedrals, basilicas, chapels and, even a church museum.
It’s a new phenomenon in the Czech tourist industry: a list of pilgrimage sites, cloisters, churches and chapels that are visitor-friendly and offer more than the chance to attend mass or admire the church’s interior. Many of these places offer traditional guided tours by the priests themselves or by young tour guides.
The tour of the Milevsko monastery lasts as long as visitors want it to take and none of their questions goes unanswered. Originally it was conducted by the priests themselves but the interest was so great that soon they had to employ professional tour guides to help out. Jakub Karel Berka is one of the premonstratensians who gives tours of the place.
“There are seven brethren at the monastery and before all of us would take turns to give guided tours but as the interest grew, for pastoral reasons, it became impossible for us to meet demand so we have now have professional guides to help us out.”
The Klokoty pilgrimage site has gone even further to attract visitors from at home and abroad. It offers a children’s corner, snacks, souvenirs and even free internet access. Guided tours in several languages are something taken for granted. The parish administrator Pavel Zahradníček explains.
“Father Karel who is from Austria gives tours in several languages. He’s a bit of a polyglot and people sometimes ask him where he learnt his great German.”
Although much of the sacral tourism is naturally centered in Prague the list of regional churches and pilgrimage sites is getting longer all the time. South Bohemia is a popular destination both for foreign tourists and Czechs. Many Czechs visit churches and chapels as they visit the country’s castles and chateaux.
Woman: “Of course I like to see these places, because there are part of our history.”
Man: “Sacral sites can be very interesting even for non-believers, because of their fascinating history and their architecture.”
Michaela Kalousková who works at the information centre in the Hussite town of Tabor says inquiries regarding sacral sites in the vicinity have become increasingly common.
“The most frequent question we get pertains to the pilgrimage site at Klokoty, people also ask a lot about the church here in Tabor but increasingly visitors are also inquiring about smaller churches and chapels that they can visit in the vicinity.“
Petra Jánská from the South Bohemian tourist centre confirms that interest in sacral tourism has been rising.
“The interest in religious sites is considerable so we are constantly expanding our offer.”
Guides have started specializing in sacral tourism and as more sacral sites around the country get involved the list of theme tours is growing. In August of this year Cardinal Dominik Duka opened a church museum in the town of Polná, in the Moravian highlands.
The museum itself is located on the premises of the Church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary in Polna, which has recently undergone a costly two-year reconstruction. On display are paintings, statues, liturgical artifacts, musical instruments and even the living quarters of the bell-ringer furnished with period pieces. The museum was part of the reconstruction process which cost 44 million crowns and there are two guides to take people round the premises. Zděnek Krček, the deacon of the church is extremely proud of the result and says a trip to Polná is well worth the effort, not just for believers but for people interested in the country’s historic and architectural legacy.
“Our church is well worth a visit; it is a pearl of Dietrichstein architecture. And although I say it myself the interiors are a treasure trove where we have exhibited monstrances, chalices, ciboria and liturgical robes. Visitors can admire unique stucco work, impressive paintings but above all in my view they will find a parish that is very much alive.”
On their way to the museum visitors can also admire an exhibition on the history of Polná’s bells and the work of bell-ringers.
Recognizing the potential in sacral tourism the government agency CzechTourism has recently issued brochures in Italian and Spanish promoting the country’s most attractive pilgrimage sites. The upcoming 1150th anniversary of the arrival of Saints Cyril and Methodius to Great Moravia in 2013 is perceived as an important international event that is expected to attract hundreds of believers from Italy, Spain and Latin America but also from many other countries. Based on an agreement between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the nationwide celebrations will emphasize the unity of Christians. The celebrations will include a "Meeting of Cultures" in Mikulčice, organized by the Orthodox Church, and the traditional "Days of People of Goodwill" at Velehrad, organized by the Roman Catholic Church.
There are suggestions to establish a religious pilgrimage trail following in the footsteps of the two saints and this would naturally include traditional places connected with the Cyril-Methodian mission in the Czech Republic. The anniversary is expected to give sacral tourism a big boost and the fact that Parliament recently approved a law on the return of church property that has opened the way to the full independence of churches in the Czech Republic is likely to strengthen this trend even further.