In January 2024, I did a whistlestop five-day book research trip to Vienna, Austria, and then Nuremberg and Cologne in Germany. My goal was to research locations for my next action-adventure thriller, Spear of Destiny, and also to visit two spectacular Gothic cathedrals.
In this article, I’ll share the highlights and also some practical tips. It includes:
- St Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), Vienna
- The Holy Lance / Spear of Destiny in the Hofburg Treasury, Vienna
- Tombs of the Habsburgs, Capuchin Crypt, Vienna
- Globe Museum and State Hall library, Vienna
- Practicalities of Vienna, and trains to Germany
- Nazi Art Bunker, Nuremberg, Nurnberg
- Cologne Cathedral, Koln
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
The Gothic and Romanesque cathedral of St Stephen’s in Vienna — Stephansdom — broke ground in 1137 and was completed in 1578. The most striking aspect on first seeing the cathedral is the colored roof tiles, with brilliant blue, silver, and gold chevrons.
You can climb to the roof, or go in the lift, and see the eagle of the Habsburg dynasty who ruled the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years.
You can also see a view towards the front of the church. It was very windy so I didn’t lean out past the fence!
The Gothic nave with its soaring arches is magnificent.
While you don’t have to pay to enter the cathedral, you can buy a ticket that gets you into the main nave and the various side chapels, as well as the tower so you can see the roof from the outside, and the crypt. It’s well worth the 25 EUR. They only accepted cash when I went, so make sure you have some with you.
The pulpit is late Gothic, and further forward in the nave than is usual for pulpits. It’s carved with images of the saints Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome.
The stonemason is carved underneath surveying his handiwork.
It’s definitely worth visiting the crypt, but you can only enter on an official guided tour, which runs several times per day. You are also not allowed to take photos as it is still a burial ground.
There are many rooms full of the bones of over 11,000 people from the days when the land around the cathedral was a graveyard. There are also cleaner and more public rooms with the coffins of various bishops. The Ducal crypt has over seventy bronze containers containing the viscera and internal organs of Habsburgs (shown in the niches behind bars in the picture below). The hearts are in St Augustine’s church, and the bodies are in the Capuchin crypt. Creepy indeed …
I always light a candle in beautiful churches for loved ones, and I especially liked this simple altar. You will need some Euro coins if you want to light a candle.
The Spear of Destiny in the Schatzkammer, the Treasury of the Hofburg Palace
The main reason I went to Vienna was to see the Heilige Lanze, the Holy Lance, also known as the Spear of Destiny, which inspired my thriller of the same name.
This lance is one of several relics claiming to be the spear of Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Christ on the cross. Longinus was a partially sighted Roman centurion who was healed by the blood on the lance, which was then passed down over the centuries as a religious relic.
Legend tells that when Adolf Hitler was a destitute artist on the streets of Vienna, he used to visit the libraries and museums and that the Lance inspired him with a possible victorious future. When the Nazis came to power and annexed Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, the Lance along with the Imperial Crown and other royal regalia were taken to Nuremberg and put on display. More on what happened after that is below in the Bunker section.
The Treasury contains lots of royal regalia from the Habsburg dynasty and countless reliquaries, as well as furniture and other items. The Spear is in a cabinet with The Particle of the True Cross and a golden cross that used to hold the relics.
The same room has other relics, like a tooth from John the Baptist, a piece of the loincloth of Christ, and more. I’m not a Christian but I find religious relics fascinating. I have written them into several novels, particularly in Crypt of Bone, and Tomb of Relics.
Capuchin Crypt / Kapuzinergruft
This Capuchin crypt holds the tombs of the Habsburg dynasty over 400 years of history.
It’s absolutely worth a visit if you enjoy crypts as I do.
There are lots of skulls on the tombs — here’s a medley of the best.
Globe Museum and City Hall
The National Library has several museums you can visit all on one ticket. I enjoyed the Globe Museum (and if you love cartography, you might enjoy my Mapwalker trilogy).
The State Hall library was also magnificent.
Practicalities in Vienna
The City Airport Train (CAT) runs a fast transfer from Vienna airport to the City Air Terminal for around 15 EUR. I walked the short distance from there to my hotel near St Stephen’s Cathedral. It’s definitely worth staying centrally so you can just walk everywhere.
When I left, I walked from the centre to the main train station (about 40 mins) and caught an ICE train (fast service) to Nurnberg, which took about four and a half hours and cost 75 GBP. I used the Trainline app to book tickets.
The Art Bunker, Nuremberg, Germany
As Europe headed towards war, the art historians of Nuremberg (Nurnberg) started to store valuables in the many beer cellars under the city. There was a network of bunkers, and as war progressed, they also protected the citizens from the aerial bombings, and also protected both German — and looted — art, sculpture, relics and treasures.
The Imperial regalia — and the Holy Lance — were stored in the bunker under the castle during the war. They were moved again but the Allies eventually found them and returned them to the Hofburg in Vienna. Or did they? …
The movie, The Monuments Men with Matt Damon and George Clooney, portrays the search for stolen art across Europe in the dying days of WWII, and although it doesn’t portray this bunker, it does show the various icons and important art that were recovered from mines like Altausee.
You can only visit on a guided tour, so buy a ticket here online, or there is a machine you can buy from at the entrance, which only opens as the tour starts.
Durer House, Nuremberg, Germany
Just around the corner from the bunker is the home of Albrecht Durer, famous for his religious Apocalypse woodcuts, which I featured in my thriller, Crypt of Bone. There were many prints, and a few originals there. This is St Michael fighting the Dragon.
I took the fast ICE train from Nurnberg to Cologne, which took about four and a half hours and cost £102. I found Germany more expensive than Austria in general.
Cologne Cathedral, Kölner Dom, Germany
I’ve been wanting to visit Cologne Cathedral for many years, as it is one of the most spectacular Gothic cathedrals in Europe. Construction began in 1248 and it took 600 years to complete. It was badly damaged in WWII but reconstructed. It’s free to visit although you can book a tour, and you can pay to walk up the tower (over 500 steps and only for those who are fit enough and can deal with heights.)
I used it as a setting for Tomb of Relics, when ARKANE agents Morgan and Jake tried to stop the theft of the relics of the Magi, which are in a shrine behind the altar. I spent hours touring the cathedral virtually with their online tools during the pandemic, and so when I finally stood in front of it, free to wander as I liked, I was quite emotional.
It is spectacular, both inside and out. Next to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, I would say it is now one of my favorite cathedrals.
At the crossing, the light from the multi-colored stained glass window paints the stone with rainbow colors.
The Shrine of the Three Kings, reportedly containing the relics of the Magi, was much smaller than I expected, but still incredible to see. It was completed in 1225 and the Cathedral was built to house it. The shrine and the relics within feature in my thriller Tomb of Relics.
There is a modern relic in the Western arm, a piece of cloth with the blood of Pope John Paul II, who was canonized in 2014. It’s contained in a small metal sculpture on the wall, but you have to work hard to find it.
There is a beautiful sculpture of an angel crushing a demon under its feet in the nave.
If you walk over the Hohenzollern Bridge, you get a view back to the cathedral. The bridge is covered with ‘love-locks.’
I really enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of these three cities and found many ideas in their history for my thriller, Spear of Destiny. I could have stayed in each for longer, but given how close these cities are, it’s possible to do a trip like this and still have time for coffee along the way.
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