Day 3 of our pilgrimage took us from Aigle to Saint-Maurice. Total distance covered: 12 miles (2 miles for extra sight-seeing). Temperature: mid-50s.
The day started off rough and very early. Once again, we awoke at midnight laughing at the way the other was moving.
“Should we have an Aspirin?” Mom asked.
“I was saving it for a really bad day.”
“I was, too.” Mom paused a beat. “Let’s have it now.”
Things looked better a few hours later. Our host had sweetly laid out Kellogg’s corn flakes, milk, and orange juice for us on the breakfast counter. In honor of Freddie Mercury, and for a little extra energy oomph, we packed our bags to the sound of Queen. Our destination for the day was the medieval city of Saint-Maurice.
Saint-Maurice was named in honor of a third century Roman legionnaire. One account is that he was martyred near the city that would bear his name after refusing to follow unlawful orders from Emperor Maximian to kill local Christians. The modern word “decimated” stems from the Latin ‘decimatus’, and a furious Maximian’s order to have every tenth man in the legion killed. After a second set of refusals from the men, Maximian had the entire legion killed.
The word “martyr” has gained a bad reputation over the years. It often is used to refer to a holier-than-thou person who actually enjoys suffering over something trivial. On a more sinister level, it’s also associated with manipulating others to die in order to advance a broader agenda. I sometimes have to remind myself that the original concept of a martyr is someone whose integrity is so strong that they’d prefer to die rather than do something they know to be wrong.
And a military leader who refuses to take the lives of innocent civilians surely deserves respect.
Fittingly, although St. Maurice is a patron saint of many professions, he is most well-known as the patron saint of soldiers, infantrymen, and the Vatican Swiss guard.
Road to Saint-Maurice
The night before, I had sent a request to a AirBnB host for a room. During breakfast I received a short note in French from the host that he was sorry, but that the room was no longer available. I frantically booked another room two miles from Saint-Maurice, then saw it was operated by the same host. Twenty minutes later, I received the same response – he was sorry, but that lodging was also not available. I was madder than a two-headed pit viper.
I was fuming as I came up with secondary and tertiary plans. In the event no rooms were available at Saint-Maurice, we should take a train back to Aigle, and return to Sain-Maurice the following morning to continue walking. Mom presented the thought if everything fell through we could put on all our clothes for warmth and try free camping. I wasn’t a fan of that idea. According to the weather forecast, it had snowed the night before on the St. Bernard Pass, as well as the taller mountain peaks.
Just in case, we visited the local Migros and purchased more pastries, cheeses, olives, crackers, and canned tuna from the supermarket.
We have not been following the Via Francigena religiously. The difficulty with the Via Francigena is that signage is infrequent. You have to be at exactly the right spot to be certain you’re actually on the trail. We’ve been playing it safe and taking a BIKE route recommended by Google. Such routes have taken us alongside vineyards and cornfields, and through beautifully shaded woods. As was the case yesterday, the 10’ wide path is shared by two-way traffic. Cars, bikes, pedestrians, and horses play a very polite game of chicken.
It’s all very civil and there is never a cross word. Everyone says “Bonjour” to each other as they pass. We do the same…it’s something of a game to see who can get it out first. I have yet to hear a car honk. Even the train conductors parallel to the path wave at us when they see us plodding along with our hiking sticks.
I LOVE IT.
We lucked out once again by finding patches of wild blackberries. Fruit snacks aside, on the way to Saint-Maurice we came across several equestrian farms that held some of the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen. One cream-colored horse approached the fence as soon as he saw us and posed for pictures. Two female riders also strode past us on horseback, their horses looking strong and regal. The horses had phenomenal musculature and were completely unperturbed. For a brief second I had a fantasy of us entering Rome on horseback.
And then I imagined all the pooping, and how hard it would be to get the horse a room.
It’s a good thing we’re walking.
It was during a long scenic wooded stretch by the Rhône river that we encountered our first confirmed Via Francigena pilgrims. A couple was seated by the river enjoying lunch. As we approached, they called out asking whether we were pilgrims, and then said happily that they were, too. They hailed from England and Holland, and had spent years walking the pilgrimage in sections, from Canterbury on down.
They were also staying in Saint-Maurice, and said that because lodging was hard to come by, they had made their hotel reservations several months ago. Their proactive approach only reinforced my fear that we’d arrive at Saint-Maurice and find there was no room. Once again, I was angry with the AirBnB man. Two unavailabilities…really?
An Ancient Abbey, With a Beautiful Tradition
We crossed the Rhône river and, departing the canton of Vaud, entered the canton of Valais. From there, it was an easy walk to Saint-Maurice. At the Abbey gift shop, I asked in Italian if there were any rooms nearby, and the woman responded by directing us in French to a nearby building. We understood just enough French to find the correct building.
I’m deeply intrigued by the fact that Switzerland’s doors all look like you are not meant to enter. Whether it be a church, a museum, a residential area, or business, the doors look firmly sealed. However the door immediately opened, we were promptly buzzed through an inner set of doors, and we beheld a kind-looking woman behind a desk who immediately stood up to greet us.
I begged her as to whether she had any available rooms. Mom and I were happy to sleep in the foyer. We also were great at washing dishes and pulling roots.
There just so happened to be two single rooms available, she said, at 35 CHF each, cash. We were overjoyed. We swore we’d say many prayers in her honor that night. The rooms were basic, she said, perhaps alarmed by our enthusiasm. There was no TV, no Wi-Fi. We would get breakfast at 7:30 a.m. None of that mattered – we didn’t care about the frills. We had rooms ran by the monastery!
A handsome young man in civilian clothes met us and took us to a nearby building. Our single rooms were adjacent to each other and directly opposite communal toilets and showers. Perhaps 10’ x 10’, they each contained a single twin bed, pillow, and comforter. A small cloth-covered writing table had a solitary lamp. There was a sink, mirror, water glass, two towels, and a trash can. A crucifix hung above each bed, with a simple wooden carving of the Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus above the table. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling, somehow made chic because it was encased in a glass globe. The room was PRISTINE.
Somehow, the overall effect was playful. The sheets were tangerine orange, and the comforter shades of blue, yellow, and orange creamsickle. As I unfurled a towel, I was amused it was a beach towel with a map of Malta.
We told the young man sincerely that we were so happy, and asked him about himself. He shared that he was originally from Bukino Faso, then invited us to attend Wednesday evening Mass at the Abbey at 6 p.m. While Mom and I might not understand Mass in French, we promised we’d be there.
Two days earlier, at our hotel in Vevey, we had received an insider tip to visit the Notre Dame Chapelle du Scex when we got to Saint-Maurice. The chapel appears to be built directly into the rock cliff walls some 600 steps above the train tracks. Having set down our packs for the day, we now felt capable of climbing those steps.
WOW. Yes, the climb leaves you sweaty and gasping, and the low rock walls that act as protective railing are not for those with a fear of heights…but the panoramic views from that height were spectacular. To the left horses nibbled on grass high above the vineyards. To the right, snow-capped peaks awaited in the distance. The church bells below struck 4 p.m.
I don’t think any one religion can lay claim to moments of perfect happiness and wonder. I’ve felt such gratitude and peace while watching Muslim men and young boys pray under a night sky in Egypt by a campfire, their camels chewing benignly on something. The same feeling struck again while walking knee-deep through snow trying to trace the route up Mt. Togakushi to find five Shinto shrines.
And I felt that same bursting feeling of joy being with my mom at an empty secret chapel near the Swiss Alps.
Mass at Saint-Maurice
In 515 A.D. King Sigismund of Burgundy founded the Abbey of Saint-Maurice and introduced the tradition of continuous prayer. While the priests used to have rotations of continuous singing, they now conduct multiple services a day instead. Saint-Maurice has the distinction of being the Western world’s oldest continuously active monastery.
We rested a bit before Mass at the Abbey. Neither of us thought it would take long, and imagined there might be ten people. As it turned out, Mass in Saint-Maurice was very well attended. We thought it funny that after only three hours on site, we could identify so many people from around town in the pews. The atmosphere felt surprisingly intimate…and happy. To our surprise, several priests entered, and THEY sang. And who should we behold assisting with the Mass than the very same man who had led us to our rooms? He was now wearing the attire of a seminary seminary student, and shared he was studying to become a priest.
We spent perhaps 10 minutes together, but he struck me as exactly the kind of man you hope would represent the priesthood.
A friendly note of caution if you go to Mass at the Abbey – watch out for those pew kneelers! I had to choke down a terribly unholy chuckle as good people placed their knees down in prayer and promptly bolted back up in agony. Many churches pad their kneelers…not the Abbey of Saint-Maurice! Having been to Catholic school, I knew what technique to use. You position your knee cartilage near the closest edges of the pew. Do NOT place your shins on the wide surface! Otherwise, the solid wood on bone will make your eyes water. Of course, if you’re feeling contrite and penance is what you’re going for, by all means, plop straight down.
After Mass, Mom and I had dinner one street from the Abbey. The entire street was sealed off from car traffic to allow restaurants to provide outdoor dining. The temperature was a cool 52 degrees. Intriguingly, we saw a surprisingly high number of uniformed Swiss service members enjoying food and smokes. Perhaps they were honoring St. Maurice, patron saint of soldiers?
Mom and I each got a Royal Doner lamb wrap and a glass of wine. The gentleman reached under the counter and poured us cups from a delightful local red. The meal was fantastic. We ate it from a table in the middle of the road and waddled happily back to our respective rooms.
A day that I thought had started badly may just turn out to be one of my favorite days. Ever.
Next stop: Martigny.
Lodging “donation”: 35 CHF ($39.66)
Migros supermarket food for breakfast, lunch (each): $4.03
Dinner (per person): 10 CHF ($11.33)
Glass of local red wine: 2.5 CHF ($2.83)