Postcards from Switzerland (and Italy): Two sacred sites

On our way back from Bivio this summer, we took a jaunt through northern Italy to visit a friend of my husband’s for a few days. This was the Sudtirol region, which has close ties with neighboring Austria, and where German is still mixed in with Italian in a lot of places. Interestingly, as soon as we went over the border I could feel that we were in a much, much larger and more expansive country. Switzerland is lovely, but definitely small, and a bit restrictive at times. In Italy it immediately felt much wilder!

We found we were in another beautiful, mountainous region that would be great for hiking, but it was also very hot and we were tired and stuck to less strenuous things. One of these was visiting the “must see” landmark of San Romedio, a complex of religious buildings that grew up around the home of a hermit who supposedly secluded himself in a remote valley after a pilgrimage to Rome. Monks still live here and maintain the site, and it’s still the object of pilgrimages by faithful Catholics who attribute many miracles to the saint.

To get there, you have to walk along a narrow path along and sometimes carved out of the rockface that leads back into the narrow cleft where the hermit once retreated. (You can also go by road, now, but the walk is much more symbolically meaningful; spiritual journeys should not be too easy.)

The heart of the complex is a the top of a rocky peak within the valley. Over time newer buildings were added and descended down the slope. Visitors walk up steep steps to get to the most ancient, most holy section, another image of penetrating with effort into spiritual heights.

It feels like going back in time as you move from the newer buildings into the more archaic ones, which grow smaller and more primitive as you go.

It was a beautiful, unique place that has been the subject of many works of art. One of the saint’s famous deeds was taming a bear that had just eaten his horse, which is also the subject of many representations, including this one.

Back home, when my birthday rolled around I wanted to go on an outing to someplace I’ve never been. We decided to visit Romainmoitier, another monastic site that is still used for religious services. In fact, it’s the oldest religious building in Switzerland that has continually been in use — for more than a thousand years. The monastery was part of the Cluny foundation, which once had many daughter-houses spread across the region but disappeared in the French revolution when religious vows were prohibited. Yet Romainmoitier survived this and many other vagaries of religious history.

Three ecumenical services are celebrated nearly every day, and it’s full to the brim on Christmas and Easter, in spite of its rather remote location. As with San Romedio, it’s also wedged into another quite narrow valley, and not visible until you come quite close to it.

There was a wedding just letting out of the sanctuary when we arrived, so the peace and quiet was a bit disrupted by roaming revelers. But we were able to take in the soaring Romanesque interior, where ancient paintings have been uncovered and restored following the depredations of the Reformation.

I’d really like to go back for a guided tour to get more out of the experience, and spend more time walking around the area (the weather was a bit too iffy for that), but it was a marvelous outing anyway.

What are the most impressive or magical sacred sites you have visited? Have you been to either of these, or would you like to ?

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20 thoughts on “Postcards from Switzerland (and Italy): Two sacred sites

  1. This was wonderful to read! Your description of crossing the border from Switzerland to Italy reminded me of a poem we did in Eurythmy school. I’m not sure you were still with her class or if it was later. We were with Jennifer.

    Here’s the poem:

    By Emily Dickinson

    OUR lives are Swiss,—
    So still, so cool,
    Till, some odd afternoon,
    The Alps neglect their curtains,
    And we look farther on. 5

    Italy stands the other side,
    While, like a guard between,
    The solemn Alps,
    The siren Alps,
    Forever intervene!

  2. I have not been to either of those, and would like to someday. The most amazing sacred site I’ve ever visited is a monastery in Andalucia, La Cartuja. I wrote a poem about it, and it’s in my collection (Postcard Poems).

  3. It would be hard to think of two other countries that share a border yet have wildly differing cultures and attitudes. I know I am generalising but Switzerland to me means super efficiency, attention to detail whereas Italy is basically anything goes, rules are just suggestions. If you want to stop in the middle of the road and take a coffee go ahead, it really doesn’t matter that you are holding up the traffic!

    1. The stereotype is pretty true in my experience. As we went over the border, we were driving behind an Italian convertible with a couple in front and a teenage girl (presumably their daughter) perched on the trunk with her arms stretched out to the wind. I was aghast, it was so horrifically dangerous! But that’s Italy…

    1. I would like to study more about the Cluny monasteries now. I visited the Musée de Cluny in Paris, but that was a looooong time ago!

  4. Both are lovely and I am glad you went somewhere special on your birthday.

    I am not sure what the most sacred site is I have visited. My family visits a lot of churches! Stonehenge seemed more of a spectacle than a sacred site. Maybe Notre Dame in Paris before the fire? The Duomo in Orvieto is also a favorite. I wish I had seen more of Italy when my brother was living there but I was in law school and it was hard to visit as often as I wanted to, although I did manage some nice trips.

    1. I hope we can travel more through Italy too. I want to see Rome in particular, even though I understand it’s a tourist madhouse.

  5. Beautiful photos, I imagine the Italian house in Enchanted April as looking something like the last picture.

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