Published: 21/04/2015 09:40 - Updated: 21/04/2015 09:49

Martigny, St Maurice and the St Bernard dogs

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

THE Valais is a little known region of Switzerland that has many claims to fame. It has 300 days of sunshine a year, 45 mountains over 4,000 metres high (13,130 feet) out of Switzerland’s total of 48, produces most of the wine in Switzerland and all of the saffron, it has "Herens" breed cows that fight each other and several glaciers, and produces no end of apricots.

St Bernard Pass dogs pose.
St Bernard Pass dogs pose.

It is quite easy to get to for us, fly to Geneva and from the airport station direct trains run every hour, and take 2.5 hours to go to Martigny. The town (population around 17,000 people) sits in the river Rhone valley. The Rhone is one of those major European rivers, it starts at a glacier here, runs through the lake of Geneva, through France and into the Mediterranean.

It seems to have vineyards all along its route, and the Valais wines are superb – so superb that the Swiss drink it all themselves and export nearly none! Martigny has a distillery in the town centre, the Morand distillery, which produces brandy from Williams variety of pears. It also has its own variety of wonderful bread.

The town hall has the largest stained glass windows in Switzerland (55m2) which was completed in 1949, and depicts the history of the town. Dotted around the town, especially on roundabouts, are many pieces of contemporary sculpture, all provided by the Pierre Gianadda Foundation. Léonard Gianadda bought a plot of land to build a house on in 1976. Excavating for the founds they uncovered an ancient Celtic temple, the oldest discovered in Switzerland. Then, on 31.7.1976, his younger brother Pierre tragically died in a plane crash, when seeking help for the other survivors.

Léonard decided to create a foundation in his brother’s name, and being an engineer designed the remarkable building around the temple. It opened to the public on 19.11.1978, when his brother would have celebrated his 40th birthday. Inside there are many Gallo – Roman remains, a permanent exhibition of over 50 classic cars, all in full working order, including many early Swiss manufactured models, and many important exhibitions. For example, in 2014 there was a Renoir exhibition with a painting of his that has never been on public display before, and his two statues. In the grounds there are dozens of sculptures. This important centre brings many thousands of visitors every year.

The Pierre Gianadda foundation is responsible for many pieces of contemporary sculpture around Martigny.
The Pierre Gianadda foundation is responsible for many pieces of contemporary sculpture around Martigny.

Nearby is a converted military warehouse that today is the St Bernard Dog Museum. This is their all year round headquarters, where the dogs live and you can visit them – but see later in the story up at the Pass itself.

The Rhone takes a sharp right turn north here, and that has given Martigny a prominent position, as witnessed by the Roman remains, including a remarkably well preserved amphitheatre that can seat 5,000 people. There are also very warm thermal springs, again dating from Roman times. It also has the 13th century Bâtiaz fortress tower, and the 17th century Chapel de la Bâtiaz that you reach by crossing a covered wooden bridge, that was first mentioned in 1349. It was badly damaged by ice in the river in 1818 but soon repaired.

The town is only 40kms (24.5 miles) from France, but to reach it you have to go over the Forclaz pass to Chamonix. It is also only 75kms (47 miles) from Aosta in Italy, but to reach that you need to climb up and over the Great St Bernhard Pass.

From Martigny’s main railway station, special trains depart from bay platforms in two directions. One goes off up the side valley and climbs up and over into France and is well worth the trip. The other sets off in the other direction and curves away up a different valley. At Sembrancher, you cross the platform to a similar train that carries on to Orsières. Here, waiting buses take you even further up and snake around zig zags to finally come to a breathless halt at the famous Pass.

A small lake sits in a bowl in the severe mountains, with Italy on the other side. To walk all round the lake would take just over half an hour, with the border being across the middle and marked by an ex-border post on the road that skirts it. Here at the Pass are many attractions to fascinate you. There is an excellent restaurant, Mont Joux, a church, a museum, (which includes stuffed examples of the wild life up here – many of which are the same as here in Scotland) and the dogs.

The Foundation Barry looks after the famous breed of dogs. Barry was the St Bernard that is credited with saving 41 lives. The dogs stay up here for the summer only these days, and are really there for the tourists. You can visit their kennels, and even take them for a walk. They are great, friendly dogs, and it is fun to walk around the lake with one of these huge dogs who are quite at home and happy to go for a walk – as all dogs are. By the way, the dogs have never carried wee barrels of brandy round their necks – this is a romantic fiction.

The Pass has always been important for transit of the Alps, used by the Romans and also Napoleon, but has also always been difficult, and beset with bandits. St Bernard established the monastery and hospice in 1049, with the monks breeding the rescue dogs from 1600. Today modern equipment and machinery has made them redundant, and especially the road tunnel that opened in 1964, so that the only traffic now is tourists. The monks are still here though, as is their monastery and the large hospice too, although these days it is leased to a commercial operator.

The road is officially open only from June to September. The Pass is at 2469 masl, (8,100ft) so snow can fall at any time, and sometimes the lake never completely looses its ice all year round. It is a very special place, and you have to admire the dedication of the monks over the centuries, living and working here at such an altitude and the difficult life during the long winters.

The breath-takingly beautiful St Bernard Pass.
The breath-takingly beautiful St Bernard Pass.

Returning to the river Rhone, not far from Martigny, it forces its way through a cliff, making a natural narrow path that has been fortified for centuries, at St. Maurice.

Around the year 290 to 300, a Roman legion from Thebes (modern day Luxor in Egypt) were based here. The Roman Emperor issued orders to kill Christians. Maurice and his men were Christians, and refused to carry out this order. Of course refusing to carry out orders meant that other soldiers were sent and Maurice and his men were killed. Their bodies were left as they fell, as a sign of disgrace. When the soldiers had gone, the local people came and buried them.

Around 380 the first Bishop of the area, St. Théodule, brought their bones to an Ossuary close to the cliff and built a sanctuary, which is still there today. Towards the end of the 4th century, the first church was built here.

Sigismund, King of Burgundy, founded the Abbey here in 515, and it has been in continuous use ever since – 1500 years of continuous praise, the oldest monastery in the Occident still in use. Groups of monks came from other monasteries to form five relays to give perpetual praise. After the Gregorian reform, the order became Augustinian, and still is today.

Over 1500 years there have been many changes of course. In 575 the monastery was damaged by the Lombards. It was enlarged at the end of the 6th century, and also in the 7th century, at the end of which a new basilica was added facing west – east (all previous buildings faced east – west) raised above the level of the nave and covered the crypt which held the martyr’s reliquary tomb. In the 11th century a bell tower was added. However, damage was not unusual from falling rocks from the cliff, especially in 1611 when huge rocks just about destroyed the abbey.

In 1614 through to 1624 the seventh church was erected on the site, facing north – south, away from the cliff, and this is today the south part of the current basilica. In March 1942 a boulder hit the tower spire which promptly collapsed during morning Mass. So, between 1948 and 1950 the eighth church was built, and fitted with marvellous stained glass windows.

All these centuries and changes have made the present Abbey a fascinating and unique place to visit. It has traces and remains from particularly the 11th, 17th and 20th centuries.

Visits are possible, although as it is a working monastery it is best to check first. See tresor@stmaurice.ch The town of St Maurice is wedge shaped, with the river Rhone and the cliffs coming together in the narrow pass. It is easy to find the Abbey where the town squeezes into the pass. The front doors were added in 2000, made of copper they have the names of 270 martyrs on them, in 27 different languages. On entering you are in a large hall way which has ancient stones with inscriptions on them from Roman times dotted around, and also a tall stone pillar – a Roman mile post (every 1,000 feet was a mile and then a pillar would be set up).

Every part of the Abbey has so much to catch the eye. In the chapel to Our Lady there is a marble shrine containing the bones of the Theban martyrs, and also, since 2002, martyrs from Uganda. There are two white stones from the second century BC! The Abbey bell tower, originally from the first half of the eleventh century has had many bells over the centuries – today 8 swinging bells are in the oak belfry. There is also a chime of 49 bells installed in 2004, in the spire of the tower.

The baptistery is remarkable, dating from 1987 and 1994 with mosaics and a 3 part fountain. Records of the organ go back to 1642, another was installed in 1727, which was rebuilt in 1805. A new one was installed in 1893 but this was crushed by the rock fall of 1942. The latest one dates from 1950 and was made in Zurich, it has 72 stops.

There are the catacombs, where foundations from the 4th to the 8th century are visible, and the old cemetery. The Simplon railway came through here, in a tunnel in the mountain, and this diverted a spring that since then has run through the cemetery, under the basilica, through the town and into the river Rhone. Archaeological work is on-going. Between the Abbey and the cliff, a translucent roof has been erected and work continues on the old remains there.

The Abbey treasures are breathtaking. In the Theban Chapel there is the reliquary shrine of St Maurice from the 12th century, the reliquary of St Sigismund, also 12th century, and the reliquary of the shrine of Abbot Nanthelme, from 1225. In the Treasure Room is the Sardonyx Vase from the 1st century BC, and so many other things – too many to list here. They cover such a long period of history, and some are still used today in the Abbey liturgy.

Abbey of St Maurice.
Abbey of St Maurice.

This very special place is still home to 42 men, with a Mass being said at least once per day. Every year, on the feast day of St Maurice, the 22nd of September, after a solemn mass by a prelate, the brothers take the relics of the martyrs on procession all round the town. Also at this time every year there is the Marché Monastique or Monastic Market, when religious orders from Switzerland and elsewhere come and sell their products. (see www.marchemonastique.ch ) The town and area is also well worth visiting. Tradition says that the exact spot where St Maurice and his men were killed is at Vérolliez (2km from the Abbey) and there is a chapel here dating from the 18th century, which is on top of a 13th century one, which is on top of a 10th century one! In the cliff dominating St Maurice, 90 metres above the valley floor, there is a hermitage from the 7th century and the Chapel of Our Lady of Scex from the 18th century. There are 500 steps to get up there, and on the same level there is a hermitage that is still used by some people seeking God.

If you continue beyond the Abbey, the road skirts the cliff and squeezes past the castle on a ledge over the river, by an ancient stone bridge. The road used to go through the castle, so that you couldn’t avoid paying taxes. This narrow road was no use for Napoleon’s cannons, so he had the deviation road built. There are fortifications all around here, and the Grotte aux Fées, a natural cave that goes 1,000 metres into the mountain ending in a small lake and a 77 metres high waterfall. This was the first cave to be opened to the public in Switzerland, in 1864.

The town itself has many interesting buildings, though none older than 1693. That was when a fire that started in the Abbey kitchen, spread through the town and burnt it down!

St Maurice is a very attractive town, with a population of just over 4,500 people. It is easy to reach with trains direct from Geneva airport in just over one and a half hours. And by the way, I can recommend the Restaurant de la Gare, across from the railway station.

This area of Switzerland has so many interesting and even dramatic places to see and visit. This includes a fine walking trail among the vineyards to the hamlet of Plan Cerisier, which seems to be submerged in vines. The ancient wee houses have large stone flags for the roof covering. Visit the Besse vineyard, where the second generation of the Besse family are running it. Sarah Besse has studied wine making and has a diploma, and there is nothing better than sitting on the terrace at a table of nibbles sipping examples of their stunning wines in the company of an expert who also owns and runs the vineyard – time just stands still.

English is spoken everywhere, although French is the dominant language in this part of Switzerland. Prices are rather high for us – due entirely to the weak pound – the Swiss barely know inflation, but their currency is strong – however, it is certainly value for money here.

For more information look at www.martigny-region.ch or www.visitvalais.ch and of course the ever efficient and comprehensive www.myswitzerland.com there is also an ipad version at www.myswitzerland.com/ipad as well as facebook, twitter etc., here you will also find details for travelling around Switzerland, their public transport network is second to none.

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