The old town of Saint Maurice, while small and initially unremarkable, is one of the most historic cities in Valais and home to the oldest Abbey north of the Alps.
Located strategically at the entrance to an Alpine pass, where the Alps narrow, the Romans developed this place they knew as Acaunnus with its ample water supply from the Rhône river to secure control over the Valais region. Although previously under Celtic control, Acaunnus was heavily fortified by the Romans and legions were stationed to secure the pass. The Theban Legion, who converted to Christianity, defied the authority of Rome which demanded reverance for the divinty of the Emporer as a God and were persecuted and decimated for the thir faith. Saint Maurice, commander of the Legion, was amongst those martyred in the third century and the town and Abbey now bear his name in testament. Subsequently, the Merovingians, Carolingians, Burgundians, Savoyards and the Holy Roman Emporers contributed to make this small town an important spiritual and liturgical centre.
The Abbey, catacombs, the original (now destroyed) and current churches and the tombs of Saint Maurice all formed part of the third and final tour of the day which worth every centime of the 10 Francs costs. (Guided tours times are available at the Abbey website.) The Abbey of Saint Maurice, as a functioning Territorrial Abbey Augustine Rule, was founded in 515 on the site of a former Roman temple. Evidence of the temple still exists in the Catacombs where a section of a Roman temple archway is now integrated into the structure of catacombs walkway.
Our tour took us through the important treasury which houses three reliquaries of significant historical importance. These reliquaries are masterpieces of workmanship in silver and woods and unlike many other reliquaries of their age which have either been destroyed or removed to museums - these works of art survived intact within the place they were intended for. Further in the treasury, artefacts of medieval art and artefacts from the 2nd and 3rd century including a thorn from the Crown of Thorns which Jesus was made to wear during his crucifixion and a golden jug of the Carolingian period decorated with semi-precious stones presented to the Abbey by Charlemagne.
The Catacombs, mustier than the rest of the abbey, provide access to the tombs that once lay here. The passage way along the catacombs, a steel walk way brings you across a small street running through, leads through to the the ruins of the original church of the monastry. A rock fall in the early 17th Century destroyed the original church which lay along an east/west axis. Not daring to erect another church in the original position the present church, along a north/south axis, is set away from the sheer cliff face along which the original cliff face was erected. In the Apse of the original church, the tomb of Saint Maurice remains and small alter has been errected in his honour. The remains of the church remains an archeological site having been so since 1945 and the reconstruction of the church remains, it appears, a distant possibility.
The current Church, the start and end of our tour, contains elements of the XIth, XVIIth and XXth century elements but still retains all the fundamental elements of its Gothic origins. It essentially retains the simplicity of the Gothic period with three aisle structure and pointed columns. With late adjustments made to allow the original Romanesque bell tower to be integrated with the new church and a baroque style lantern to be added in the right hand aisle.
Tours of the Abbey take around 90 minutes and are offered several times daily. Details of tour times can be found on the Abbey website.
Tour language is decided according to demand so our tour was in French - so a basic understanding of at least some French is probably a good idea in case numbers go against you.
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Mark Sukhija is a travel and wine blogger, photographer, tourism researcher, hat-touting, white-shirt-wearing, New Zealand fantatic and eclipse chaser. Aside from at least annual visits to New Zealand, Mark has seen eclipses in South Australia (2002), Libya (2006), China (2009) and Queensland (2012). After twelve years in Switzerland, Mark moved back to London in 2012. You can follow Mark on Twitter or Facebook