Jonas Hughes takes the low road on the pilgrimage path

Einsiedeln cathedral is an important stop on the St James pilgrimage Keystone

The St James pilgrimage trail takes in both exquisite and eccentric aspects of the country's Christian past. Even a brief walk along a randomly chosen section of the route will surprise and charm the most jaded of travellers.

This content was published on July 8, 2000 - 09:09

Where to start, then? Closing my eyes, I made a circular movement with my index finger and plunged it down onto the map of the St James' pilgrimage route (see lead story). After rejecting my finger's choice a few times - on account of altitude (too high and chilly), the fact I'd been to the selected place before, and because I really wanted to go walking in central Switzerland, I finally settled on the town of Einsiedeln in canton Schwyz.

This canton is the one that gave Switzerland its name, and has always been country's true heart (it was the elders of Schwyz, who created the first confederation with their immediate neighbours in 1291).

Jumping in the company car, I struck out for Einsiedeln, and arrived along with masses of Swiss tourists, who were visiting the town for the "The Great Theatre of the World". (I'd neglected to check the Swiss culture calendar, which is always a good idea in summer, as every town seems to hold some sort of celebratory event.)

Ignoring the crowds, I strolled around the cathedral, and marvelled at the stunning Baroque interior. It's incredibly ornate, and has recently undergone a major face-lift. (Churches are normally in wonderful condition - the Swiss believe it's a sin to allow any House of God to fall into disrepair.)

Standing in the knave, I was joined by Father Wolfgang Renz. Justifiably proud of his cathedral, he began to expound its architectural merits. "Did you notice," he asked, "how you looked up as soon as you walked in?"

(I paused because I hadn't. The first thing I'd looked at had been the black madonna. But since I'd looked up soon after that, I thought it would be safe to nod - one doesn't want to lie to a priest.)

"You looked up," he continued enthusiastically, "because the pillars are bare - just painted white. It's done on purpose to draw your eyes up to the ceiling. An architectural device."

To my dismay, I noticed it seemed to work on other people.

Father Wolfgang then steered me around the cathedral pointing out other interesting aspects of the place including the spot where a chapel, honouring the hermit saint, Meinrad, used to stand.

"He was the first 'one' to 'settle' here," Father Wolfgang announced. "It is from him that Einsiedeln gets its name."

"How do you get 'Einsiedeln' from 'Meinrad'?" I asked myself.

Noticing my perplexed face, he elucidated: "Ein Siedler is 'one settler' in German - Einsiedeln."

Giving no sign that he though I was a little backward, he continued. "Meinrad was a Benedictine monk, who settled in the area in the ninth century. He lived here for 26 years, until he was murdered by two mercenary travellers."

After finding out that it had cost SFr45 million to renovate the cathedral, I took leave of Father Wolfgang, and set off along the pilgrim trail towards Zug.

It took me a good 20 minutes to get out of Einsiedeln, and to feel I was really in the country. The first stop of interest is the Kloster Au, a nunnery about 35 minutes away. Unfortunately, it's undergoing renovation.

I pressed on.

As in most of Switzerland, the countryside is magnificent. Einsiedeln is a little to the north of the Alps, so the landscape is comprised of gentle hills rather than towering mountains - perfect for the weak-legged who hail from flatter lands.

Punctuating the green meadows are occasional Heidi-style farmhouses and, whenever the path splits, there's a reassuring little brown sign pointing the way along the "Jakobsweg".

I must confess that I didn't make it to the next major stop on the pilgrimage trail - it would have meant tackling some hills, which I found a little too intimidating.

But that, I realised, is the beauty of the pilgrim trails, or indeed any walking path in Switzerland. You are in total control. You can stroll for an hour or a day - every route has a sign telling you how long it takes to get to the next place. If, like me, you suffer from "uphill-phobia", you can easily arrange that every walk - or cycling tour - is downhill (by talking advantage of the ubiquitous mountain railways and cable cars).

But the best thing about the pilgrim trails through Switzerland is that the journey is guaranteed to be as much fun as getting there.

by Jonas Hughes

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