Monday, November 12, 2012

A Visit to St Maurice, Switzerland, Nov 6th

Saint-Maurice, the town of less than 5,000 people, is located about 30 minutes, by train, east of Vevey.  It sits at the entrance to a pass leading to the upper part of the Rhone valley. As such, it has a strategic importance, and defense works were built from the 15th century through 1995 to control access to the valley.

Saint-Maurice is first mentioned in 200 as Acaunum.  In 1003 the name of the town was changed to St Maurice.
According to tradition, Saint Maurice, the leader of the legendary Roman Theban Legion in the 3rd century, and one of the favorite and most widely venerated saints of that group, was martyred in Acaunum during the reign of Maximian (286-310).  Around 360-370 Theodul, the first Bishop of Valais (the area around southern Switzerland), built a basilica in Acaunum in their honor. 

The reason I chose to visit St Maurice was to see their forts and to visit the Grotte aux Fees (The Fairy Caves).

 As is typical of the towns in the Rhone Valley, they are surrounded by the Swiss Alps.

 Fort Dufour.

One of the oldest remaining fortification in the St Maurice area, which was built to protect the upper part of the Rhone Valley.  It was built in 1831 by Guillaume-Henri Dufour.‬

Dufour was an engineer, cartographer and a Swiss politician.  In 1847 we was appointed General of the Swiss Federal Army.  He was the author of the first precise topographical map of Switzerland.  He was also the founder of the International Red Cross.

 The highest peak in Switzerland is named Dufour Peak.

Chateau de Saint-Maurice.

The chateau was mentioned in 1280; the only remains are the base of its square keep (large towers in castles that were fortified residences, used as a refuge of last resort should the rest of the castle fall to an adversary) and parts of the substructure from the 14th century. 

The present chateau was built in the 16th century on the site of the old castle. In 1753, it belonged to Antoine de Barbeira who became marquis of Saint-Maurice that year. The structure was heavily remodeled in the 19th century.  It currently remains privately owned.

During World War II, the chateau was fortified with several large guns.

Fort du Scex (It is hard to see, but it is in the middle of the picture).

In 1911 this fortification was built into the mountain, near the Grotte aux Fees, above St Maurice, on the left bank of the Rhone River.  The fort is built along the face of the cliff that had been excavated.  The are additional tunnels that extend to the cliff face for observation posts and artillery positions.  Lateral tunnels to the interior of the mountain lead to troop accommodations, the command post, ammunition magazines and utility areas. Primarily an artillery position, the fort was planned to provide supporting fire to the larger and earlier forts Savatan and Daily that were built on the right bank of the Rhone River.

The fort was initially armed with four 75mm1903/18 L30 Krupp-Giovanola guns in 1911. These guns, aimed due east, had a range of about 6.8 miles, with a firing rate of 12 to 15 rounds per minute. The fort was also equipped with four machine gun positions, for sweeping the cliff face.

In 1938-39, a battery of four 75mm 1903/22 L30 guns were added.  In addition, further improvements to habitation were made during and after World War II.

Routine access to the fort for supplies was provided by an aerial camouflaged cableway, built in 1922.  The artillery was deactivated in 1984, when the position was converted to use as a command post. All of the 75mm pieces were removed, although one was reconstructed in 2001 for display. By 1995 the fort was entirely deactivated.

In side the mountain is another fortification, Fort de Cindey.  It was built between 1941 and 1946 and expanded between 1948 and 1952. It's located in the caves facing north.  The fort was initially armed with two 105mm guns, with four 90mm anti-tank guns.  In the 1950's, three machine guns were added.  Fort de Cindey is connected to Fort du Scex by the natural tunnels of the Grotte aux Fees. 

Power and communications were supplied by Fort de Scex. Access for supplies was provided by an aerial ropeway similar to that of Scex.

The fort served until 1995, when it was taken out of service.

The Rhone Glacier 

The Rhone River, one of the major rivers in Europe, starts as melt water from the Rhone Glacier. The glacier is located in Oberwald, Switzerland, at an elevation of 4,517 ft, in the Swiss Alps.  The river continues to grow as it is fed by smaller rivers.  

The river flows through Lake Geneva and through southeastern France.  After a journey of 505 miles, it empties into the Mediterranean Sea, at Arles, France.

The Rhone River as it flows through St Maurice.

On the way to the  Grotte aux Fees, I passed this waterfall, which is created by the water flowing out of the caves. On the right hand side you can see were the water has created a tunnel.

The Grotte aux Fees (Cave of the Fairies) 

These limestone caves are located in the cliffs above St. Maurice.  It features a 253 ft high underground waterfall, claimed as the world's highest waterfall in a cave that is open to the public. It was the first cave in Switzerland to be opened to the public. 

The cave was known until the mid 19th century as the "Trou aux Fayes" or "Sheep Hole," as it was used as a sheep pen. The cave was known from Roman times, but was first publicized in 1863 as a tourist attraction.

The cave was explored in 1831 when a party mapped 2,000 ft of passages, it has since been extended.  From 1863 Professor Chanoine Gard of the Abbey College of Saint-Maurice cleared passageways and conducted tours on behalf of an orphanage that he had founded. From 1865 the cave was operated by the Sisters of Saint-Maurice, who renamed it "Grotte aux Fees", a name more poetic than "Trou aux Fayes".

The self-guided tour, of the caves, follows a 2,600 ft trail, with a change of elevation of approximately 800 ft, ending at the waterfall. The waterfall is fed by water from the nearby Dents du Midi peaks.  There are many more tunnels that are not open to the public.

The tunnel above is typical of the ones that I walked through on my visit.  Many on the tunnels were not high enough to be able to stand up.

A picture of some of the water flowing through the cave.  It was kind of spooky at times as I could hear the water running, all around me, but could not see the tunnels which it was flowing through.

Fairy Well.

Legend has it that if you dip you left hand into this pool of water and make a wish, it will come true.

These signs are at the entrance to the tunnels, in The Grotte aux Fees, which lead to the two forts, Fort de Cindey and Fort du Scex, that were built inside the caves.

This is the the 253 foot waterfall that is inside the cave, which forms a subterranean pool.  I starting hearing the sound of the waterfall long before I actually reached it.

The Church of Saint-Sigismund.

The church of Saint-Sigismund has been the parish church since at least the mid-12th century. It was built on the site of the 6th or 7th century St. John's church. 

Sigismund was a student of the Catholic bishop of Vienne, France, who converted Sigismund from the Arian faith of his Burgundian forebears. In 515, Sigismund was inspired to found a monastery dedicated to Saint Maurice at Agaune (present day Saint Maurice, Switzerland). The following year he became king of the Burgundians.
Sigismund's son opposed him in 517, and insulted his new wife, so Sigismund had him strangled. Then, overcome with remorse, Sigismund retreated to the monastery that he had founded. In 523, he led the Burgundians against the invading Franks. He lost the battle, put on a monk's habit and hid in a cell near his abbey. He was captured by the Franks and taken to Aurelianum (modern day Orleans, France) and put to death in 524.  Afterwards, he was honored by the Burgundians as a martyr. His bones were recovered from the well at Coulmiers, near Orleans, where his body had been thrown, and a shrine was established near Agaune (St Maurice).  Eventually Sigismund was canonized.  His feast day is May 1st.

The main alter in the Church of Saint-Sigismund.

The side alter in the Church of Saint-Sigismund.

Thus, my visit to St Maurice came to an end and I headed back to Vevey.

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