St Maurice & Grotte aux Fees

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On Tuesday we rose early enough for Emily to do some shopping and make one of several unsuccessful attempts to call home. She called but nobody answered because they were all out having a good time.

Roland and Marie-Francoise picked us up late in the morning and we headed off again down the valley. We stopped first just past Martigny at the Relais St Bernard – a roadhouse on the main highway with restaurant and souvenir shop. Emily managed some more shopping before we ate a light lunch and she went to test the waters in the lake beside the restaurant. From there we drove a short distance towards the village of St Maurice which is near the French border on the south side of the Rhone.

Our first point of interest there was the Grotte aux Fees, a naturally formed set of caverns in the rock of the mountains which has been enhanced for touristic and military purposes. The latter was visible only in the form of side passages that were barred and marked against entry. The entrance to the grotte was some distance up the mountainside and reached by a winding path from which we had sweeping views over the valley of the Rhone as it wound down to the mouth at Lac Leman. The most spectacular feature of the grotte was the cascade at which point water poured in from a hole in the roof of a large chamber with a pool below and a rickety bridge on which we walked right around it.  There was a competition to mark the location of five fairies (fees) on a map of the grotte. Emily managed to locate them all and has high hopes of winning the prize, which is a helicopter flight for which she would need to return.

From the grotte we headed back down the hill and a hundred metres or so along the road to the Abbey of St Maurice where we planned to see the Abbey and its treasures – reliquaries and other antiquities. We entered the Abbey through its magnificently decorated doors. The baptistry was decorated in a modern style with a central font in a trefoil shape and several beautiful mosaics depicting biblical scenes on the walls. The side of the church facing the street had several stained glass windows dedicated to martyrs through history, beginning with St Maurice and his companions who were martyred near the site of the abbey in the third century. The other side of the church linked to the abbey beyond and needed no windows. The sign on the door leading to the display of treasures advised us that it was closed in the middle of the day and would open again in about 30 minutes so we decided to visit the village and take some refreshments while we waited.

The village was more like a typical French village than a Swiss mountain village. It had a large square and a broad main street that, for a couple of blocks at least, was given over to tables and chairs from the various cafes. As we contemplated which cafe to visit, Marie-Francoise and Roland were greeted by the Abbot, Michel, whom they knew and he invited us to join him for a drink while we waited. We followed him in the car to a house a couple of kilometres out of town which was used as the first point on a pilgrimage route and also offered accommodation for young people. We enjoyed a glass of wine and the opportunity to inspect his solar ovens in which he was baking bread.

At the appointed time, we headed back to the abbey with the abbot to see the treasures of St Maurice. We had the benefit of a personally conducted tour of the ruins behind the abbey which are remnants of the original cemetery and chapel dating from Roman times and are the site of continuing archeological work. The most significant reliquaries and other treasures are kept in a large strong room. We were able to view them and benefit from descriptions from Michel who was clearly passionate about their spiritual, historical and artistic value.

Dinner that night was at Serafino. Marie-Francoise had invited Marie-Christine, known to Majella through correspondence, and Robert, a priest friend of Michel (not the abbot) and also from the Val d’Anniviers, to join us. It was an evening of good food and interesting conversation – more for those who spoke French than for Emily and me who managed to catch a few words of French and were treated to some occasional translations.