The Via Francigena
Carol had always wondered what it would be like to be a pilgrim walking the ancient medieval Via Francigena pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. So, this is a story about how she accidentally became a pilgrim when she decided to visit Romainmôtier Abbey in Switzerland. But, her primary motive for the visit was to see the church which is the oldest Romanesque Church in Switzerland. And, she is very passionate about Romanesque architecture!
The story unfolds one very hot winter’s afternoon when she caught the train from Lausanne to what she thought was Romainmôtier. However, beguiled by a sweet old Swiss lady who she befriended on the train, she accidentally took her advice and got off at the wrong station!
It was one of those peculiar moments when impulse overrides logic. Although, she knew Arnex was not Croy-Romainmôtier, in a split second there she was, on a very tiny platform, in the middle of the Swiss countryside. And, there was not a person in sight and only a few farms nearby. In addition, she could not speak French.
She felt too impatient to wait an hour for the next train. And, there was a risk that the train might not stop if Arnex was not a regular station. So, seizing the moment, she found Romainmôtier Eglise on Google Maps on her mobile phone and began walking!
Sigeric walks the Via Francigena
Frantically switching her phone on and off to save the battery, she followed the ‘blue dot’ on Google maps through the Swiss country trails. And, like a pilgrim, she wound her way through tiny villages, green and golden fields, and farmyards with the purple snow-clad Alps of the Jura in the distance. Not a single soul disturbed her tranquillity!
As she walked, Carol thought back to the year 990 AD when Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, trod these same paths. And, she was amazed to think he might have walked through these very fields and tiny villages!
Sigeric had walked all the way from Canterbury to Rome and back again just to get a “Y” shaped scarf called a Pallium from the Pope. Fortunately for us, Sigeric recorded the names of the ’79 mansions’ where he rested on his way home. And, today these places form the basis of the Via Francigena pilgrim route.
Sigeric stayed overnight at Orbe (Mansion 55 or LV). And, Carol accidentally got off the train at Arnex-sur-Orbe a mere 3.2 km from Orbe. Consequently, she became a pilgrim walking the Via Francigena! And, although she did not see a soul for two hours, in Sigeric’s day it must have been crowded with travellers. This is because Orbe was at the heart of many Roman cross-roads.
Romainmôtier Abbey at last!
Although it was still winter in Switzerland, the midday sun beat down on her head and her toes were blistering. Finally, after two hours, the blue dot led her into a mountainous area with a narrow overpass. But, she had no idea how to cross it. In addition, there seemed to be a person appearing and disappearing at the end of the overpass.
‘Are you looking for Romainmôtier Abbey?’ said a voice, surprisingly speaking in English! It belonged to a man who was pointing to a gully beneath the overpass.
‘The road to the Abbey is just down there. Here, let me help you over the fence. I’ll carry your bag. Now, hold my arm and be very careful on the steps.’ And so, he led her down a steep incline and into a lovely garden.
“This is a very beautiful garden!’ she exclaimed, gazing at the lovely shrubs ready to burst into spring flower.
‘Thank you!’ said he, very pleased with his house and garden.
Then he proudly pointed to his wife’s labyrinth in the garden and invited her to walk around it. But, at this stage she was fed up with labyrinth’s having just walked around one for two hours in the Swiss countryside. So, with her destination so close she took the road to the Abbey!
The Tea Room
Feeling very much like a pilgrim, Carol continued her journey to Romainmôtier Abbey and entered the Abbey courtyard. She was delighted by the welcome site of a Tea Room where there would surely be a cup of tea! And, who knows, maybe some pilgrim hospitality!
Heading towards an ornate orange building at the end of the courtyard, she entered the Tea Room, And, in her eagerness to have a cup of tea, she attempted to slide, with her two bags, into a bench seat. But, she nearly knocked over several shelves of antique and collectable tea pots and felt very embarrassed.
But, the owners were very friendly and she managed, despite her lack of French, and their lack of English, to order some lunch. Recognising the words ‘potage’ and ‘fromage’ and ‘thé’ she replied,
And then, asking for ‘un tasse d’eau’, her host, with a big grin, held up a glass and a cup. Smiling, she asked for ‘une verre d’eau’!
Then, a pot of tea, a very large bowl of vegetable soup filled with local vegetables and herbs, and an equally large plate of several varieties of local cheese appeared. Carol loved the tea, ate half the soup and a bit of the cheese. Then, her host looked from her to the left over cheese and back to the cheese again, wondering what to say. Knowing how much Swiss love their cheese, she was again embarrassed.
However, her host offered to pack up the cheese in a plastic container for her to eat on the train. Now this was definitely pilgrim hospitality!
At last Carol was ready to see the ancient Romanesque Church!
Romainmôtier Abbey was once a thriving monastery. And, although the monks preferred their isolated way of life, they were still involved in providing accomodation for pilgrims and travellers and spreading the Christian word. But today, only the Church, the priory living quarters and some surrounding houses remain.
Carol thought that the outside of the Church looked very old and messy. And, she noticed that it was made of three bits randomly joined together.
She entered the first section through an archway. And in the porch there was an advertisement for concerts and sacred music. So, she decided that the church was still in use.
The door into the church was plainly decorated. But, she liked the elegant capitals and graceful frieze. And, she was surprised to discover that it was 13th century Gothic.
12th Century Narthex
At this time of the day, Carol usually found churches closed for siesta! So, she tentatively tried the door handle and was thrilled to discover that it opened into a large ancient and gloomy space. The first thing she noticed was the thick walls, tiny windows and massive columns typical of early Romanesque architecture. Then, she became immersed in the air of mystery permeating this space. Shafts of light radiating from the tiny windows permeated the gloomy darkness leading the eye from one fading fresco to the next. Again, she felt united with the multitudes of medieval pilgrims who had gazed at these images down the centuries. So, she eagerly moved in and out of the shadows engaging with these early Christian stories designed to convert pilgrims to Christianity.
The narthex of the Church is a place of transition between the outer-world and the sanctuary. So, Carol left the narthex and entered the nave of the Church.
Entering the nave she noticed the rounded arches supported by massive Romanesque columns. Also, the windows were larger letting in more light, leading the eye to the high Gothic ribbed vault. Gazing upwards, she was amazed by the colourful Gothic ribbed vault. And, the image of ‘the lamb of God’ presiding over the entire scene.
Carol was intrigued by the many frescoes within this sacred space. Also, by the difference between the unadorned 5th century pillars and the colourful ones in the apse.
There were many other highlights in this sacred space. But, the 8th century stone carved pulpit was the most remarkable.
Visiting Romainmôtier Again!
Leaving the Church, Carol found a visitor’s information shop with lots of helpful information. There is so much to see and understand in the Abbey, that Carol decided it needs another visit. Also, she was very pleased to meet someone who chatted to her about the Abbey. In addition, he gave her a lift to the station.
For information about visiting the region go to Romainmôtier.
Or the Via Francigena website if you are interested in being a pilgrim.
And on Carol’s website there are more photos and information.