Say “Switzerland,” and you’re more likely to think of mountain chalets than historic cathedrals. However, the country has many Catholic treasures worth visiting. Though the Reformation had a strong impact here, many parts of the country resisted splitting with the Church, and today Catholicism is the most common religion in this nation of more than 8 million. If you travel to Switzerland, be sure to explore some of these famous religious sites.
Just over an hour from Zurich by train, the city of St. Gallen owes its heritage to St. Gallus, an Irish monk who settled there in the seventh century. The Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall was founded in the eighth century on the site of Gallus’ hermitage cell and was a popular stop along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. The entire abbey precinct is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, but the jewel in the crown is the abbey library. Founded in 719 and containing roughly 170,000 books and manuscripts, it’s one of the world’s oldest libraries. Housed today in an ornate rococo room, its treasures include the earliest-known architectural plan drawn on parchment.
Family fun: Children will enjoy the library’s Egyptian mummy and oversized globe with depictions of sea monsters that were once imagined to lurk in unexplored waters.
While you’re in the area: Einsiedeln, the most important Marian pilgrimage site in Switzerland, is under two hours from St. Gallen by train. Its abbey houses a reputedly miraculous 15th-century depiction of Mary.
According to legend, an angel’s heavenly light showed the settlers of this medieval city where to build a saint’s chapel. Ever since, Lucerne has been called the City of Lights. Situated on the River Reuss, with a smattering of spired churches and elaborately frescoed buildings set against a mountain backdrop, the city abounds with storybook appeal. Popular spiritual sites include:
Chapel Bridge: This 14th-century covered wooden bridge, one of the oldest in Europe and restored after a fire in 1993, features a series of Counter-Reformation gable paintings depicting scenes from the lives of the city’s patron saints, Leodegar and Maurice. The bridge’s water tower is the most photographed monument in Switzerland.
The Jesuit Church: The country’s first baroque church displays a habit worn by Br. Klaus, a 15th-century mystic and Swiss patron saint. You can travel about a half-hour south from Lucerne to Flüeli-Ranft to visit Br. Klaus’ birth home and former residence.
Hof Church: A tour here reveals eclectic treasures including a vault of medieval chalices, crosses, and processional figures that dazzle in gold and gems; the Dragon Chasuble, which, according to legend, was donated by a 15th-century man in thanksgiving to God for escaping a pair of dragons on nearby Mount Pilatus; and a rain machine on which the chief organist plays “organ thunderstorm” concerts.
Spreuer Bridge: Arguably one of the spookiest bridges in Europe, this site is famous for its 17th-century Danse Macabre (“Dance of Death”) paintings, illustrating the reminder that, rich or poor, no one escapes mortality.
Family fun: Visit the nation’s most popular museum, the Swiss Museum of Transport; its attractions include rail and flight simulators and a mini steam train ride.
While you’re in the area: The must-see Open-Air Museum Ballenberg, a popular hotspot for families, is about 90 minutes away by train. A quarter of a million people visit this 163-acre wonderland each year in season to soak up its bucolic charm and explore more than 100 traditional buildings that were moved here from around the country. Spanning about 700 years of history, the sites include farmhouses, an old-time pharmacy and medicinal herb garden, a cheese dairy, and more. Set aside a day or two to explore by foot or horse-drawn carriage, enjoy special events and children’s activities, and spend time with farm animals. Dine on-site to enjoy traditional Swiss dishes, and don’t forget to pick up homemade treats at the chocolate factory.
CATHEDRAL OF LAUSANNE
Switzerland’s largest cathedral, in the city of Lausanne, became Protestant in the Reformation. But the 13th-century Gothic church is still a stop on the Camino de Santiago, a role it’s held since the Middle Ages. Of note are the painted portal and rose window with 105 panels. Return at night to hear the night watchman continue the medieval tradition of calling out the hours from the bell tower, applicable from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Family fun: At the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, delve into all aspects of the Games, from their origins in Greece to life in a contemporary Olympic village. Test your physical skills in the interactive exhibits, and wander among rows of ceremony costumes, medalists’ clothing, and memorabilia. There are also displays about Pierre de Coubertin, the Catholic visionary behind the Games.
While you’re in the area: Explore the sobering yet fascinating Collection de l’Art Brut. Many of the wildly inventive and dreamlike works were created by people in asylums or prisons.
Adventures by train: Traveling by train is one of the highlights of a visit to Switzerland. The Swiss Travel Pass provides unlimited travel on trains, buses, boats, and more, along with free access to many museums. Panoramic routes offer easy access to the country’s highlights, and the Chocolate Train gives a taste of both scenery and sweets. The Swiss Family Card, complimentary with the Swiss Travel Pass, allows children ages 6 to 16 to travel for free when accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Some trains offer special activities for youngsters. Learn more at SwissTravelSystem.com.
ABBEY OF SAINT-MAURICE
About 90 minutes by train from Geneva, Saint-Maurice is an unassuming city with an impressive claim to fame: the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the Western world. The Abbey of Saint-Maurice, founded by a Burgundian king in 515, was built over the tomb of the martyr St. Maurice and his companions, fourth-century legionaries who defied the Roman emperor’s orders by refusing to persecute fellow Christians in the area. Centuries later, Catholics defied the Reformation by attending Mass at the abbey even though it was forbidden. Canons Regular of St. Augustine minister here today.
Family fun: Channel your inner Indiana Jones to explore the archaeological excavation site (take a moment to pray at St. Maurice’s tomb) and the Theban Chapel and Treasure Room, which features a stunning collection of gold and jeweled caskets, reliquaries, and other objects so precious that they have been exhibited at the Louvre. Highlights include the reliquary shrines of saints (including St. Maurice), a gold ewer said to have belonged to Charlemagne, and a thorn believed to be part of Christ’s crown of thorns.
While you’re in the area: Hardy souls can climb the 500-odd steps up the cliff overlooking Saint-Maurice to the former hermitage of Saint Amé, today the Chapel of Our Lady of Scex. Travel about 1.25 miles south of town to the Vérolliez Chapel, which is located at the reputed site of St. Maurice’s martyrdom and houses the Saint-Maurice Stone, believed to have healing powers.
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