Let’s face it, this title is a lie. I’m not a religious person, so announcing a pilgrimage… yet it is appropriate for the article that follows: the description and visit of Einsiedeln, a place known in Switzerland for its religious character.
It seemed like an interesting place to visit, perhaps located at the very heart of Switzerland, but only a 50-minute train ride from Zurich, where my friend Elodie lives. We wanted to find an unusual place outside the city of Zurich for one of our Swiss escapades, and when I did my researches, I discovered Einsiedeln. I was immediately curious to learn more. Then, I also discovered that the monastery had a library… which is not open to the public, unless you take a guided tour… in German… whatever, without further ado, I took the tickets for the guided tour. I will tell you about it later, but first a few words about Einsiedeln.
Einsiedeln, a small Schwyz town in the heart of Switzerland
Let’s be honest, if Einsiedeln is known in Switzerland, and even abroad, it is for its Benedictine monastery. However, when I arrived there, I discovered a charming little town, with the Hauptstrasse (main street) leading to its most famous monument.
As we arrived by train from Zürich (train change in Wädenswil), my eyes were drawn to the three ski jumps indicating the practice of ski jumping in the region. Although we are at 900 m, I had the impression, as I looked at the scenery, that I was entering one of those colourful Windows wallpaper images, with the fields of bright green and the sky of a beautiful, flawless blue. The Swiss cliché is guaranteed!
For the sport’s record, the jumps in Einsiedeln were formerly known as the Nationale Skisprunganlage Eschbach Einsiedeln. The facility has four jumps, the Andreas Küttel jump, the Simon Ammann jump, the KPT big jump and the KPT small jump. The names of the two largest jumps are in honour of the two best Swiss ski jumpers Andreas Küttel and Simon Ammann. The ski jumps are the most important training centre in Switzerland and have already hosted the Summer Grand Prix (yes, Summer Grand Prix for a winter sport) in ski jumping organised by the International Ski Federation.
Einsiedeln offers visitors historic buildings, such as the Rathaus or the various hotels around the Kloster square. There is even a mini-golf course!
Exploring the Swiss cliché
With two hours to kill before taking the guided tour, we decided to take a walk and have a picnic by the Sihl lake. The tourist destination of Einsiedeln-Ybrig-Zürichsee offers many places to go hiking. Whether it’s special nature trails, guided expeditions or the convenient option of a cable car, walkers and hikers can find countless possibilities in the region.
So we could rely on the explanatory signs in the Kloster square, which indicate the various theme walks to be undertaken in Einsiedeln. We decided to do the St.Benediktsweg. 60 minutes of walking in primitive Switzerland.
Naturally, since we had decided to take the path starting from the monastery, we did not realise that we had to go straight through the monastery grounds and not next to it. This lost us a few minutes but allowed us to say hello to the many horses that populate the grassy area around the Abbey. To put it simply, if you decide to do this walk, in this direction, follow the yellow signs for Birchli.
Apart from the monastery’s church, visitors can also greet the many horses in the monastery’s stables. These horses are called “Cavalli della Madonna” and are bred in the oldest stud farm still existing in Europe. In fact, the old stables were built between 1764 and 1767.
We could then walk past the stables and onto a stony path, the St. Benediktweg (hence the name of this hiking trail), which leads up a small hill towards the village of Birchli. There is a statue of St. Benedikt on the hill and the view of the monastery, the town of Einsiedeln and the jumping facility is very beautiful. Afterwards, we continued our walk along the Kühlmattli path.
From that moment on, we felt free in nature, discovering the fresh, clean air that we had missed that morning in Zurich. The Swiss cliché is out again: bright green fields, cows, a lake, mountains in the background. Yes, that’s what stands out the most when you talk about Helvetia, and in primitive Switzerland, you can’t escape it. It’s a great way to escape the city’s frenzy for an afternoon. Bucolic, picturesque, but I miss the wild side. It is far from the wilderness.
We passed through the village of Birchli and discovered that the road passed through there, before reaching the lake. Not sure how much time we had before the guided tour, we decided to go down to the lake for a picnic and take the post bus back to the centre of Einsiedeln.
Lake Sihl (Sihlsee) is a reservoir, the largest in Switzerland in terms of surface area, located in the upper Einsiedeln valley. The Sihl River flows through it and is dammed by a 33-metre high and 124-metre long dam wall. It is very peaceful to walk along the shore but more difficult to swim where we were. With a lake and mountains around, it is obvious that I can only find this landscape peaceful, but still not enough to overtake my beloved Riviera.
We took the post bus back to Einsiedeln, where we finally had about 30 minutes before the guided tour. We enjoyed a coffee at the Tulipan Bistrot and headed to the Tourist Office in Hauptstrasse for the start of the long-awaited guided tour, the purpose of our visit to Einsiedeln that day.
Einsiedeln Abbey, a thousand-year-old heritage
If you would like to see Abbey’s magnificent library and learn more about this spiritual place, you should take part in the official guided tour, organised by the Tourist Office. For a fee of CHF 20, you can learn more about Einsiedeln every day at 2 p.m., except Sundays.
It goes without saying that the tour is only conducted in German. English would be welcome, but this is not yet the case. I was a little confused when the guide began her rapid gibberish in Swiss German. At the sight of my probably puzzled expression, I guess, she asked if Swiss German was ok for everyone. My friend asked her to explain the information in German, and off we went for 75 minutes of touring, in proper German. Phew, the first miracle of the day!
All this, so that in the end, I only understood 75% of what the guide was saying, and that was when I was listening carefully, because naturally, in the library, marvelling at every corner, it would be more difficult for me to concentrate. So I am not going to tell you everything about Einsiedeln Abbey, but I want to make you want to go there and take part in the tour. Much of the information is supplemented by online research.
First of all, why is this place particularly well known as the most famous place of pilgrimage in Switzerland? The first reason is that it is located on one of the Ways of St. James. These are routes that start in several European countries before joining the official route to Santiago de Compostela. In Switzerland, the Way of St. James is known as the Jakobsweg and Via Jacobi.
From the early Middle Ages onwards, pilgrims from northern and eastern Europe entered Switzerland via Lake Constance and travelled through the country to Geneva. On their way through the countryside, pilgrims passed three traditional places of pilgrimage, Einsiedeln Abbey, the Ranft Flüeli (Obwalden) and the St. Beatus Caves (Bern).
They also passed through historic towns and villages such as St. Gallen, Lucerne, Schwyz, Interlaken, Thun, Fribourg and Lausanne. Today, the original paths have been restored and the Via Jacobi is an integral part of the European Way of St. James.
We arrived at the Kloster square where a magnificent fountain, the Marienbrunnen, also called Frauenbrunnen, with a golden Madonna in its centre, beckons visitors to the Abbey. The floor is made of gravel, but this is temporary, according to the guide, as there has been a conflict between the monastery and the municipality for about two years, as they have not been able to agree on what the floor should look like. A miracle has not yet occurred in this respect.
Naively, one of the group asked if the water gushing from the fountain was blessed (we’d all take a cup if it was), but it turns out, unsurprisingly, that the water comes from a nearby spring in the mountains.
The monastery of Einsiedeln has a history of over 1000 years. From the modest hermitage of Meinrad from 835 to the baroque monastery church of today, the monastery has experienced many periods of prosperity, but also crises. It is one of the few monasteries in Switzerland to have survived the Reformation, Helvetism and social changes. The main reason for this was Einsiedeln’s importance as a place of pilgrimage. Even when pilgrimage was frowned upon or even forbidden, believers were drawn to the Chapel of Grace. Since the XIIth century, there has been a statue of Mary with the baby Jesus, called the “Image of Grace”. By facing the image, people hoped for healing or salvation. So far, nothing crazy, rather usual for believers, but why then does this monastery, of all places, have such an attraction?
I’ll leave you with a little suspense, as the rest of the visit doesn’t explain this attractiveness right away. Indeed, following the explanations outside the monastery, we began the visit by entering the Gymnasium. In the north wing of the monastery, which was built in a square shape from 1703 onwards according to the plans of Caspar Moosbrugger, there is a school where young people study up to the baccalaureate. Originally intended for monks’ apprenticeships, it is now a private secondary school, which also offers boarding during the week and is recognised by the Canton of Schwyz and the Federal Government. Since 1977, girls have also been admitted. It is also in this north wing that my grail is located, the library.
Under the somewhat cautious gaze of the monk in charge of the library, the strictest in the monastery according to the guide, she tells us a little more about their life in Einsiedeln. Today, the monastic community in Einsiedeln is made up of about 50 monks aged between 25 and 90. They are active in school, pilgrimage and parish pastoral work and perform many tasks within the monastery. This monastic community lives according to the Rule of St. Benedict (no idea what that means) and has existed without interruption since the year 934.
The community knows that it is called to serve God and the people in this place and to honour the Virgin Mary. And this is where Einsiedeln’s great attraction for pilgrims comes in: the Virgin Mary, but especially her appearance. Indeed, she is black.
The Chapel of Grace with the Black Madonna is the focal point of the pilgrimage town of Einsiedeln. It is located at the place where St. Meinrad lived and was killed in 861. It is therefore rather unusual to see a black statue of a saint, and that is what makes it so important! The black Madonna with the baby Jesus dates from the 15th century. The image of the Madonna was blackened over the centuries by candles and oil lamps so that it was eventually painted in black.
It is not permitted to take photographs inside the chapel. However, you can get a feel for the atmosphere on the internet or on the official website of the Abbey. But as for the tour, nur auf Deutsch. The interior is quite ornate, in contrast to the façade of the Abbey, but the white colour means that you don’t feel the oppression of information that can often occur in holy places, with statutes, paintings, candles, etc. Special mention for the pipe organs, scattered throughout the abbey church, which are magnificent. And the two brothers who did the decorations were a painter and a plaster sculptor. So I advise you to keep an eye out because sometimes painted elements may not actually be in 2D!
I have not mentioned the library, which will conclude this article. I still have to tell you about an activity to do when you come to Einsiedeln and included in the guided tour package. It is the DiaVision. A name that leaves one wondering and promises a technological or futuristic experience. In the end, nothing exceptional, since it is a film of images of about thirty minutes on the life and spirituality of the monks. I even fell asleep, tired from a day of wandering around. Or maybe it was the time for the digestive nap, or the German language… in any case no miracle on this side, but according to my fellow visitor, it was quite interesting to understand more about the life of the monks.
Cultural heritage: Abbey’s Library
As you may have read earlier in my article, the Benedictine Abbey is not only a place of spirituality, but also of education. The library, which is only accessible on guided tours, houses manuscripts and books dating back to the foundation of the monastery in 934. The cultural treasure trove also includes the monastery’s archives with documents on monastic life dating back to the 10th century, as well as the largest private music library in Switzerland. And I enjoy discovering these sacred temples of knowledge so much that the price of 20 CHF did not discourage me from taking this guided tour.
The Abbey library is considered to be the mirror of the intellectual life of the monastery, according to a former librarian of the monastery. It bears witness to tradition as well as to culture. These two terms are extremely important and are the ones that instantly come to mind when I enter such ancient places of knowledge as Einsiedeln. Apart from the religious aspect of monastery libraries, which is not the purpose of my visit, but which is also absolutely essential to understand and discover through all these writings; to think that generations of people, over the centuries, have collected, written, or translated all these books, makes me realize how essential tradition and culture are for understanding the world. And to think that I am the witness, in the 21st century, of all these cultural goods of the past.
Recently restored, it is thanks to the small leaflet, written in three of the national languages and in English that the next information will be brought out, having listened to absolutely nothing of our guide’s knowledge. Yes, I was so amazed that I wandered from shelf to shelf without listening.
The library currently contains 1,280 manuscripts, more than 1,100 incunabula and early printed books as well as about 230,000 other volumes from all fields of knowledge, but mainly historical, political and religious. They are not all on display in the grandiose baroque hall, but also in the cellar of the monastery.
Thus, most of the writings mentioned above can be found in the baroque hall known as the “Great Library”. This was built between 1710 and 1718. Clear, spacious, bright, there are many adjectives to describe it.
The entrance to the library is adorned by a pilaster, surmounted by the large coat of arms of the Abbey. There are transoms on each side which are made of stucco. The columns in the library are also made of this material, and not of marble, as some might think. The hall is divided into two naves and consists of basket-handle vaults, supported by the three stucco Ionic columns. The library is composed of two floors, the upper of which is not accessible to the public. It is surrounded by a gallery, the narrow sides of which each rest on four columns. In addition, medallions containing portraits of popes and emperors, also made of stucco on an ochre background, can be admired in the window openings.
The Regency style is not to be overlooked, especially in the ceiling, which was enriched with light, slender ornaments in natural-coloured stucco on a pale pink background, as was the case with the grille that borders the gallery and gives an elegant charm to the already sumptuous room.
What ultimately gives me that little extra aesthetic edge is the intense blue of the shelves and door frames. This colour dresses up the room and gives it all its charm by harmonizing with the pale pink of the ceiling and the grey of the columns.
Frankly, the architecture and the richness of the content leave me speechless. Even if it still cannot compete with the magnificent library of the Abbey of St. Gallen, which is the most beautiful I have visited in Switzerland.
Einsiedeln Abbey has been cultivating hospitality for more than 1,000 years and welcomes the many pilgrims on the Way of St. James, people interested in culture and travellers who stop off at Switzerland’s most important pilgrimage site. A place associated with a specific practice, in this case religious, but which in the end can satisfy many stakeholders. A place as I like them, eclectic.
And if you’re in the Schwyz region, head to one of its neighbouring cantons, Glarus, where an amazing and notably daring walk awaits you.