39: Saint-Ursanne: Founded by Rogueish Irish Monks

Saint Ursanne’s town core appears to have been a fortress that steps up into the Jura cliffs.

Saint-Ursanne is reportedly home to the sarcophagus of St. Ursicinus, a 7th-Century Irish monk exiled from France’s Burgundy region, although it is not clear if Ursicinus himself was exiled, or if he was merely following St. Columbanus who was most probably exiled, but may have just left the area due to continuing annoyances with the Frankish bishops.

Apparently, when the French called St. Columbanus to court to defend his observation of the Celtic dates for Easter, he simply failed to appear, but gave them the courtesy of a letter in which he reportedly said the bishops might include other important topics among their priorities besides the ancient Celtic religious calendar, all of which goes to show that Europeans have been rubbing each other the wrong way long before the Eurozone was introduced.

A replica of a statue of St John Nepomuk stands at the midway point of Saint-Ursanne’s Pont Saint-Jean Nepomucene. Built in 1973 by Laurent Boillat, it takes the weather-beatings, while the original statue carved from red sandstone hewn from Basel’s region is safe inside a nearby museum.

St. Columbanus is, by the way, the patron saint for motorcyclists, although how that happened I do not know because it would be 1,100 years after Columbanus’s death that motorcycles would be invented.

No matter. Intriguingly enough, Saint-Ursanne was packed with motorcycles the day we were there. I did not photograph any because motorcycles seem visually incongruous with 12th Century architecture. Not everyone will agree with me about this.

Despite this town’s close proximity to the French and German borders, there was no mention in  the brochure of how it weathered either World War, particularly WWII when the Swiss were readying to head for the hills in response to a threatened German invasion. There is an engraved marker in the cliff by the train station that lists WWI dates, so we might assume that Saint-Ursanne was among the Swiss observation points during that conflict.

Saint-Ursanne will be honoured this year (2012) by the Tour de France, which will pass through it around July 7th.

Tripadvisor only lists two inns in Saint-Ursanne. A Google search shows a little more than that. A nearby company rents kayaks and canoes for a paddle in the River Doubs.

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41: Saint-Ursanne

When people think of little Swiss villages, the picture floating about in their minds is probably very much like Saint-Ursanne, a tiny 12th Century village we tramped through this weekend. Saint-Ursanne’s warped clay-topped buildings back into the Jura Mountains white limestone cliffs, and overlook the River Doubs and beyond to picturesque grazing pastures.

The train passes above Saint-Ursanne, more than through it, and so the town is a charming 10-minute hike down the Jura cliffs over this cobblestone street. The walk back up is about 30 minutes. We did see a bus take passengers down, but not up. This would be in keeping with Swiss tradition, which is to climb inclines at every opportunity. I’m joking. I’m sure there is a bus ride up the hill, but not that we saw.

The atmosphere here is lazy, with an almost Spanish sensibility, although we were mindful that this is still the shoulder season in the tourist calendar, and the town’s proliferation of antique shops and cafes suggest the place is packed with travellers at the peak of the season.

It is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.

For those interested in church history, it is home to the Maison de la Dime, the area’s bishop-prince’s house where the church’s tithe was held. A tithe today is understood as one-tenth of  a person’s income that is given to God, or because God does not trouble himself with banking, what with owning all the real estate there is, and being able to make more should the need arise, the money is given to the church. Some churches today accept tithing through debit machines and I am sure automatic withdrawals can be arranged, but back in the 1500s, tithing was a somewhat messier business as it represented one-tenth of all livestock and crops. This necessitated the prince-bishop’s storehouse.

Non-church-goers back home in Canada/U.S.: Keep your goats, sheep and other livestock at home should you decide to visit a church. Most churches consider visitors akin to houseguests and do not ask for your tithe, be it in money, cheque, plastic or livestock.

Visiting an historic church in Europe: We’ve never been asked to pay admission, although a few churches keep out a donation box.