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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40: Saint-Ursanne in Pictures + Cafes

Swiss shutters are always picturesque.

Saint-Ursanne is a lovely place to visit if no reason other than that they are kind enough to print their tourism brochures in English, as well as the usual German, French and Italian. It is refreshing to look on an historical monument and not have to make up stories about it from our rough interpretations of non-anglicized leaflets.

One of Saint-Ursanne’s town gates.

Saint-Ursanne has preserved its medievalness by holding on to a non-franchise business model – this means, there is not a McDonalds in sight. The downside of a no-franchise model is that it immediately ups the cost of visiting here. Lunch for $40 a person, anyone? The upside is that the town retains its lovely charm. The lack of neon billboards is very likely the reason the place has such a serene ambiance.

There is, however, one food-related franchise allowed in – a Swiss franchise grocery store called Coop (pronounced koh-op), that sells lovely sandwiches for under seven francs, although it is closed on Sunday. A little convenience store opens on ‘Spanish business hours’ (closes for a two-hour lunch break), where tourists can bump up their blood sugar levels with chocolate and ice cream bars. For the more cultured, a wine and cheese shop is also open on Sunday.

Best to pack a lunch.  We long ago tired of funneling endless dollars into the Swiss restaurant industry, delightful as the restaurants are here, but still enjoy Swiss dining ambiance by whiling away some time over coffee and ice cream at street cafes. This town has a particularly charming outdoor cafe with the restaurant on one side of the street and the tables on the other, shaded by a large white awning tethered to twin rows of trees. The service was good, although the servers refuse to speak any English, and prattled on at us in French and German. We didn’t mind. When it comes to ordering coffee and ice cream, we are fluent in many languages.

A lovely shaded street-side cafe by the rue de quartier sits at the far end of this church grove. It is one of the best shaded eating spots in town.