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Mont Sainte-Odile, Alsace

Monastery on top of Mont Saint-Odile in Alace, surrounded by forest

My friend Frank and I were traveling south through eastern France in a rented Renault, having recently visited Strasbourg. It was late July. We were on our way to Cannes where we were enrolled in four-week French language courses set to begin within the week: I as a beginner and he as an intermediate speaker of the language.

This was my second major visit outside of Paris and I wanted to experience the ambiance of the small towns and the unique places that most people would never see as they speed along the auto routes on their way to the Riviera. Frank was a veteran of several trips to France, driven by a travel lust that his wife usually approved of, giving her more time at home for her family and friends.


Hot air balloons over Obernai, Alsace

We started our journey early in the morning. Outside, the dark was slowly lifting; patches of dissipating fog were visible as thin tendrils over the open grape arbors. This was the Alsace region, known for its superb wines, from unique French to German varieties, Pinot Noir to Reisling. Ahead, rose mountain peaks through the mist.

Ahead, ten minutes later, we saw the sign for Obernai, one of those prototypical town in the Alsace Region. Lying at the north end of the Route des Vin, a 100-mile-long road through one of the premier wine regions in the world, the town maintained an authentic regional flavor. The residents chiefly spoke Alsatian, with most of them wearing traditional costumes at major festivals. It was also the birthplace of Odile, the patron saint of Alsace. Her bones were interred in the Chappelle Sainte-Odile, on Mont Sainte-Odile, ahead and high above us…our immediate destination.

Minutes later, we exited onto a narrow two-lane highway rising upward into a dense forest, peopled with few alpine homes and even fewer cars. The fog was lifting as we ascended through the conifers and deciduous trees towering above the road, creating an artificial alley through what nature had taken centuries to design. We were the intruders in this natural richness, and I was quickly aware of our insignificance. The size of the trees could humble the arrogance of anyone.

The Monastery of Sainte-Odile

We drove higher, into thin air, the Renault easily able to handle the increased demands of slowing around twisting turns and beneath heavy rock overhangs. An occasional ray of light burst through the mist, only to be lost in another swirl of fog. At last, the car made one final turn and reached the top.

With the lifting of the fog, we saw the pink sandstone of the Hohenburg Abbey popularly known as the Monastery of Sainte-Odile rise before us. As one anonymous writer wrote, “It rides the land like a vessel bound for heaven.” In some ways it was that: a monument to the patron saint of the region.

The place inspired many poets and writers, including the German, Goethe, and the Frenchman, Anatole France, as well as countless others. Its isolation and simplicity that could easily make a person to forget about their material needs and center on those of a more spiritual and universal value. There was a timeless that defined both the place and the region, and was, in turn, defined by them. But more than that, there was an encompassing sense of love and caring for others, a spirituality that welcomed us.

Then, the fog was gone, and a warm sun spread over the sandstone buildings, highlighting each.

Monastery Church

“This is breathtaking,” I said, exiting the Renault. I stood with the door open, looking at the religious complex a hundred feet away. To each side, I could see part of the Vosges Mountains that flowed endlessly behind the structures.

A semi-circular vault served as the entrance; through it was The Great Courtyard, an open space with benches and quiet areas for contemplation and introspection, shaded by centuries-old lime trees. The Monastery Church, restored in the seventeenth century, rose to one side, with the square tower, added in the early twentieth century, clearly visible.

Inside the 17th century Baroque Monastery Church the interior was comfortably cool in the rising heat of the day. Stained glass window detailed the extraordinary life of Sainte Odile.

A miraculous tale

Frank shared the story of the girl born blind, accompanied by other physical issues. Her father, Aldaric, Duke of Alsace, ordered her killed because of her defects, but was given by her mother to a nurse who hid her in a convent. Twelve years later, the girl was baptized and miraculously regained her sight. Named Odile meaning “girl of the light,” she returned home with her brother, who was killed by their father after they explained how they deceived him. Alaric forgave Odile and tried to marry her off to a prince, but she escaped and hid in the mountains. As Aldaric was about to uncover her location, the mountain opened, revealing Odile. Alaric was so overwhelmed by this miracle that he gave her the Castle of Hohenbourg which she converted into a monastery. After her death in 720, Odile was sanctified, then became the Patron Sainte of Alsace and the blind. The monastery had become a major tourist attraction and site of religious pilgrimages.

Next came the Cloisters and walkways leading to interior chapels. From the inner courtyard, you enter through a solid wood door darkened by time; it opened onto the closed cloister, surrounding three sides of the Great Courtyard. We moved into the Chappelle of Sainte-Odile, named because her remains were interred there, in the eighth century; the gravestone and the associated funerary monument dated to the eighteenth century. Through a wrought iron gate, we saw the dark gray sarcophagus containing the remains of the Sainte. That was the most sacred site for Alsace: the final resting place of their patron saint. Silence prevailed, save for a warm, gentle breeze that wafted through the Chappell.

Beyond the tomb of Sainte-Odile lay the great terrace opening onto the view of the surrounding dark carpet of low mountains and sun-dried farms in a valley below. We paused there for shots of the spectacular vistas, showing the isolation of Mont-Sainte-Odile in the greater world, set against an intense cloudless sky. We were also able to glimpse fields and villages, the Rhine River with the Black Forest, sections of vineyards, and the rough surfaces of the Vosges massif.

There were also two small chapels on the terrace: The Chapel of Tears where Odile begged God to save her father from Hell and the Chapel of the Angels, both built in the eleventh Century. Each contained twentieth century mosaics related to Odile. Overall lay a remarkable sense of the faith that both influenced the life of Sainte Odile and that she shared with others.

The Pagan Wall

Below was the impressive Pagan Wall encircling Mont Sainte Odile: more than six miles long, ten feet high and three feet wide.  While its history was unclear, some locals dated it as more than three-thousand-years-old and built by Druids. More realistically, recent research suggested it went back to the seventh century, CE.

Frank talked about the inspirations that Goethe, the author of Faust, and Anatole France – and others – must have felt when they visited Mont Sainte-Odile…the inspirations they must have received from being alone there with their own thoughts.

Standing to one side, watching me try to absorb all before me, Frank said “Even though I’ve been here before, I still see and feel something new and timeless.”

We silently left Mont Sainte Odile on our way to Colmar, where we would take the autoroute south. The sun shone on the monastery, a wondrous scene for pilgrims and tourists.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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