In the footsteps of King Charlemagne: discovering medieval Saint-Ursanne
Following the Via Charlemagne cultural route we arrive in Saint-Ursanne.
Considered as the father of Europe, Charlemagne was crowned Western Emperor in 800 A.D., reunifying Western Europe. Iconic figure of tales, the figure of Charlemagne is surrounded by legends and stories.
As an iconic figure of many tales, the legends about Charlemagne expanded throughout the European continent, from Iceland to Sicily and from Portugal to Latvia and to the Balkans. The epic poems narrate heroic deeds of his adventures and ancient times, reviving the Carolingian history: the most famous ones are the chanson de Roland and the chanson de Renaud de Montauban.
Now you can discover the heritage sites of Charlemagne thanks to the cultural route Via Charlemagne, offering you a unique opportunity to look for common cultural roots, following the footsteps of the father of Europe.
After inspecting the coasts of Normandy to study fortifications in the face of the Vikings’ attempts to make landings, Charlemagne set out for Rome in the year 800 A.D. On his way to Rome, after crossing the Rhineland and then Alsace, Charlemagne came to Switzerland, passing close to Saint-Ursanne to continue to Italy. A statue of Roland – Charlemagne’s right hand can still be spotted on Saint-Ursanne cathedral.
Situated on the river Doubs, at the foot of a rocky ridge with the ruins of a castle, Saint-Ursanne retains an amazing medieval character. Its historic city centre is renowned with the collegiate church and its cloister dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.
For centuries the city was confined to its historic centre, having started expansion only in the beginning of the 20th century. According to the legend, Saint-Ursanne was founded by the Irish monk Ursicinus, who lived there as a hermit on this isolated spot. In 2020, Saint-Ursanne celebrates the 1400 years of the death of its founder.
The name of Saint-Ursanne, in Latin Ursicinus, is not very Irish, is it? In fact, the monk was later renamed Ursanne, which means “little bear”. Legends say that one day a bear attacked the donkey that accompanied the hermit to help him in his daily tasks to collect wood and to carry water. Ursanne then asked the bear to replace the dead donkey. Therefore, the saint is often represented with a bear, the animal is also the main element of the city’s coat of arms.
The three gates are still the only access to the city today. In one of them, the Saint-Pierre gate, you can enjoy the Berbatte Clock from the early 18th century.
Walking around the old part of Saint-Ursanne makes you feel you’ve stepped back into the Middle Ages with ancient old buildings, cobbled streets and crenelated walls running up the steep hillside behind the town to a partly ruined watchtower.
The Saint-Ursanne collegiate church and its cloister are highlights of your visit to the town.
Constructed at the end of the 12th century the church demonstrates the transition from the late Romanesque to the Gothic style. The choir, apse and crypt were completed before 1210. The crypt contained a precious sarcophagus with the remains of Saint-Ursanne until 1323, which were later placed under the high altar.
Go around the church to admire its South Portal, richly decorated with bas-relief of ribbons, plans and flowers. You will see the seated Christ on a throne and Saint-Ursanne to his left. Pay attention to the columns – you will spot monsters, mermaids and an amusing scene of a wolf going to school – a reminder of a medieval sense of humour (!). Don’t miss a little figure holding a horn – he is at the top of the church under the bells. That is legendary Roland calling for his master.
Roland was a popular and iconic figure in medieval Europe and its minstrel culture. Many tales made him a nephew of Charlemagne, turning his life into a tale of a noble knight killed by hostile forces.
The tale of Roland’s death is retold in the 11th-century poem “The Song of Roland”, where he is equipped with the olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword. Have you spotted him on the top of the cathedral yet?
He is here to show the Saint James’ pilgrims the right way to Santiago de Compostela, as Roland has been a key figure in mobilizing pilgrims since the Middle Ages. We often see his statue on walking paths in Spain and France. What is he doing here? Large shells on the Saint-Ursanne city gates tells us that we are on an old way to Santiago de Compostela!
An absolute must of the visit is the church garden, inspired by medieval times. More than 70 types of plants are cultivated here, reconstructing the medicinal church garden from the 16th century. The plans were used by the monks to prepare medicine and were used in cooking.
After the visit to the church and its surroundings, it’s high time to climb uphill. Here you can enjoy the panoramic view of the city and visit the hermitage of Saint-Ursanne. Located on the heights of the city, in the rocks, the grotto is accessible with a steep staircase of 190 steps. Don’t forget your comfortable shoes for this adventure! Behind the grotto, come see the chapel in the post-Gothic style, rebuilt in 1621.
After these discoveries grab a well-deserved lunch in one of the restaurants in the city centre. Let’s go to La Couronne which lies right at the top entrance to the old town.
Don’t miss to order fresh trout fished from the near-by river Doubs or some hunted meat during the season. The restaurant is a regular spot for locals, coming here to play cards and have a drink – don’t be shy, come over and speak to them, they have many stories to share!
#AlpineMacroRegion #ViaCharlemagne #CulturalRoutes #SaintUrsanne #VisitSwitzerland
You may also like
Castles, churches and cheese: 5 cultural routes to discover across Switzerland
Numerous cultural routes criss-cross Switzerland, tracing ancient roads and connecting historical sights. Here, we’ve picked five contrasting itineraries, each showing a different side to the country and offering an unusual vista into its past.
Spa secrets: six unexpected spots to relax on the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns
The European Route of Historic Thermal Towns has been helping travellers find healing holidays since 2010. Start exploring six little-known stops.