By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
John Waelti: A return visit to ancestral lands in Switzerland
Placeholder Image
As the power is cut, the jet engines of the big white bird purr softly as we drift gently down through the clouds. The white cross on the red field, clearly visible on the wing tips, reminds us of our destination as we approach the Zurich landing field.

It's mid-morning as we eagerly anticipate visiting Switzerland. That conflicts with our bodies telling us it's time to sleep. The breakfast snack helped, but is not enough to compensate for the 7-hour time difference between Chicago and Zurich. Flying all night makes for a very short "all night" when flying east.

For most people, jet lag heading west to east is far worse than from east to west. East to west makes for a long day. But that's much easier than missing a night's sleep from west to east. Our trip leaders have devised plans to minimize the effects of jetlag.

This is a trip that is part of Turner Hall's Swiss Heritage Series, planned, organized, and led by Debra Krauss Smith and Greg Smith, and Hans and Bobbie Bernet. We would stay awake with planned activities that first day, increasing the likelihood that we would sleep that first night, even as our bodies would tell us it is our normal wake time.

As the Swiss airliner descends, the landing is gentle, perfectly smooth. What else would you expect? This is Switzerland, where all modes of transportation run smoothly - it's the norm. As we pick up our luggage and head for our bus, we come alive with the walking and the cool, misty air. We greet Urs, our super competent, friendly driver who wins driving competitions. On the mountainous roads with hairpin curves that we will travel during the next 10 days, we will appreciate high competence at the wheel.

As we head south of Zurich, toward Einsiedeln, it's cloudy and drizzly. In Switzerland, it doesn't matter whether it's rainy or sunny, as the wooded hillsides alternating with lush, green plots of grass with grazing cows, and picturesque chalets, make for picture postcard scenes whichever way you turn. Each curve of the road brings forth another scene at least as picturesque as the last. It has to be seen to be believed.

We reach Einsiedeln, a town of some 15,000, in Canton Schwyz, the canton after which Switzerland is named. One of our group, Maria Osborn-Zehnder, born in nearby Canton Uri, lived in Einsiedeln during her school days. She now resides in Delavan, Wisconsin. In German, einsiedler means "hermit." The town is appropriately named. The Abbey of Einsiedeln derives its name from the "place of the hermits."

Year 835 AD - a young nobleman, Meinrad, who had been a monk in the monastery of Reichenau, leaves the monastery to live a hermit's life in the woods of what is now northeast Switzerland. He brings with him a statue of the Virgin Mary. For 26 years he lives alone in the woods, becoming known locally for his kindness and holiness. In 861, he is murdered by two thieves for the treasure of his hermitage. According to legend, the murderers were apprehended after two ravens followed them into town, drawing attention to them with loud squawking. The present flag of Einsiedeln displays two ravens as insignia.

In 940, a group of Benedictine monks transform Meinrad's hermitage into the Lady Chapel. The chapel is said to have been consecrated by Christ himself in 948, as the bishop had a vision in which a brilliant light as Christ approached the altar. The miracle was confirmed by Pope Leo VIII 16 years later.

After Meinrad's death the Madonna brought by him was placed in the chapel. Many miracles were attributed to "Our Lady of Einsiedeln," and pilgrimages to Einsiedeln began shortly after 1000 AD.

The history of the abbey is complex, but has been famous for more than 10 centuries for the saints and scholars who have lived and studied within its walls. The study of letters, printing, and music has flourished there and the abbey has contributed significantly to the Benedictine Order. Swiss reformist Zwingli was at Einsiedeln for awhile during the 16th Century reformation, protesting against the pilgrimages. But the controversy subsided.

The pilgrimages have continued, making Einsiedeln the rival of even Rome in this respect. They come from all parts of Catholic Europe and beyond.

The physical church has been rebuilt many times, a monumental effort between the years 1704 and 1719. The last big renovation ended after more than 20 years in 1997. The library contains nearly 250,000 volumes and many priceless manuscripts.

The present abbey church is a majestic baroque edifice with elaborately decorated pastel ceilings, marble altars and a high altar at one end. The interior is a baroque feast for the eyes, in gleaming white with elaborate gold and pastel decoration.

The most important part is the Lady Chapel, a free-standing square marble edifice. Above the altar is the "Black Madonna," explained by years of candle smoke, resplendent in rich robes and surrounded by gold clouds. The Benedictine monastery that stretches to either side of the basilica is still thriving and is known for its tradition of sacred music.

The abbey contains a school for the seventh through twelfth grades that has existed from 1848.

Our tour group is among the 200,000 annual visitors, awestruck by the majesty of the abbey of Einsiedeln and its long and complex history. After a guided tour, it is still drizzly outside as we wander around the grounds and through the streets of town.

It's still awhile till hotel and dinner. I use my ATM to get some Swiss francs, wander into a small shop, and find Sharon and Steve Streiff, the latter eating a brat. What else - this is Switzerland.

I do the same before we get back on the bus to Lucerne.

Next week: Lucerne and Mt. Pilatus.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.