Unusual pilgrimages in the mountains
Meeting for Mass on the summits of the Alps or in Provence is also walking in memory of devout mountain lovers and deserving magnificent scenery.
Lourdes, nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, has become a universal Catholic sanctuary, and is easy to reach, welcoming nearly 5 million visitors per year. On the Alpine slopes of the Dauphiné, Maurienne or Mercantour or in the peaks of Provence, some processions at high altitude are mainly for hardened, enthusiastic walkers, mostly paying homage to the Virgin Mary.
Our Lady of la Salette (Isère)
Between Gap and Grenoble (on the N 85, also called the Route Napoleon), the shrine of la Salette grew up 1787 metres above sea level to the south of the harsh massif of Oisans and the Ecrins. It guards the souvenir of the apparition of the Virgin (then called "the beautiful lady") to two shepherd children (Maximin and Melanie) in 1846. 19 September marks the anniversary but pilgrims are welcome in this well-organised destination all year round. A large congregation of missionary priests, Missionary Sisters and laypersons offer individual pastoral care and the calendar is full of religious celebrations. A pretty mountain road leads to the imposing edifice, built over many years, which includes several forms of accommodation. The surrounding mountain peaks are a perfect setting for meditation and processions.
Mass at the summit, in Haute-Maurienne (Savoie)
This long, deep valley to the south of the Vanoise mountains has a surprising number of religious buildings (particularly baroque churches and chapels) and also a series of very old popular pilgrimages, often on the border ridge and closely related to the neighbouring Italian parishes.
Pic de Rochemelon, in Bessans
The Mass on 5th August at the summit of Rochemelon, peaking at 3,338 metres, probably holds the record for altitude in France. The ascent if very demanding, involving 6 or 7 hours of early morning climbing, including crossing a glacier on the slope of the Ribon. At the top, the inhabitants of the delightful village of Bessans (1700 m) join the Italians from Novalese who have climbed up the other side. The chapel (which can also be used as a shelter) bears witness to the exploit and the faith of a nobleman, Rotario d’Asti, who climbed this summit on his return from the Crusades in 1358! If the weather is fine, the mass can assemble 250 valiant mountain dwellers.
The parish of Bessans celebrates another mass on the Tierce summit (2970 m), on or around 16 July.
Our Lady of Charmaix, in Modane - Val Fréjus
A procession for the festival of the birth of Our Lady (on the nearest Sunday to 8 September) unites over a thousand walkers and believers for 2 hours (over 500 metres of difficult terrain) from the church in Modane to the chapel in Charmaix (near the Valfréjus ski resort), which shelters a Black Virgin (a little ancient statuette in stained marble). Fifteen shrines border the route.
Mass on Mount Thabor
La Maurienne also has its Mount Thabor (3,178 m), which counts among the many summits given this name all over the world, like many other biblical references to the scene of Christ’s "transfiguration" before his apostles (revealing his role as Messiah) – on a hill in the province of Galilee. The Savoy mountain is topped by a chapel dedicated to Saint Bartholomew and holds a mass on 24 August, again requiring a considerable hike, and even a night in the refuge of the same name.
The Madonna of Fenestre (Alpes-Maritimes)
Tourist bureau: 0033 493 03 21 28
On 26 May a short procession from the church of Saint-Martin-of-Vésubie (a village of 1,000 inhabitants in the Boréon valley) brings a very old wooden statuette of Oriental origin (known as "the Madonna") to its high-up chapel of Our Lady of Fenestre (1900 metres). Located in the heart of the massif and the national park of Mercantour, this shrine is a reminder of an ancient hospice, probably founded by monks in the 12th century, which welcomes the brave tourists who crossed the Mediterranean Alps already at the time by the high passes (known as "fenestres"). The Virgin spends the summer in the shrine, whose key is guarded by the keeper of the CAF refuge (club alpin français): the countryside attracts hikers who enjoy walking in the area. A procession on foot brings the statuette back to the village on 16 September.
Our Lady of Graces, in Utelle (Vésubie Valley)
Utelle town hall: 0033 493 03 17 01
Situated at an altitude of 1200 metres, just up from the village of Utelle, the chapel was founded in about 880 and rebuilt in 1806. The surrounding slopes are littered with small marine fossils known "stars" in the region, in connection with the legend of the place. Our Lady of Graces is said to have lit up the mountain overlooking the Bay of Angles (Nice) thus saving Spanish sailors from a storm. Today only an hour’s drive from the Riviera (via N202), Utelle celebrates the Virgin Mary on Assumption Day (15th August), her birthday (8 September) and the Immaculate Conception (8 December).
Pilgrimages on the symbolic mountains of Provence
Sainte-Victoire, in Aix-en-Provence (altitude 1000 metres)
An association of the Friends of Sainte-Victoire is reintroducing a pilgrimage at the end of April, called "Roumavaggi" at the peak of the famous mountain painted by Cézanne dominating the country around Aix. This ancestral pilgrimage left from much further away than Aix-en-Provence, five centuries ago, and gathered huge crowds. Nowadays, the walk leaves from Vauvenargues and involves a steep 2-hour ascent to reach an incredibly beautiful gap in the ridgeline. There, under a large cross that can be seen from a long way off, nestles a discreet priory.
Sainte-Baume, in Saint-Maximin (1100 metres)
Site of the town of Saint-Maximin (royal basilica, etc.)
The mountain of Sainte-Baume stretches a long way, inland from the Provence coast, with a beautiful cliff on the north side, where there is a cave (“baume” in the provençal dialect) revered since the 13th century (with the construction of a basilica in Saint-Maximin, a nearby town). According to tradition, Mary-Magdalene, a sinner at the foot of the Cross, is said to have landed in Marseille or at Saintes-Maries de la Mer, and then helped to evangelise the region. She supposedly lived for several years in this cave, visited by all the great Kings of France. A pleasant track leads easily to the shrine (half an hour’s walk) through a beautiful beech forest. An inn managed by the Dominicans welcomes pilgrims and hikers at the foot of the cliff. Mary-Magdalene is celebrated on 22 July.