Heiligkreuz: Scenic Hike, Pilgrimage Chapel, and Warm Hospitality

Yesterday, my daughter Hallie and I took the local bus up the valley to start a short hike from Binn out to Heiligkreuz, the site of a popular pilgrimage chapel, and home to a cozy Gasthaus I’d long wanted to visit. Starting out, our path out from the Binn bridge rose slowly upwards from the river, passing to the left of the elevated village church and two humble grey donkeys that were grazing beneath it.

The Wanderweg was well enough signed that a map was almost superfluous, largely because the local tourist board of the Landschaftspark Binntal does such a fine job of distributing information and tips for visitors. From a marketing, presentation, and information-dissemination standpoint, their breadth of offer and publications are absolutely first-rate.

Our way to Heiligkreuz wound across a field and through a cool wood, which – bliss! − even included a small find of wild strawberries. After about an hour, we reached the little hamlet of Heiligkreuz at the back of the pretty Leng Valley. The Chapel of the Holy Cross − built in 1678 and completely restored in 1976/77 – sits in a broad curve of the hillside, and is only partially visible as you come up the road. But a huge white cross is seen from a distance, and beneath it, the building slowly reveals itself, adding to the drama and anticipation of the approach.

Once inside, the walls are uniformly painted and only modestly decorated, the focus being on the Baroque gold-painted high altar as well as the two side altars. All three were made locally by Goms Valley craftsmen. The eight votive paintings in the choir were given in gratitude for the answers pilgrims had had to their prayers. A full house of votive objects − alluding to healed arms and legs − stands on a tree-like stand off one side of the nave, a “constellation” that is almost Shaker-like in its simplicity. At one time, we learned an iron neck ring that Turkish captors had forced upon their prisoner − a Crusader − hung nearby to commemorate his miraculous escape, but the ring was stolen in 1918, and sadly, has never been recovered.

In 1741, however, the Capuchin Franciscans community in Ernen donated a small piece of wood to the chapel that was claimed to be from the Holy Cross. With that treasure, the chapel soon became an important pilgrimage destination. Counting close to some 3,000 visitors annually, it is the most frequently visited pilgrimage church in the Goms region today.

Overlooking the church, the nearby Gasthaus Heiligkreuz served us a wholesome lunch on its cool terrace: cream of leek soup, a hearty cheese from nearby Grengiols, and a fresh salad of local greens. One of the three owners, Gabriela Weger, also kindly offered to show us the accommodations for “future reference,” since there are four tidy rooms for overnight guests. Spotless and functional, each room looks out onto a lush alpine forest – always a good bet − and the rooms’ light blue cotton duvet covers are like a breath of fresh air. Further, the upstairs of the Gasthaus has a generous, light-filled space that functions − with its modern furniture and huge wooden table − as a meeting or conference room, an exhibition venue, a place to make music, or to simply relax.

After lunch, we took on the lower route back to Binn to catch a certain bus back to Ernen. Our woods walk morphed for a while into paved road, but then, had us winding our way through a picture-perfect Swiss wood to finish our circle. There, we had a virtual feast of wildflowers, and sitting on a wayside bench and looking back in the direction we had come, the great Vordere Helse (3106m) rose in the distance like a huge jewel in a noble’s crown.

Ernen, Wednesday, 19 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet

Gasthaus Heiligkreuz is open in 2017 through 22 October. Its restaurant welcomes hungry travellers from 10.00 to 18.00 daily, except in May, June, and October, when it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. For more information, also about overnight stays, click here.