Alsace is one of those funny places which sits on the border between two different countries and therefore has character traits of both. Place names could happily belong to either state: Schirmeck (the first German name I came across perhaps?), Obernai (definitely German sounding but could still plausibly be French), Bischoffsheim (100% German). You will also find such classics as Boofzheim, Gertwiller and Goxwiller.
The reason I decided to come this way to Germany rather than taking a more direct route was twofold: 1/ It meant that I got a little practice in the mountains and could enjoy the views but moreover 2/ it meant that I could visit Mont Sainte Odile. In case you haven’t yet read it, check out my about page which details some of things I want to check out on this trip. I came across this story a few months back and was instantly spellbound. *Read that link before continuing*. So after the previous night’s weirdness I set off in light rain and started the ascent to the peak of the Vosges mountains. It was a long eerie climb in overcast and occasional misty conditions. I cycled past various war memorials and the Natzweiler-Struthof Nazi concentration camp – the only concentration camp built on French territory.
When I arrived there were hoards of school kids walking around with dull expressions on their faces carrying out questionnaires. I went straight to the reception and enquired about the secret passageway. I expected there to be some form of package tour: ‘Ah oui Monsieur, le Harry Potter tour? Ca sera 10€ s’il vous plait!’ No such joy. The receptionist produced a map and informed me that one could walk freely around the abbey, but only on the ground floor. I asked her where the Chamber of Secrets library could be found and after consulting a colleague she circled an area on the first floor, not the ground floor. Balls. ‘Merci Madame’. Let the search commence…
I did a small tour of the outskirts of the abbey: ‘Hmmm yes that wall’s jumpable, that drainpipe’s scalable. Hmmm yeah you could definitely hide behind there….’ I made my way indoors and to the area on the ground floor directly underneath the library and found a heavy iron door. This has gotta be it. Yes this has to be the reinforced steel door leading to the library.
I casually tried opening it but, of course, it was locked. I groped around in the darkness for the keys but, of course, there were none. Zut alors! What to do? I started looking for someone who worked in the abbey, hoping that they would understand my plight, pity me and thence show me the goods. I wound up in the restaurant area where I asked a waitress about the passageway. ‘Ah yes this interests me very much too. I just read a book about it and I too am intrigued and would love to see it. I have tried talking to my other colleagues about it but no one seems interested’. The plot thickens. ‘Do you fancy going to look for it with me?’, I propose. ‘I would but you see I am the only one on shift at the moment’. ‘Oui je vois. C’est dommage’ I weep. I tell her a little bit about what I’m up to cycling across Europe etc etc ‘Attendez-la j’ai une idée’. ’D’accord’… I sit patiently with my fingers crossed, praying for a solution. She returns with a look of contained excitement about her: ‘Monsieur, you really are in luck. The priest has agreed to show you the chamber, but you must first wait 45 minutes for him to finish the afternoon mass.’ ‘Oui oui il y a pas de soucis. C’est genial!’ What’s another 45 minutes when it’s taken you a week to cycle somewhere?
She showed me the exit where I could catch the priest after he was finished. The door was open and I clocked a quick glance of him. Another priest saw us pointing and talking and came out to see what was happening. The waitress told me to explain my story to him and left me to it. The priest looked at me suspiciously and I unleashed the whole spiel about cycling to India and really hoping to see this secret passageway. We were walking outside back towards the reception area, when all of a sudden he stopped, smiled, then turned on his heel and said ‘Follow me. I have the key. I will show you the library’. Get in!!!!! So we walked back indoors and he motioned towards an old tapestry hanging on the wall ‘You know, this story about the man stealing the books isn’t the most interesting thing about this place’. He proceeded to give me a little history lesson about Saint Odile. I adopted a scholarly stride with both hands clasped behind my back, nodding and back-channeling as required, all the while thinking ‘Look mate, cut the Catholic missionary mumbo jumbo. Show me the Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets!!’ So we got in a lift and made our way up to the forbidden first floor. We walked down a corridor and through the best part of half a dozen heavy doors for which he had the master key. Sure enough we walked past the door which led down to the steps where I was looking for the key earlier. I knew it. Just beyond this was the library. He unlocked the door and La Voila there it was. Volumes of ancient and precious books filled the shelves. Light shone through stained glass windows and bounced off golden book bindings and picture frames. The room had a mystical feel to it. The feel of century old manuscripts painstakingly copied and reproduced by devout Catholic monks, long before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. I felt honored to have been granted special permission to see the library. I asked to see the mechanism which revealed the secret passageway and he pointed to a wall behind a shelf but affirmed that passageway had now been filled in. I tapped the wooden board and could hear that behind it was an empty space. I could hear the afternoon service taking place below. I took a photo and thanked the priest oodles for letting me see this special place.
I went back downstairs to report back to the waitress and she introduced me to another chap: the manager of the hotel/restaurant. Whoever said business and religion weren’t made for each other? We had a good chat and it turned out the bit the priest showed wasn’t the secret passageway after all. The sly dogg! The passageway was in fact behind a different row of books and there was still a way of seeing it. Naturally I asked if this was possible but he said not now, email me and I’ll arrange a viewing. After the initial rejection by the receptionist, I felt satisfied with what I had seen that day and told him I would be back in 5 -10 years. This should give me plenty of time to find the secret map in the Strasbourg library and complete the circle of this fascinating tale. I shook hands with the manager and stepped back into the courtyard to the sound of the abbey bells. The sun had finally broken through and the Black Mountains in Germany had emerged on the horizon. Revived by all the excitement and by the warmth of the sun, I jumped back on my bike and blitzed it down the mountain roads towards the Franco-German border, ragging it round the newly dried hairpin bends averaging 30mph …DEUTSCHLAND HIER KOMME ICH!!!!!!