Saint Jean de Maurienne fittingly welcomes the 8th stage of the 2010 Tour de France. This alpine town of around 9,000 inhabitants sits at the crossroads of some of cycling’s most mythic mountain passes. Cyclists can reach the passes of Galibier (2,642 m), the Telegraph (1,566 m), the Madeleine (1,993 m), the Glandon (1,924), the Iron Cross (2,068 m), and the Iséran (2,770 m) by departing from Saint Jean de Maurienne. The ride may be grueling, but it can be done.
Millions of years ago, glaciers carved out the valley that Saint Jean de Maurienne now occupies. Today, it offers an easy way for visitors to get to Italy. In the 9th century, the bishop of Turin held religious control over what was then just a village named Maurienne.
In a succession of events, Gontran, the king of Burgundy conquered the region. Then, the woman who would change the town’s history by bringing highly holy relics back from Alexandria, Egypt. This divine gift was nothing less than three fingers of Saint John, from the hand that supposedly baptized Jesus Christ. To properly honor such a relic, Gontran gave the town its own bishopry, freeing it from Turin’s sphere of influence. The town also took the name of Saint Jean de Maurienne, Jean being the French equivalent of John.
Today, the town’s coat of arms still features the image of a blessing hand, with the thumb, index, and middle finger extended. Saint Jean de Maurienne’s most famous product, the Opinel knife even adopted the symbol as their own. Every authentic Opinel knife is stamped with the hand of Saint John, surmounted by a crown.
This crown has nothing to do with religion, however. It represents the House of Savoy, which reigned over the dukedom of Savoy until its annexation by France in 1870. 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of this important event.
Although the principal Opinel factory is today located in nearby Chambéry, a small, but touching museum dedicated to Opinel knives reminds visitors that Saint Jean de Maurienne is Opinel’s original home. It retraces the history and evolution of this relatively inexpensive knife that today is exported around the world. For better or worse, you can even purchase Opinel knives on Amazon.com.
For more information about visiting Saint Jean de Maurienne, check out the tourism board’s website.
You may also enjoy visiting Morzine-Avoriaz, a traditional ski resort that was the departure city for the 9th stage of the 2010 Tour de France.
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