As I headed south past Lake Zurich’s “Gold Coast” with its impressive villas, it was hard to believe I was heading to a Catholic pilgrimage site. One doesn’t associate this part of Switzerland, where reformer Ulrich Zwingli lived, with “Catholic,” “pilgrimage” and “Benedictine.”

Yet, one of Europe’s oldest — and Switzerland’s most famous — Marian shrines is only 25 miles southeast of Zurich at the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln. The town itself is typically Swiss-picturesque (is there any other?), and its abbey, surrounded by meadows, is breathtaking. It was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and I was also looking forward to the town’s traditional Christmas Market.

The abbey’s history dates from 828, when St. Meinrad the Hermit came to live here in the area known as “The Dark Forest.”

Today, the existing town and abbey, whose two central towers are topped by lemon-shaped cupolas, draw more than a million visitors a year. The abbey’s 35 guest rooms can accommodate visitors overnight or weekly. The abbey also houses a boarding school, a classical college and a seminary.

Einsiedeln is home to 80 monks. Abbot Martin Werlen is also abbot to 28 nuns at the convent (founded in 1130) in nearby Fahr, where the sisters run an agricultural college.

The abbey was restored to its Baroque state in 1997 after 22 years of work. In the centuries before that, it has grown from a simple place of prayer to a more elaborate structure, rebuilt from devastating fires and even extreme vandalism by Napoleon’s soldiers. Today, its 446-foot sandstone façade is fronted by an exterior courtyard square said to be one of the largest in Europe. The colorful Christmas Market stalls, ablaze with Christmas lights, are erected in the square on either side of Our Lady’s Fountain, where a gold statue of Mary standing under a cupola bearing a gold crown welcomes visitors. The aroma of Swiss hot chocolate and cider, the sound of carols and the variety of goods in the stalls ensured that I had an enjoyable hour picking up Christmas presents, such as some unique yarn for knitting scarves and a delicate miniature crèche scene — all reasonably priced.

The abbey’s eastern side, with its long row of windows, looks toward shimmering blue Lake Sihl. In keeping with the Benedictine spirit of work and prayer, agriculture and handicrafts are mainstays of the monastery. Its stud farm stables have practiced horse-breeding since the 11th century. Einsiedler horses, formerly known as “horses of Our Lady” (from the earliest monks — knights and noblemen — who brought their horses with them) are famous. The abbey’s vast fields, some of which are let out to tenant farmers, produce rich crops. Eight foresters manage a thousand hectares of woodland. Another source of revenue is the abbey’s wine production. Its wine cellar contains 35,000 bottles, most from the abbey’s own vineyards.

Inside the abbey, three main features attract pilgrims. First is the Lady Chapel of the Black Madonna. The statue’s “skin” is black. The black discoloration was caused from smoke and the soot of candles and lamps that were burned in front of the statue.

Today, on either side of the abbey’s immense wooden doors, crutches, handicapped aids and notes of thanksgiving are testimonies of faith and miracles attributed to the Black Madonna.

The second major attraction is the monastery library, containing more than 1,230 manuscripts, of which 500 date from before 1500 A.D., plus 1,100 incunabula and first editions (until 1520), as well as almost a quarter of a million printed volumes from the 16th century to the present. This splendid area is decorated in rococo design. Its window shutters are particularly interesting, depicting all the past popes in cameo-like relief, starting with St. Peter.

The third major attraction is the abbey’s long-established musical tradition. Pilgrims throng afternoon vespers when the monks solemnly process to the Lady Chapel to sing the “Salve Regina” in four parts, a stirring musical devotion dating from 1547. The abbey’s Great Hall is also used for special musical performances.

The abbey grounds and the town itself have additional points of interest for both pilgrims and tourists. One is the Diorama Bethlehem, reputed to be the biggest Nativity display, with 450 hand-carved figures. Another is the panoramic “Crucifixion of Christ,” a giant, circular 19th-century painting.

If you’ve never been to a European Christmas market, Einsiedeln is a great place to start — and one where you can do some serious praying at the same time.

Lorraine Williams writes from

Markham, Ontario.