When we think of Switzerland we normally think of the snowcapped mountains with endless ski slopes, sparkling blue lakes and some of you, perhaps, of the Swiss Banks. Rarely would we associate plain land with Swiss topography though there are vast tracts of Switzerland devoid of anything vertical. With my enchantment with anything natural that rises up into the azure, my obvious destinations in Switzerland had always been the Zermatt Valley and Grindelwald, the two take off points for some of the nicest and steepest mountain architectures anywhere in the world.
In one of my trips to Switzerland, after I had climbed few peaks in the Zermatt Valley, including the infamous Weisshorn by its north face, and had strained my ligaments to a degree not utterly suitable for such activities, one of my well-meaning friends suggested that it was perhaps time for me to give the Swiss Alps a break from my antics and I would be well advised to see the prettiest village in all of Switzerland. And it is a universally acknowledged fact, he stressed, and not my point of view alone (as he wasn’t a Swiss). With an injured leg, I finally allowed my head to do a bit of work and it set me thinking.
For most of humanity around the globe, the entire precinct of Switzerland is perhaps the prettiest spot on Earth and within that the prettiest of them all lies a village that I hadn’t yet seen. How could it be possible that I had missed out on this Alpine village (since to me anything pretty had to be somewhere in the hills)? So I quizzed further. Where is this village that you mention, how high it is, etc. My friend took a keen look into my eyes and nodded his head in utter dejection as if I was beyond redemption; which to most of my friends, I am. Stein am Rhein is not in the Alps, he informed, it is by the river Rhein at a measly altitude of few hundred meters from sea level and it has no mountain anywhere within its vicinity and only a small tiny little hillock on the backdrop. That did not sound very pretty and exciting in that order; moreover I had never heard of a place on earth called ‘Stein am Rhein’. Sensing my tardy mind deliberating over the possibilities, my friend suggested that I would get further frustrated to be cooling my heels within the sight of the majestic snow capped Alps and I would be better off in a place where there was peace, tranquility, beauty and some amount of horizontal ground for me to walk without much strain. He hastened to add that knowing my dilapidated financial credentials he was willing to buy me the train ticket to this village. Now that sounded like a good deal, if I had heard of any in Switzerland and the Swiss are great at offering deals to tourists.
So on a fine sun-kissed morning I boarded the red colored train from Randa and as my over-enthusiastic friend waved me goodbye and receded from the moving train, I suddenly remembered with the clarity of the crisp Alpine air coursing through my veins that my friend’s girlfriend was visiting him that evening and of course he wanted me out of his residence. That was the only time I doubted my friend’s sincerity or veracity of Stein am Rhein that he had so enthusiastically enthused. For as it turned out Stein am Rhein (now on referred to as SAR) was and still continues to be one of the nicest and the prettiest little villages / townships I have ever come across anywhere in all of Europe or for that matter in the world. This is the story of a place that is horizontal for most parts and emerges straight out of Gothic grandeur. It’s also a place where I found myself for the span of one single day and night that left me dumbstruck for most part and with memories to span my entire life time.
As the train chugged along the passing landscape that was as haunting as the interiors of the train, with my fellow passengers involved in various activities, I repeated the name few times at the tip of my tongue and found it deliciously rhyming and rhythming with the chug of the train. I changed train at Zurich, and again at Winterthur to step into a smaller train with wooden flooring. The train itself looked straight out of some fairy tale as it wobbled unsteadily on the track. It was full of tourists and families, jovial and convivial to say the least. Every twist and turn that the train took, infused gasps of admirations from the occupants, self included. I realized much to my own amazement that the horizontal landscapes of Switzerland can indeed give its vertical counterpart a serious run for its money. A toddler played an accordion near my feet while a gaggle of pre-pubescent schoolgirls sang choir while making a skirt-holding train along the compartment. I had indeed been transported into a merry wonderland where no one had any misery or suffering of any kind. I kept my nose glued to the cool window glass and gulped in the scenery passing us by. The train stopped at a place, which was a stopover for the passengers to get off and have a close look at the awesome Rhein Waterfall.
The moment the train stopped and stood silent, the air filled up with a roaring noise of a jet squadron on its take-off stage. I joined the crowd and we moved on the well-marked trail towards the waterfall. The cobblestoned path led downwards as it spiraled away. The noise increased in magnitude every step that we neared. Suddenly around a bend, lo-and-behold, emerging like a giant canvas, stood the frothy and foaming waters of Rhein Fall. The sheer width and the ferocity of the water as it churned and roared, filling up the air with cold spray, took my breath away. If one fell in that water, he would die instantly, smashed into smithereens for eternity. Everyone fell silent at the majestic spectacle, including the noisy schoolgirls. We gingered our way carefully on the wet wooden steps and went down to have a closer look at the water. I read on a wooden board that I was looking into the largest waterfall in all of Europe and realized that perhaps I need to brush my knowledge of geography beyond the mountains too.
Eventually the train stopped at my destination and I stepped out into the tiny platform of SAR. Surprisingly, for the prettiest village in all of Switzerland, none of my fellow passengers alighted. They were continuing ahead towards Lake Constance bordering Germany and Bodensee. I stretched my limbs a bit and looked around at the deserted platform. I seemed to have stepped out right in a fairy tale world of my dreams where everything looked gossamer and unreal. The silence and absence of any life drove my imagination wild. The timber wood station preserved the looks of at least half a millennium if not more and everything was as spick and span as it always is in Switzerland. I shouldered by backpack and exited the platform on to the road outside. I looked around but found no sign of any other human being. No taxis, no hansom cab, and no modes of transportation at all – none of the usual sights outside of a train station was visible. If SAR was indeed the prettiest and the most well preserved of Swiss villages then it must also be the most well guarded secret since anywhere else in the country I would expect to see tourists by far exceed the local residents.
SAR is so tiny and well laid out that is impossible to get lost no matter which direction you walked, my friend had told me. For me the choice was easy since there lay only one road in front of me, turning up and then curving left. I took it and filling up my lungs with fresh air hit the road with the vigor of a Roman General seeking to vanquish new lands.
Soon the road curved and I came across a magnificently arched bridge across the blue waters of Rhein. I had to pause for a minute just to take in the sight and fill up my eyes with everything that entered my visual senses. A row of timbered buildings lined the waterway along the white quay where few boats bobbed up and down with the waves. A solitary church spire stood proud of the neighboring structures, piercing the sky, while to the right of the bridge an ancient church building came right into the water. Across the bridge I could spy a Gothic building displaying the Swiss flag from a pole on the roof that was flapping aimlessly in the morning breeze. I crossed the bridge and stopped around midway to observe a young boy, bare-chested and a young girl similarly sparsely clothed, lean out alarmingly over the bridge railing as if peering into the under-flowing water. They were not making any sound at all and though I passed them within touching distance they did not turn around or show any signs of my presence. Being the first representatives of inhabitants I decided to observe them. Soon they climbed atop the rail and jumped out, silently, holding hands. A loud splash (the first sound I really heard since arriving) told me that they had hit water. I leaned out and saw them surface and start swimming towards the quay. This must be the usual occupation of SAR, I mused and walked on.
After the bridge, I turned right and took to the deserted cobblestoned path leading towards the monastery of the St Georgen. I had a simple plan. To cover the entire village on foot, starting from the monastery and then walk around the village and climb to the hillock and to the fort atop, partake the view and then loop back into the village square by late afternoon when the village folks were supposedly to be found near the village fountain resplendent in their best attire.
I walked on the deserted path, wondering again at the eerie silence and absence of anything human; but then with a population of less than 3000 what else could I expect! I soon reached the monastery and pushing the mammoth door ajar, I stepped inside the dim-lit hall. I craned my neck up and took in the spectacular carved ceilings with murals depicting Biblical myths. The painted walls and the beautifully tiled floors defied the fact that it was nearly 600 years old. I stared at the painting depicting St Georgen slaying the dragon, a symbol often found throughout Switzerland. Zodiac signs covered another wall. I walked into the banquet room and admired the impeccably preserved frescos. These were commissioned way back in 1516 by the famed artist duo of Thomas Schmede and Ambrosia Holbein. The ornate stain-glass windows, circular and colorfully opaque threw faint pallor on the walls and intricately dancing forms on the beautifully tiled floor. I stepped out of a small door at the end of the main hall to find myself by the bank of Rhein. The arched bridge now lay to my right. Suddenly the morning air was pierced by a ship’s foghorn and a several-tiered boat of considerable girth sallied down the river, with tourists sun-bathing on the deck. As it passed me by, I heard their excited chatter fill in the atmosphere. I was surprised that these people preferred to view SAR from the river and not step on the pier and walk through. Soon a pair of modern speedboats came in the wake of the passenger boat and sped past me like rogue torpedoes.
Beyond the monastery, I followed the cobblestoned pathway weaving in and around timber wood buildings with amazing frescos covering every bit of the walls. This is what SAR is renowned for and of course for the manner in which the locals have preserved their village from modern invasion. Painted windows and doors looked real and at few places I had to actually walk up and touch a curtain to ensure that it was only a fresco and not a real window. With a map in my hand it wasn’t difficult to follow the path going up to the fort atop the hillock, moreover I could see it almost all the time rising above the buildings around. I finally met a local resident, an old man pushing an equally ancient bicycle heavily laden with fruits coming my way. We exchanged greetings and I chugged along.
Soon a sign ‘Schloss Hohenklingen’ pointed me towards a path climbing towards the distant hill. I was on my way to the ancient castle of Hohenklingen. If my guide book was to be believed then the erstwhile residence of the feudal lords, now boasted of a restaurant that promised food as good as the view, if not better. As I spiraled up towards the castle, the village fell below and being the only vertical path within sight I enjoyed the sojourn greatly. Rhein danced in the sun and the village now looked more like a Turner’s painting, intricate and immaculate in its inception and scale. I had by then lost all sense of time or space. I felt completely transported in the medieval age that the village preserved. There’s only that much that our sensory organs can sense and absorb and by the time I reached the castle, I was super saturated. I entered the restaurant that had only two occupants, the bar tender and a young waiter and went to the nearest arched window and looked down at the SAR with unblinking eyes and totally dormant mind. Both the rightful occupants of the restaurant remained inert and non-obtrusive, favoring me only a smile apiece. After a long while, I managed to tear my eyes away from the window to order a slice of Swiss pretzel sandwich with extra cheese on the sides.
On my way down I took the other path to make it a complete circle, and soon came across a bed of tulips forming a flower clock on ground along side a block of the only modern building to be found in the entire village. It looked like an administrative block of something. I walked till the quay and now found few families frolicking in the water. It was late afternoon and time for me to return into the medieval age. I entered another arched gateway and inside the village wall, which itself was as ancient as the place. Soon enough the silent streets led me to the village square, which was more of an elongated shaped street that split into two to girdle the town hall. The village square of SAR in the heart of the village has often been hailed as the most picturesque of all Swiss villages and that is some claim to fame. I realized much to my merriment that it hasn’t been misplaced.
Near the center but placed at a corner stood the beautifully carved fountain dating from the 16th century that had a little statue of a soldier on top. Right next to it stood the open visage of a bakery and Swiss delicacies. A portion of the cobbled pathways had been taken up with whicker chairs and tables and beach umbrellas aka Parisian coffee shops. A handful of tourists lingered languidly on the chairs sipping coffee and eating the cakes and cookies. I washed my face at the fountain and then gaped around the square that now lit up by the orange hue of the late afternoon sun gleaned like gold. The row of half-timbered buildings surrounding the square, jostled my eyes for attention with their elegant frescos, lavish and grand as they were, and the majestic oriels. The southern extent of the square was resplendent with facades sporting fresco with drawings of the house names like Hirschen (Stag), Krone (crown), Roter Ochsen (red ox), etc. To the north the most elegant of all, the Weisser Adler (white eagle) displayed a series of paintings dating back to 1520 – 1525. This is supposedly the highest concentration of frescoes in the world. The frescoes mostly depicted some mythological stories, moral tales, history or religious incidents and characters, normal life scenes of the locals, about the house owner and even that of pretty woman in their finest liveries.
I bought a coffee and cookie and occupied a vacant wooden 4-seater near the fountain and observed the village life pass me by. The locals were easily discernable by their outdated attires and gentle manners while the tourists stood out by their loud colors and jocular temper. No one seemed in any kind of hurry at all. Soon a group of young girls wearing long white dresses along with blue checkered half sleeve blouses walked to the clearing next to the fountain and started singing some songs to the accompaniment of musical instruments and dancing from another group of girls. I wasn’t sure if it was a normal local ritual or if it had been put up for the tourists. Their soft voices and twinkling toes tapping heart lilting rhythms on the cobblestones soon filled up the air and some of the tourists too joined the merry making girls. A little later a group of four men joined in the place setting up a mobile kiosk stand nearby. All of them wore bellowing colorful kaftans like the traveling circus jesters. One of them produced five wooden clubs and started to juggle, while another pair started mock sword fight and the fourth man brought out a wooden torch that he lit up with some inflammable fluid and started showing us the trick of fire eating. None of these performers demanded any money nor did they look at the tourists with any kind of supplication. They seemed to be doing these things for their own pleasure and fulfillment. I had a field view and was thoroughly immersed in the beatific displays, specially the juggler since I am a mean juggler too. Around 40 minutes later they all wound up their wares and left the square, heading away. The singing girls too fell silent and they walked away. But for some reason an air of expectancy hung around and I sensed as if there was still more to come.
I was almost out of my reverie, dreaming of the medieval ages where I was a knight fighting for a fairy maiden’s hand, when a man of around fifty, wearing tight pants and a leather waistcoat over a grey colored shirt with rolled sleeves alighted near me from his cycle. Over his broad shoulders he had a carry bag that looked like a small guitar bag. The man walked away from me and stood in front of the fountain offering me his profile. He opened his bag and took out a violin. He dropped the bag on ground and placed the violin against his left cheek. He placed his head on the violin and took up the bow. So far the man had shown no sign of the fact that there were other people in the vicinity staring at him, neither had be made any sound of any kind. And then he began to play filling up the evening with haunting melodies that reverberated from the tall spire to the frescos and bounced and cried with the cobblestones.
I had never heard anything so haunting and heart rendering in my entire life. The music took my senses away and my soul dissolved into the melody. I sat hypnotized gazing at the man’s strong profile. His eyes were shut and he was cordoned off in his own world and it was evident that he was not playing his violin for any of us. He was playing it for the entire world, for the river, for the sky and for the breeze and for every fresco and cobblestone around. Everyone else around too were transfixed, even the tourists interrupted their coffee and cameras and gazed wonderingly at the violinist. Few walked up and dropped some coins in the violin bag. The man kept on playing, totally oblivious to his surroundings. About an hour later he stopped as abruptly he had started and gathering his belongings left on his cycle, as silently as he had arrived. Even after he left, for a while the square remained transfixed, as the music seemed to linger around into the dusk. Reluctantly I tore myself away from the place to partake in a final ritual before taking my leave.
I found the place that housed the famous golden goblet of Baron Johann Rudolf Schmid. I joined a group of American tourists and drank wine from the goblet while listening to the Baron’s tales of bravery and adventures with the Turks. You could only drink the wine (free) if you would listen to his life story; such was the condition laid by the late Baron. With that my tryst with SAR came to an end. A village that every guidebook suggested takes no more than few hours to cover in leisure, had kept me engaged and riveted for nearly an entire day. This was nothing short of a miracle since it did not have any hills or snow lines nearby. All that was now left for me to do was return across Rhein for camping overnight at the camping ground across the train station and hike to the town of Schaffhausen next morning.
As I stood up in the twilight, a small furry dog came panting by and licked my outstretched fingers. Soon its owner, a tiny girl with golden ponytails arrived. I smiled at her and tousled her hair then offered her the last piece of chocolate I had. She took it with a big bright smile and ran away after her fast receding puppy. I smiled too at no one in particular or for any reason at all and headed for the arched bridge that I had crossed in the morning. The street was deserted once again even as the medieval lamp stands came alive one after another, lit up by some unseen hand. I jerked my head several times as I started walking, to clear my mind of all the intoxication. I doubted if this village would ever go out of my heart. At the bridge a family of swans joined me on my journey and accompanied me with their lively chatter all the way to the other side.
Finally, I had found the most raucous inhabitants of Stein am Rhein.
P.S. For any visitor to Switzerland, a half-day trip to SAR is a must and I would be happy to know from you if the violinist still plays in the village square every evening.