“Wil” is a common placename suffix in northeastern Switzerland, derived from “weiler”, which means “hamlet” or “village” (the dialect determines what the place name has crystallised into – in the German Palatinate you’ll find lots of place names ending in “-weiler”, while here, they are “-wil” or “-wilen”, as a rule). Next to the longest combination, “Niederhelfenschwil” there are shorter ones like “Ganterschwil” or “Uzwil” and then, quite simply, “Wil”.I used to live opposite this church in Niederhelfenschwil, just to the left above the garden – in the attic of a half-timbered house dating from 1733 (with the church clock chiming every quarter hour 24/7 and a “concert” at 6 a.m.!)…
Wil itself sits on the border between cantons Thurgau and St. Gallen and is on the main A1 motorway route that crosses the country connecting Geneva on the French border to St. Margrethen on the Austrian border. Although it’s a small town, its position as a seat of the diocese (i.e. bishops) of St. Gallen has given it some importance through history, and it features a very picturesque old town perched on a small hill in the middle of the modern town.
We first arrived in Wil in 1981 to find a lively little market town with a large variety of shops and businesses (and a high percentage of millionaires, apparently – they used to say there were 150 of them in Wil alone!) and even outside the old town there was some pretty art nouveau architecture in the shopping area – a beautiful old chemist (the Löwenapotheke, below, much longer ago!), a very attractive and famous café (Hirschy) with its own speciality (an almond-centred fish-shaped cake, the Mandelfischli) and still some sense of the surrounding country life and agriculture, with an annual cattle market.
In 1984, the town won the Wakker prize. This prize is awarded annually by the Swiss Heritage Society for exemplary protection of older parts of Swiss towns and there certainly is no lack of places to choose from in this country! Taking into consideration visible quality renovation and improvements and encouraging respect towards the older settlement structures, the committee rewards above-average architectural points as well as things like sustainability, traffic planning and the quality of life on offer. Wil certainly qualified and was proud of this achievement for many years.
I’m not sure what happened, really. Lovely old turn-of-the-century buildings were torn down and replaced by modern blocks, supercentres and endless fashion boutiques, the diversity of shops was reduced to yawning, cheaply-produced uniformity and the centre was made into a pedestrian zone, which only seemed to enourage the building of out-of-town shopping. Although the old town has of course remained standing (despite a couple of nasty fires that threatened more than just individual houses), by banning traffic the town lost its attraction to the passing shopper and gradually, the small hardware and homegoods stores closed, then the nicer cafés, the antique restorer retired, the flower shop moved, the fabric store couldn’t compete with the cut-price factory down the road and even the jeweller departed for better profits elsewhere… On the rare occasion I am in Wil these days, I find it very sad that millions have been spent on renovating the Hof (top picture) and making it into a posh restaurant, or building a mega-cinema/restaurant complex near the railway station, but the place is deathly quiet, the sub-post has reduced hours, as does the library, many shops are obviously empty or struggling to sell expensive art and the once traditional restaurant is vaguely Chinese or Thai. There is still a church and a primary school for the locals and just below the old town there’s St. Catherine’s convent which has run a girls’ school for over 200 years: they have recently expanded their intake and will soon be including boys, which is a great shame because the convent school had a very special and very musical programme which our youngest daughter appreciated, now swept away by becoming a “normal” secondary school. But there are barely a handful of elderly nuns left even for the religious side of the business… St. Katharinen, Wil and the last few town fields belonging to the convent
On the other hand, Wil has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, spreading out to include surrounding villages where more and more apartments and houses have been built to accomodate the many people who want to live in or near a place that is conveniently situated on rail and road to reach either Zurich or St. Gallen. I wonder if they are still so keen on sticking to local customs? At this time of year, it’s carneval (Fasnacht) and it has always been traditional for the local boys to beg pig’s bladders from the butchers, blow them up, fill them with water and run through the town dressed in black and red devil outfits, threatening to burst their bladders over you! And what about the regular Bärenfest? The town’s coat of arms features a bear and the Fest was always a source of pride. I suspect a drunken version of the Octoberfest has taken over, and in summer there is now a pop festival held below the old bishop’s seat…
I may be a sentimental old thing but these days, I’m glad I don’t live in or near Wil any more and can just visit to enjoy the pretty bits, although it does feel like I abandoned a sinking ship in some ways! In 1990 I got married in the beautiful Baronenhaus in Wil, but would I choose to do so now? Maybe I just can’t take change?!
Wil old town, with the Baronenhaus on the right…
Lovely to see the old pictures – but what a sad account! It’s a long time since i was in Will – don’t think i want to go back after reading this.
Yes, I wondered if I should publish this post as it seems so negative – but the pretty bits are still there and it doesn’t do to pretend that everything is all sweetness and light ALL the time!! 😮 It’s true, I don’t much like going to Wil any more… a bit better if I can approach from the “back” through the old part and directly to the old town though.