Hello, this is your long-lost blogger reporting back for duty!
Where, you may ask, have I been all this time?! Well, we last saw each other when I was heading off on a snowy mountain holiday in January and I’m determined to get a post in before April Fool’s Day hits us.
This year, there was snow at altitude, not in enormous amounts but plenty to satisfy the need for a little real winter in this very mild and unusally stormy one we’ve had over 2015/2016. Combined with some blue skies, there were some truly sparkly moments This around the tiny village of Fuldera, where we went for a walk inbetween an apéritif and a lunch in a traditional inn with the most beautiful carved Swiss pine interior
Our aim was Müstair, famous for the church and Benedictine convent that were founded by Charlemagne in 775 on his way through while conquering Lombardy. Apparently, he founded it out of gratitude for having passed over the mountain safely, quite an undertaking in those times. This is also the easternmost point of Switzerland. As you can see, not so much snow at 1273 m above sea level! We had a lovely guided tour around the very cold church and the small museum in the tower (including being given blankets and hot herbal tea to warm us up!) where the nuns used to live. Very few are left, now and have other quarters more suited to the elderly. Most famous are the early mediaeval frescos which have been stunningly revived and carefully preserved (hence the cold!), partly by one of our neighbours here at home!
On the way home, just as the sun set, we were treated to this at the top of the Ofenpass (Pass dal Fuorn at 2149 m above sea level, over 7000 ft)
Of course, with snow conditions like this, we also had the opportunity to hit the slopes – so few people at this time of year! I have heard from friends that they have given up skiing because of the overcrowding… maybe I should invite them up here?! I think it’s fairly obvious why we keep coming every year!
Although we always return home with a little reluctance, having a pretty home to return to helps 🙂 This early morning photo however, shows the extent of snow for the winter in the valleys this year and had melted by the time the sun went down…There was no time to ponder on this, though, as we were heading off to the big boat show in Düsseldorf only a couple of days later, as well as having a little nose round the area, first to visit relatives in Bielefeld and then to follow in the footsteps of our old friend above, Charlemagne, and have a look at his HQ in Aachen. This was his cathedral, the dome is over the octagonal central part of the church, the oldest, Carolingian part, the rest is later – in fact, the whole thing is a show of everything ecclesiastical architecture has offered in the last 1200 years! While the octagon (which was built over even older Roman remains) dates from the late 8th century, even the chandelier in the middle is 1000 years old, from the reign of Otto. Originally, the church would have been much plainer (even churches have trends!), but later generations felt the need for more embellishment, which is, nonetheless also very beautiful and also very obviously Byzantine-inspired (they were a lot more international in the old days than people might imagine!)… Those mosaic patterns are very inspiring, I find, though they date from the late 19th century. Some kind of conversion into knitting or embroidery, perhaps?!
The other main feature of Charlemagne’s time in Aachen (the French name is Aix-la-Chapelle, as the Frankish kingdom dominated at the time) is the castle he actually used as his seat, now the city hall. Again, it has many later additions. Coincidentally, while we were there, it was Karlsfest, a celebration of Charlemagne, so all these places were open and free to visit, including some people in mediaeval and 17th century dress A fascinating tour of the modern museum, Centre Charlemagne, was very worthwhile to round off our visit and hear about Aachen through the ages. A very poignant video showed the release of the city in 1944, a reminder to Germans, I felt, that everyone can be in the situation of the present-day refugees, a call for a little more sympathy in my view.
Friends, it has taken me three days to get this far with this blog post – a good indicator of why my blogging has slacked, no doubt! The rest of the catch-up will be forthcoming, though, promise…
This post is dedicated to my friend El and happy memories of our trip to Coop…
An Alpine town, Chur seems to be one of those places that people don’t really visit until they’ve exhausted other, more advertised attractions. The last larger German-speaking town before you start climbing up and over mountains is the gateway to the Alps and an often remote world – and yet it’s not a long drive from Zurich or Lake Constance. The capital of the canton of Graubünden, it’s not a very big town (about 35’000 inhabitants) nor is it a busy or bustling town, as a rule. Like most towns here, it has an “old” town and has then inevitably spread out and grown. In fact, it’s considered the oldest town in Switzerland – 5000 years old!
Although it is situated in the Rhine valley, the river Rhine itself is actually pushed off over to the foot of the other side of the valley and the river Plessur is the one featured when you look out from the oldest part of town, below the cathedral. There have been bishops here since St. Lucius* (rumoured to have been an English king) was martyred here in 176 AD, so quite a tradition with the first bishop Asinio being mentioned around 450 AD. The cathedral and other church buildings were erected on the Hof, a raised area which still looks down over the town. Because of it’s situation at the entrance to the mountains, it has always been a strategically important area and there are signs of this history all around town, if you care to look – they are subtly integrated and accepted as a part of everyday life (both the Magyars and the Saracens got this far west and north!).
Chur has a certain atmosphere – the Germanic (over 80% are German-speaking) but there is also a distinct sense of italianità and you can sense that the first town of the Tessin/Ticino (the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland) is just a hop, skip and a jump over the mountains… the easy pace of life, the street cafés, the cheery tone, all contribute to that holiday feeling.
The local accent is one many enjoy hearing, with it’s sometimes foreign-sounding clippedness and the strong guttural “ch” sound so common to Swiss-German becoming more of a simple “k” – where we roll the “Ch” of “Chur” (very difficult for a high German speaker!) the locals pronounce it “Kurr” and roll the “r”, instead. However, remember that this is also the first area where Romansch or Rätoromanisch is spoken (5% of the population), that elusive range of dialects that is now only spoken by 40-60,000 people. Sounding like a curious mixture of German, Italian and French and with at least 4 or 5 variations (that can be incomprehensible between themselves), this is what happens when languages “meet and greet” and borrow from each other… In the 1970s, a form of Romansch was invented to be the “official” version and taught in schools in an attempt not to lose the idiom, but these days there is once again a lot of discussion about how to preserve the individual forms, too, even though in some places it is the main language at primary school. We spend our winter holidays in the Lower Engadin (also Graubünden) that has a dialect of its own and find it fascinating to understand a good portion of what is said and almost all that is written – and yet, what would it be like to learn?! Interestingly, the language is now being kept alive by immigrants: a lot of Portuguese families have moved to the area (mainly because of the building and tourist industries) and surprise surprise, they find it very easy to learn the language, with their children adapting within a very short time frame and far more quickly than any Swiss-German kids whose parents have moved them there! That Mediterranean feel again, I suppose.
Another feeling entirely greeted me on one summer visit. Wandering the streets with a young child in a pushchair, I spied a lovely park with lots of trees and headed in to let my daughter stretch her legs on the playground and to sit in the sunshine for a while. To my amusement, there was a full-blown cricket match going on on the park lawn by a large group of Tamil Sri Lankans, smartly dressed in their whites and taking their game very seriously! But business and design have altered Chur a lot in the past 20 years. Even before that, the town had grown (if not exactly boomed) but now there are smart glass-fronted buildings which compete with and sometimes dominate the old town and the art nouveau villas that have been there for so much longer, and yet this is still a country town with quick and easy access to farm country and some of the local architecture goes distinctly in the direction of the squat trapezoid-style “Bündner” house that is so familiar higher up in the mountain resorts.
For those in search of some culture, there is plenty to see. The bishop’s palace and cathedral dominate, but there are museums such as the art museum (Angelika Kauffman, Giacometti, Hodler… but sadly again, closed until 2016 for refurbishment) and a vintner museum, as there is plenty of wine-growing in the area – head down the valley a couple of miles to the Jeninser Herrschaft and try the Jenins and Malans wines with some local specialities of cheese and dried meats…! Theatre, music and the arts are well-supported and there are both local newspapers and radio; this is, after all, the capital of what is a large canton so that it is the cultural and educational centre for the whole region, as well as having its own courts and government. Gastronomically, don’t forget to try Pfirsichsteine, a sweet almond-paste confection!
*see the book King Lucius of Britain by David J. Knight – fascinating stuff!
So if you’re ever going up to St. Moritz, Klosters, Davos or Arosa, don’t simply bypass Chur – stop in and have a look!
In only a couple more days we will reach the shortest day of the year and then the days will begin to lengthen again – having closed the curtains around 4.30 today, I’m looking forward to a little more daylight once the festive season is over!!
But since that’s where we still are, let’s enjoy the moment –
16. On the table – is a small hand-thrown dish I bought at a farm shop a couple of years ago. Since it’s the season of nuts and mandarines, as well as candles, and we all tend to gather around the table, there is always a bit of peel, shell or match to put aside and I collect it in here for periodical emptying. 17. Triangles – not a shape I really “do” (it’s curves and geometric for me!) but who’s to say a triangle can’t have a curve?! Stein-am-Rhein is a very pretty mediaeval town I’ve mentioned here before, and fittingly, it has a mediaeval Christmas market in St. George’s monastery yard – there were many cloaked figures (LARPs? Re-enactors?) and a good choice of furs, carved goods, leather items, clothing and jewellery to be had, some ironwork and a fortune teller… This is on the way out into the town, the “lemon-tree house”.Our weather was simply gorgeous, far too warm for the season but easily enticing us to wander down along the Rhine and sit on a bench soaking in the sunshine! I loved this little house and must investigate what it was originally used for, perhaps something to do with customs? Up above the little town is the castle of Hohenklingen – http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burg_Hohenklingen in German because sadly, there isn’t much about it in English. Briefly, it sits 200 m above the town and as it’s never been seriously attacked, it still looks as it did from 1200 to 1422… Its position has meant it’s been strategically important for all of its history, from the original wooden tower, through the Thirty Years’ War to helping to defend Zurich and including WWII. Last but not least, as we wandered back towards the railway station (and not this miniature one!) we passed the local cinema… 18. 15 Years ago – ooh, my goodness! 15 years ago we had a young family with three girls aged between 4-15 and lived in a large and rambling house. It wasn’t exactly a farmhouse, as it had belonged to the village vet, who was considered a Herr Doktor, who went in for luxuries like electricity, parquet floors and central heating – as well as a telephone. It seems he was a little eccentric, but he was obviously respected in the village and we were told that he carried out his duties by horse and trap until he retired, which we worked out must have been in the ’60s or ’70s! Older people in the village tended to come to the back door, as this was the official entrance to the vet’s and they had often been sent along as children to fetch him – it didn’t even occur to them to come to the front door and ring the bell, which sometimes startled us at first! This included the midwife from a smaller village up above ours, who checked on me daily for a couple of weeks after I’d had my last daughter. She was in her 70s, very brisk and efficient and had brought her only son up single-handedly after she was widowed very young – a most imposing, matronlike lady!
It was a nice house for a family and we had lots of space and invested a lot in the garden, however it was also a lot to deal with and we were quite relieved when we moved to a smaller place. In the meantime, the roof has been replaced and has solar panels on the other side, and a hedge, too, has been removed, so you can actually see the house from the road! Still, happy memories!
These days, we tend not to assume that Switzerland is the “land of the Switzers”, partly because that sounds a bit silly, somehow. However, nobody should be laughed at if they did think this – it turns out that one of the legends about the origin of the name is one of those “fighting brothers” stories, and the immigrant Alemann who won the fight got to name the land they were occupying – Suit, or Swit, they say his name was. See! Not far to Suittersland and Switzerland, then…
Swit must have lived a long time ago, before even the Romans came over the Alps, and his little piece of paradise was a small, fairly flat valley deep among some very high mountains (literally the things myths are made of – the Mythen) but with easy access to two lakes as well, the smaller Lauernzer and the much larger Lake Lucerne, which has fingers clamped along several valleys, so making transport and commerce fairly easy.
Now, of course, we know that this tiny canton was one of the first, founding cantons (along with Uri and Unterwalden) and that its flag is the basis of our country’s flag – However, I was surprised to find that it was quite difficult to actually find out much about the village of Schwyz itself apart from some standard information, but as ever in this country, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of interest in the history of it, how it grew, why there are some very elegant 19th century properties or even why the hugely dominating St. Martin’s church is so incredibly enormous. Only that it all burned down in the 17th century and had to be rebuilt. After most of the villagers had died of the plague a few years earlier. The fact that it is a village – 14000 inhabitants these days – rather than a town is already a little puzzling, since it’s the capital of the canton (though there are other cantons where this is the case, e.g. Appenzell) and it has an elaborate painted town hall that holds extremely important documents, like those which show how Switzerland was founded in 1291!
Which leads me to one of the oldest, if not the oldest, building I could find, the Archive Tower. Built in the 13th century, or even as early as 1200, it doesn’t seem to have been used for defence for very long and was soon given over as a prison and treasury, plastered over, made to look more modern, a separate staircase built on and finally in the 1930s, taken back to bare stone – and then pretty much left to it. It’s now tucked in behind other buildings…
Apparently, the Bet(h)lehem house is also famed for its age, celebrated as the oldest wooden house in Europe and dating to around 1287. It looks very much like any other old house in the area, partly plastered foundations and weathered old wood exterior. It doesn’t look as if anyone is very interested in it, either. (Though it is part of the Ital Reding museum in a large 17th century house and I will try to visit when it’s open in the summer months.) The original village of Schwyz is squashed and huddled, despite open areas, while all through and around it there have grown late 20th and early 21st century concrete boxes, both for commercial and residential use. If the church wasn’t so domineering, you might not notice you’d actually driven through the middle of Schwyz, which grows seamlessly into several other villages these days, but try as I might, I could not find any old photographs or lithographs of how Schwyz looked up to the mid-20th century (since it probably looked much the same for several hundred years!). This little picture doesn’t do it justice, and the massiveness of the church doesn’t come over, either, though otherwise it looks much the same as in 1890… Somehow, I feel a bit sorry for Schwyz. So important and yet so obscure. The canton is a rich one with land in extremely lucrative places where taxes are low and the proportion of millionaires very high, but right in the very heart of it, where Switzerland began, is a quiet, sleepy little place without much sense of its history or value (except to a lucky few, I suppose, who will have a tiny historical society somewhere!), and which can’t really compete – even that monster of a church is dwarfed by the world-famous monasterial one at Einsiedeln (also canton Schwyz)…
In all the years I have lived here, I stopped in Schwyz for the first time today. It was nearly the last day of a lovely little exhibition of modern paper cuts – and really, a very fitting location for a craft that seems as quintessentially Swiss as could possibly be…
Ueli Hauswirth – Wild und Wald
The exhibition is now moving on to the Château de Prangins for the rest of the spring and summer; this craft has a very popular tradition in the Pays d’Enhaut area of the Suisse Romande.
Those interested in the craft may already know that paper-cutting is quite the trend – check out http://www.designsponge.com/2013/02/25-amazing-papercut-artists.html or google Rob Ryan paper cuts…Mind-boggling!
Sorry I dropped off my blogging schedule there – let’s just say there were a couple of days you could describe as “Poorly in Advent” and leave it at that! All better, now, anyway.
And then the pleasure of a weekend in Regensburg, an extremely pretty mediaeval town we’d never visited before. It’s the capital of the Oberpfalz, a region in Bavaria, north of Munich and only a couple of hours away from Prague, too. As it lies on the Danube river, it’s been an important settlement since the iron age. The Romans were there, too, of course, and since the middle ages it’s been the seat of the Bishop of Regensburg and has been a significant trading post with Venice, Paris and Kiev – international connections since the year dot…!
Famous for it’s well-preserved mediaeval town centre alongside the Danube, it’s also known for its Christmas markets and this was the main reason we travelled during Advent for our first visit. We’re lucky enough to have friends who live in Regensburg and who were willing to be generous with their time to show us round the best places!
A very traditional Swabian meal of Maultaschen (comparable to large ravioli), served in bouillon, and potato salad met us on our arrival, accompanied by copious amounts of red wine – we weren’t tired and hungry for long and spent a late evening over our meal at our friends’ beautiful home, with plenty of good music (always!!). Such hospitable hosts!
Energies replenished, we set off on Saturday, well booted, hatted and mittened, to investigate a special Christmas market held in the grounds of the Princes of Thurn and Taxis’ castle. We’ve been to a lot of lovely Advent markets but this one is probably the nicest we’ve seen so far, with the castle’s park making it feel as if it were set in woodland, yet the elegance of the baroque building, lots of fire torches set up, fire baskets to warm your hands (and feet!) over and some more original stands than perhaps is usual. The decor was very natural and many of the goods on offer were original and handmade, as well as some less common food specialities – we came away with Christmas spiced honey, for example, and there was marvellous jewellery made out of cutlery! Now we know what to do with the family silver if it’s ever in the way LOL.
After some pretty potent Glühwein, we continued on through the old town, admiring the pretty buildings and lots of lovely decorative architectural details. Many of the old streets have Christmas lights and you can’t get lost because each has a different design! Despite the fortunes of war, there are very few gaps in the long runs of old buildings and the 13th century cathedral towers above the whole town with it’s lacy Gothic spires. A stone bridge crosses the Danube and has done so since the 12th century – it’s a forerunner of and predates the Charles bridge in Prague – on huge stone pediments, below enormous buildings that show how rich the town was, partly due to the salt trade.
Throughout the town there are several picturesque Advent markets, lots of intriguing shops and places to eat and drink all kinds of specialities. I can certainly understand why Regensburg has such a good reputation and is such a popular place to visit at this time of year, though I’m sure it’s gorgeous all the year round. The markets aren’t as big or overwhelming as Munich or Nürnberg, it’s a more cosy and personal feeling here.
Our meanderings were punctuated by stops for snacks and coffee and crowned by a delicious traditional Bavarian meal at a real old-fashioned inn, the Bischofshof, again beautifully decorated and with excellent food and service – just the thing to lull you into contentment after a chilly, rosy, seasonal day outdoors on the markets. Quite delicious. If you can then follow that up with an evening spent lounging and chatting, with more great music, with people who are on the same wavelength: what more could we want?! Our hosts’ children earned our compliments for being so patient and uncomplaining while taking us around their home town all day long – wow :).
A short tour of the Danube ports by car on a cold and drizzly Sunday morning followed by raising our glasses to another meal made by our lovely hosts and it was time to head off to the station for our return journey by train. The pleasure of the weekend and the company stayed with us all the way home and won’t be forgotten for a long time. On the contrary, I think it’s very likely to be “au revoir, Regensburg“!
With architecture like this and the patrician towers throughout town, no wonder Regensburg is known as the Tuscany of the North!
Well now, that was entertaining!
While I certainly take the severity of the flooding in Germany and the Czech Republic seriously and sympathise with the destruction that it has caused, it was quite an education to see how the Swiss dealt with this last weekend’s heavy flooding of pretty much all waterways.
After weeks of rain, the bout we had last week must, despite the icy temperatures and even snowfall above 1200 metres, have brought a lot of spring waters down with it, and from Thursday night onwards, flood warnings were everywhere in central Europe as streams and rivers rose and rose, threatening to overflow and swamp cellars and streets in any of the towns and villages on their shore.
By Saturday morning, the more mountainous areas of Switzerland had released so much water into the valleys that the Thur and Murg rivers no longer converged, but simply flowed into each other, both having burst their banks… On the other side of the bridge we were standing on, the Thur was almost triple its usual width, having taken in the water meadows on either side. That is actually the water meadow – the river is on the right…!At this particular point, a fireman on either side of the road made sure that nobody attempted to take the riverside paths. All our firemen are volunteers who had been up all night in shifts to pump out cellars and stand watch at strategic points along the rivers, on call in case of any emergency – the chap we spoke to said someone had driven a chopper motorbike across a semi-submerged wooden bridge. Some people! Although there were quite a few people there to see the flooding, there was no panic, no over-excitement and no exaggerated control – several cars had parked along the roadside and as long as they didn’t obstruct traffic, the police who stopped by while we were there made nothing of it nor did they try to distribute any kind of ticket. The atmosphere was relaxed, businesslike and friendly. Nobody worried about all the logs being carried along on the flood waters to the Rhine – they will all be fished out at Schaffhausen by the latest, as there is filtering equipment fitted there (necessary because the Rhinefalls are at Neuhausen!).
We decided to drive on to Stein-am-Rhein, a very pretty little mediaeval town on the Rhine, almost at the German border. The sky had been lightening as we stood on the Thur bridge and by the time we reached Stein, there was even some sun. To my surprise, where the Thur and Murg had been a murky brown brew, the Rhine was crystal clear as it rippled along happily, unlike the rush of the flood waters from the smaller rivers. Here, the water was about 3 feet higher than usual – and just to the right of this photo is the main bridge into town, which delineates the change from the Untersee (Lake Constance) to the River Rhine, which flows through the lake and emerges here. As we watched, one of the pleasure boats went under the bridge – it just fit, and the reason it did was another fact that made us chuckle about the efficient Swiss: the top of the cockpit (where the captain stands) folds down so that when the water is high, it can still get through to Schaffhausen! It takes a good 2-3 metres off the total height of the boat. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of it.
A popular tourist destination, the little town is famous for its painted houses and intact centre, so even if it had still been raining, I suspect there would have been just as many people there! If you do ever go, there are lots of little boutiques and shops as well as plenty of nice places to stop for coffee, cake, crêpes or a meal, either on the riverside or up in the market place! The astounding thing is, I drove over the Thur this morning again (Tuesday). Only 2 days after the above pictures, this is what it looks like: That’s the same tree as in the picture above (see the pink house in the background!).