We liked this little city immediately. It has a beautiful medieval center and many half-timbered houses and mansions with what is called "oriel" or "bay" windows. Helena explained to us that St. Gallen was an important center for textiles, weaving, intricate embroidery and handmade lace and at one time, was very wealthy. I suppose everyone tried to outdo each other and demonstrated how much money they had by how elaborately they decorated their houses. It makes for a very pretty city with such interesting architectural details and rooflines. I wanted to paint everything! Her father told us that during and after WWII a large percentage of the Jewish population left the city, taking with them their expertise in this field and that for this loss, the city and the textile industry, suffered.
Helena had arranged for us to stay at her father's apartment, right in the center (zentrum) of the city and we enjoyed very much being able to wander around without having to get in the car for a few days! We enjoyed meeting her family and speaking with them about Switzerland and answering their many questions about America. Her entire family speaks English, which made it easier for us to communicate and to get to know each other. Helena and her father fixed us a traditional meal that included white sausages, fried to a crispy brown, and a green salad. Another evening we were invited to dinner at her mother's apartment (her parents are separated) and treated to another typical meal, a delightful vegetable soup that Helena prepared for us. It was great to meet her charming mother and younger sister Miriam, who looks exactly like Helena except that she has red hair and brown eyes where Helena is blond with blue eyes! Miriam is a big Janis Joplin fan with many questions about the truth of things she has heard about America. We were the first Americans she had ever met and she was very curious! We tried to correct some of the strange ideas she had gotten from the Internet and TV sitcoms and hopefully she now has a better idea of what America and Americans must be like. As with everywhere else we have been in Europe now, they are not fans of our president and his policies and were relieved to learn that neither were we.
We visited the Baroque Cathedral, which, along with the abbey, works of art and the library, is a World Heritage Site. The interior of the cathedral is a bit too fancy for our tastes but the dark and brooding ceiling frescoes create an interesting contrast with the light blue and white stuccowork so beloved by the Baroque architects and artists of the 18th century.
The highlight of the day was the visit to Helena's favorite place, the Stiftsbibliothek, the lovely library that was part of the original abbey and dates back to the 9th century (www.cesg.unifr.ch). It contains more than 150,000 books and manuscripts including an important collection of illustrated Irish manuscripts and rare works from the 8th to the 11th century. The main room of the library was designed by Peter Thumb in the 1700s and is considered a baroque masterpiece with rococo decorations and an inlaid wooden floor. We learned that most of the abbey was destroyed during the reformation when everything Catholic was rejected but that the library, thankfully was spared. This is a place revered by our friend Helena who studies "Germanistics" and "Philology" - I believe what we would call historical linguistics and hopes one day to work in this library. She speaks German, Swiss German, French, English, can read Latin and Greek and was studying Italian with us in Perugia! For a twenty year old, that's impressive!
As usual for me, I enjoyed the open market in the town's main square, the Marktplatz, surrounded by houses that date mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many have painted facades, many have those elaborate oriel windows, some have carvings, others are half-timbered. Most have fanciful roof details. It is a delightful place to explore. We visited the history museum, the museum of nature and art, and the university building - its architecture very modern and the building itself contains many works by modern artists like Alberto Giacometti, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder and Joan Mirò, just to name a few. Helena and her friend Anina took us on a tour of the city that began with a funicular ride and a steep walk to the highest part of St. Gallen where we had refreshments with a spectacular view at a restaurant overlooking the city and ended with a leisurely walk back down.
On Sunday we drove to the Bodensee (Lake Constance), on the German side to the city of Lindau and when it started to rain, we slipped into the Stadtmuseum to see its art collection. There was also an exhibit and demonstration of antique music boxes, like player pianos, not little tabletop creations. Fascinating. The city itself dates from the year 882 and there is a 13th century lighthouse in the harbor and many lovely historic buildings to admire, like the historic Gothic-Renaissance Town hall from the 15th century with its intricate details and painted façade.
There was a rock and roll festival on Friday and Saturday nights in St. Gallen, which meant loud music late into the night, but we were able to sleep in the back of the apartment, away from the noise and so it did not disturb us. We were happy however to see that the festival ended on Sunday night and by Monday morning we were able to walk around with unobstructed views of the charming streets and shops.
It became very clear to us that Switzerland held many wonderful secrets and beautiful places but that it was also a very expensive place to vacation. We bought groceries and had our meals mostly at home because even a small snack was very expensive in the restaurants and shops. The dollar is stronger against the swiss franc than against the euro, but the prices were so much higher it didn't seem to be an advantage. We tried to be frugal but occasionally wanted to splurge and had dinner in a restaurant, partly as a treat for Helena as well as ourselves.
With a population of around 70,000 people, St. Gallen seemed a very comfortable city to live it. Beautiful architecture, charming historic center, culture and the arts alive there, an efficient system of public transportation, it seems like a wonderful place to live and for us to return to. Maybe someday the world economy will be such that we can afford a trip back. Until then, we will just have to content ourselves with this taste of it.
We said goodbye to Helena's dad and St. Gallen on Monday morning and with Helena along, headed to Basel for a few days of exploring that city, about as north in Switzerland as you can get! Helena attends the University of Basel, the oldest university in Switzerland, founded in 1460. It is a larger city than St. Gallen and there were many things we wanted to see there.
(to be continued: Basel and Zurich, Switzerland 8.21-25.06)