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The monk who tamed a bear
The enchanting town of St Gallen in Switzerland owes its existence to an Irish monk who set up a settlement here
Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

The splendid Cathedral of St Gallus and Otmar
The splendid Cathedral of St Gallus and Otmar

A statue of St Gallus and his bear
A statue of St Gallus and his bear

Decorated facades and oriel windows of St Gallen old houses
Decorated facades and oriel windows of St Gallen old houses

The Olma Farmersí Festival
The Olma Farmersí Festival

A woman serving the famed Olma sausages of St Gallen
A woman serving the famed Olma sausages of St Gallen
Photos by the writers

St Gallen is an enchanting town. The mornings can be misty in autumn-gilded Switzerland. But, by 9, the trees were aflame with the sun glinting on their wine-red, gold, copper, and bronze leaves; also touching streams of people heading for the Olma procession. The Olma is a farming fair starting with a carnival: sonorous Alpine horns booming, folks parading in folk costumes, men hefting massive tonking cowbells on their shoulders, even a float dispensing free draught beer. On this festival, beer is traditionally quaffed along with slightly singed Olma sausages. Only a fast-food fanatic would ask for mustard with an Olma sausage `85. and risk being banished from St Gallen as the bear had been.

Legend has it that, in the 7th century, an Irish Monk, now called St Gallus, trekked into these forests and decided to set up a settlement here. Shortly after he made this seemingly whimsical decision, a bear came nosing around to see what was happening. Gallus, using his saintly powers, ordered the animal to collect faggots for him, for a fire, and then to depart. The enchanted bear did so but has been enshrined as the emblem of the beautiful town of St Gallen. Moreover, St Gallenís famous Biber confection is a chocolate-coloured slab, filled with almond paste, and rich with tropical spices with the assertive zest of cinnamon. And embossed on this delectable sweet, is `85 youíve guessed it `85 a bear.

Having sampled the festive sights and flavours of St Gallen we headed for more substantial cultural fare.

In the centre of this beautiful old town there was a statue of St Gallus presiding over the monastery established by him. As happened in many other towns in Europe, a prosperous community grew up around the monastery guided by the monks who were healers, scholars and administrators. Moreover, their spiritual authority, protected by the powerful umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church, deterred attacks from gangs of bandits and voracious robber barons.

Assured security brings lasting prosperity and the most permanent sign of a personís wealth and status has always been the architecture of his home. Even in those distant days, the poor lived in huts, the middle class in cottages, upwardly mobile traders in town houses aspiring to be mistaken for the mansions of the nobility. These structural assertions, and pretensions, were amusingly obvious in the houses around the town square.

There, on the extreme right, was an old, but clearly prosperous, house made in the natural half-timbered style where the walls are constructed of timber frames and the spaces in between are filled with brick or plaster. In the really old half-timbered houses, the exposed wooden frames are of uneven thickness and shape: virtually rough-dressed trunks and branches. But then, as people became more sophisticated, they covered these timber-frames with plaster to simulate stone. At that time, only the rich could afford stone, and so this plaster-cladding became a status symbol. To the left of the beautiful old half-timbered house stood two plaster-clad houses which, possibly, once belonged to the newly-rich. Then the fickle finger of fashion made a full circle and half-timbered houses were the rage again as designer-built Ďheritage homesí are in demand in India today! But the rich and the famous, of St Gallen, felt that they could afford to have dressed wooden frames for their mock half-timbered houses. So the house on the left of the plaster-covered houses has carefully dressed frames of wood. After which there was the great oriel window revolution. The ultimate sign of a personís position in society became a bay, or oriel, window. After that, virtually every house sprouted a window thrusting out from the fa`E7ade so that its owners could, literally, look down on lesser mortals strolling on the street below.

The most resplendent of all the buildings in St Gallen, naturally, is the Cathedral of St Gallus and Otmar. It is difficult to choose any single feature in this towering edifice. Artists and artisans have worked on this powerful shrine for a thousand years, vying with each other to give their very best to this imposing place of worship. The domed ceilings are richly painted; even the furniture of the area where the choir sits has been intricately and painstakingly carved.

Then there is stucco plaster work and a complex wrought-iron grille, highlighted in gold, separating the altar from the pews of the congregation. Amid all this ornate decoration hangs an old, and rather battered, iron bell to one side of the altar. Metallurgical tests have established that it has the same composition as bells made in Ireland in the 7th century. Devotees believe that this was the bell brought from Ireland by St Gallus.

Then, in the 16th century, the city and its Abbey were hit by that great cultural revolution: The Reformation. A wall formally separated the authority of the Catholic church from that of the Protestant state.

But the superb Catholic cathedral still stands, the Library is still owned by the Catholic Administration. The enormous Abbey Library is still housed in its magnificent baroque premises, with painted ceilings, and is open to tourists and scholars from all over the world. We wore cloth overshoes, to protect the ancient floors, and wandered, enchanted, through an accessible treasure-trove of knowledge. Surrounding us were 2,100 manuscripts, 170,000 printed books and other remarkable exhibits including the mummy of a beautiful Egyptian girl. Even those visitors who canít differentiate between the Nibelung Manuscript and the Parsifal Saga will be as awed as we were to be in the presence of ancient volumes with covers studded with gold and precious stones. An ivory carving on the cover of a book in the library depicts the story of St Gallen and the bear.

Obviously, for this Swiss town, the rejected bear of St Gallus continues to be a bare necessity.

Fact file

Getting there: Train to St Gallen from Zurich.

Accommodation: A number of 4, 3 and 2 star hotels conveniently located within 10 minutes of walking distance from the station and from the other attractions in the old town

Good value: When visiting Switzerland a Swiss travel card is a good buy and is valid for travel on trains, buses and ferries. It can be bought in India from Swiss tours.





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