Stein am Rhein, an Enchanting Medieval Village in Switzerland
Magic Carpet Journals takes you on a fairy tale journey to Stein am Rhein, a Swiss Village on the Rhine River.
Have you ever felt like you stepped into a fairy tale? That is the feeling I had when I climbed off the Bodensee Toggenburg Railway train in the medieval village of Stein am Rhein. Situated near the north-east border between Switzerland and Germany, this village looks much as it has for the past five hundred years. It is the best preserved medieval village in Switzerland.
Stepping down out of the train, my friends, Bill and Catherine McVean and I found ourselves standing alone on the platform. Not another soul was in sight. We walked around the station looking for a taxi. No vehicles were in sight either. We began to walk along the street, through the apparently sleeping village. Still, no inhabitants appeared. We took the opportunity to admire the interesting old half-timbered buildings bordering the road. Some exhibited dates as early as the 1500’s. As we ambled along, pulling our luggage, we calculated that, having arrived in Zurich at 6:00 a.m., many hours after leaving our homes in North America, it must be around 8:00 on a Monday morning, which would have been rush hour at home. Here it seemed like a Sunday-kind-of-day. I marveled at the strange solitude. It was like our train had been a time machine and taken us into another day and time. Ahead the road curved around and sloped down toward a gracefully arched bridge crossing the Rhine River. I would not have been surprised if a knight in shining armour had come riding his steed across the bridge. One of the old half-timbered buildings, sitting on the hillside, had a white swan sign hanging out in front. I suspected it had once been an inn or tavern. One could mentally picture horse-drawn carriages going through these streets and pulling up to The Swan. I stopped to snap a few pictures of this fairytale setting.
Crossing the bridge, we found the Hotel Restaurant Reinfels, standing at river’s edge at the far end of the bridge. This hotel had been the sixteenth-century, river-front, customs house, where barges, ferrying products upriver, had to stop to pay a levy for using the waterway. Approaching the hotel, I noted the dining room appeared to be in the nearest corner. The small glass-paneled door in the front had a novel old, shiny brass fish handle. I gave it a pull. The door resisted the effort. Thinking the door to be locked, my friends and I looked around for another door. There wasn’t one. We discovered a button with the word “hotel” printed beneath it, so pushed it. Peering through the glass in the door, I could see restaurant staff scurrying around at the end of a long narrow corridor. No one paid the slightest attention to us. We gave the handle another good pull, then pushed the button again and waited patiently. It was like we weren’t even there! I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Again I pushed the button. Suddenly a window above us opened and a head appeared. “Why don’t you push the door open and walk in?” the fellow called down. This time we gave the door a push and found ourselves able to enter this old, remarkably well preserved building. (Lesson #1. When in Europe, do not always expect a door to open out as they do in Canada).
Later in the day, we began our tour of this quaint old village. Beatrice Leuthold, a local resident, was our guide. She led us on a walk through the streets of this historic ancient village of 3,000 inhabitants. Beatrice told us that the village was founded in 400 AD. One of the three islands, in the river here, had been settled in prehistoric times. Franciscan monks still have a place of pilgrimage on the island. Romans set the first bridge over the Rhein here. We walked past St. George’s 11th century Church and came to its Kloster Museum, overlooking the river. A small figurine set into the outside of the building has been identified as a symbol of Mithra’s Cult which existed prior to 1,000 AD.
A Benedictine Monastery has been on this site since the 14th and 15th Century. Forty abbots, with a contingent of monks, lived here successively over those years. However, with the reformation taking place, the Abbot had to flee to Germany in 1524. Entering the Monastery, it was a surprise to see the signs of the zodiac painted on one wall. Another painting in the same room depicted St. George killing the dragon. This is a symbol often seen throughout Switzerland. The banquet room was also a surprise. Detailed frescos, certainly the best preserved that I have ever seen, cover the walls. Historical scenes or pictures give views of life and people five hundred years ago. They were painted by Thomas Schmede and his friend Ambrosia Holbein around the year 1516. The ornately carved, wooden ceiling in this room, had once been removed and taken away, but was later rediscovered, then returned and restored in recent years.
The Living quarters, belonging to Abbot Jottokus, have been preserved and restored. The wooden furniture there dates to about 1400 AD. Glass windows first made their appearance about that time. Those windows with round circles, look like the round bottoms of ancient bottles have been connected together to form each pane. Opening the window of the abbot’s room, I could see a beautiful view of the Rhine river just before it opens into Lake Constance.
Beside the monastery we entered another building where a massive and very old, wooden wine press stands. We could see how the process of making wine took place centuries ago. Made out of oak and hazelnut, this ancient wine-making equipment was donated to the museum by a neighbouring village.
Leaving the Kloster Museum, a short walk took us to the rear of the town hall. Known by the German name, Rathaus, the town hall is an impressive four-story half-timbered building. Detailed frescoes, depicting scenes of the village history, surround the second story. The original timbers used in the building, can be seen on the beige walls of the third story of the building. They are coloured a decorative, brick red. The tower contains a large gilded Swiss clock, still in good working order.
Passing by the Rathaus, we entered a perfectly preserved town square – not really a square, but rather a wide wedge-shaped street, which is at its widest where the street divides into two streets passing around the town hall. The town square appears very much as it has for centuries. The old, four-story buildings, lining the square, have been remarkably well preserved. Roof tops vary, as do facades. Looking around, I could see frescos adorning the facades of these buildings. We were told that the world’s largest concentration of frescoes is right here in Stein Am Rhein. Many of these were painted between 1520 and 1525 by the German painter, Thomas Schmede. The frescoes vary, some depicting a dramatic tale, a moral story, a bit of history or something about the owner or his business. The Adler building, just inside the square, is adorned with the most frescos. Some are a bit risqué; scenes of mythology, love or lust with assorted murals including comely wenches. Across the street one building caught my eye, with a Red Oxen or Toen Oschen painted on the front. The red oxen tells us that the house was owned by the local butcher. Now the building is a popular pub. This building, like many others, has a cupola or oviel (small bay window) decoratively protruding out of the second story. We were told that these were built there so that the residents could see what was going on at the Rathaus and along the street, without being seen from the street below. This would be especially important on market day, when the local market was set up in front of the Rathaus. The women probably sat in those cupolas behind their lace curtains, hoping to keep abreast of the village gossip. The square still seems to be a popular place to gather. Both local people and tourists with their cameras were wandering through the shops or sitting at outdoor tables having a bite to eat or a refreshing drink while soaking up the local atmosphere.
Before we left the village, we were invited to visit the Rathaus. In the council chambers, with a backdrop of brightly coloured, stained-glass windows, we were formally greeted by Franz Hostettmann, the Stadtprasident, who gave a short welcoming speech. He told us a little of the history of the village, which purchased its freedom in 1457. We were told it had been bombed in error in 1945 by the Americans. He then told us the story of the village’s most famous citizen, Baron Johann Rudolf Schmid of Schwarzenhorn. Born in this village, his widowed mother gave him to a Hungarian officer, as a youth of seven. As a twelve-year-old boy he was captured by the Turks. He is believed to have lived with the Turks for about twenty years. He negotiated peace with the Turks and went on to become a rich and famous man. When he eventually returned to visit this village again, he was knighted and in return presented the village with an ornate golden goblet, with the proviso that when it was used his story was to be told. We were honoured to be invited to drink a toast from the goblet. (With a very good Swiss wine.) Following the ceremony, we adjourned to the hall gallery in the next room. Here, a selection of hors d’oeuvre’s and more of the very good Swiss wine awaited our arrival. The room looked like a medieval armoury. Coats of armour stood, as if ready for imminent use, around the perimeter of the room. An arsenal of long guns, stacked against each other, occupied the centre of the room. The guns were so long it would have taken two men to carry them. Those long guns were used to defend the castle. They would have been aimed through the special slits in the castle walls. Two ancient flags, in amazingly good condition, were unfurled on one wall. One of those flags had been used in the 1400’s. As a parting gift we were each given a box of delicious Swiss chocolate.
Following our visit to the Rathaus, we walked through the village square to the promenade, where we were to board a boat for a Rhine cruise to Schaffhausen and the Rhine falls. While waiting to board the boat, I turned to see that an electric car had driven soundlessly onto the promenade behind me.
On a beautiful, sunny afternoon we cruised down the Rhine river, watching graceful swans leisurely swimming by. All too soon our visit to Stein am Rhein came to an end. I was most impressed with the devotion its inhabitants paid to the preservation of this ancient village and their traditions. Stein am Rhein truly is an enchanted village, straight out of a fairy tale.
Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George
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Last Updated February 25, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster