Europe

The Renaissance Town of Schaffhausen and its Circular Fort

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Surrounded by vineyards, Schaffhausen is a beautiful medieval town located on the Upper Rhine in Switzerland, between Lake Constance and the Black Forest of Germany. We visited this beautiful town during our trip to the Rhine falls. We stayed for a night at Schloss Laufen, just above the Rhine falls – hence we had sufficient time to see the falls as well as the medieval town.

Located the north of Switzerland, about 52 kilometers from Zurich, Schaffhausen is a part of Switzerland that protrudes into Germany – hence it is bordered by Germany on three sides. Schaffhausen not only boasts of an incredibly charming old town center, but also of some spectacular natural surroundings, with the Rhine running through it and the famous Rhine falls, barely five kilometers away.

Founded in 1045, and once a center for thriving trade along the Rhine, this old renaissance town has a lot of historical charm and character. The town is located at a spot where trading vassals had to set anchor because the Rhine falls made it impossible to sail further. Schaffhausen was therefore an important trading centre along the Rhine, from the mid 11th century CE.

We boarded our train in Zurich Central station and reached Schaffhausen, via the small town of Neuhausen, after a change in Winterthur. Just before entering Winterthur, our train went over a bridge, right over the headwaters of the Rhine falls. It was a great sight.

On arriving at Schaffhausen, we explored the traffic free old town on foot, using a map provided by the local Tourism Office.  The old town stretches from the West to the East, between the railway station and the Munot Castle, with the Rhine towards the south.

Coming out of the station, we walked along the main pedestrian street (Unterstadt), towards the center of the town. The cobbled street was lined by beautiful old medieval buildings and branching off from it were many lanes and alleys, with hidden niches and views.  Along the main street, we found numerous bay windows called Oriels (there are 171 of these windows I am told; we didn’t count though), projecting out of the upper levels of the houses, from where it is said, women in bygone days, watched the life on street – particularly the movement of trading goods which were often exotic imports.

From Fronwagplatz, about 100 meters away, we found the Hauz zum Ritter, towards the right. The façade of this spectacular old house was painted in the 1938-39, in line with the much older renaissance style.  The visuals portray secular virtues such a valor, honor and patriotism.

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We went past grand old Baroque houses belonging to wealthy traders and noblemen, magnificent guild houses and halls, shops, fountains, statues, cafes, restaurants and florists. The buildings were beautiful; with well maintained facades richly painted in frescoes, embellished with elaborate stucco work. Many of these buildings are said to date back to the renaissance era. The old town therefore is a place of antiquity and of historical, architectural and artistic value – it is a treat for the eyes, particularly if you are interested in art and architecture. In some of the deserted by lanes, if you ignored some of its modern trappings, you would be transported back in time.

We found some interesting places, off the Unterstadt. One of these was the public square called Mosergarten, where a weekly market is set up and is also a venue for open air cultural events. The other public square was called Fronwagplatz – a medieval trading center where goods for import and export were once weighed, assessed and valued. At the Fronwagplats, we admired the impressive 16th century astronomical clock which, in addition to the time, also indicated the time for sunrise and sunset and the current zodiac.

 

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And we went past old churches, in particular, the All Saints Abbey, that was founded in the mid 11th century and is considered to be an outstanding example of a Romanesque church in Switzerland. Although we did not go inside the Abby, I learnt that it had a cloister and a beautiful herb garden in which monks in bygone days grew herbs to produce homeopathic medicines for treating the poor.

And not far from the All Saints Abbey, we found the St. John Church – again an old heritage building, which now serves as the venue for the Bach Festival, held once every three years.

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There are as many as thirty five buildings and sites in the town that are listed as ‘Swiss Heritage Sites of National Significance’.

We walked along the main street and then ventured off from time to time, into the narrower cobble-stoned lanes and alleys. The magnificent old buildings and the narrow meandering lanes and by lanes seemed to tell us stories from a time now long gone.

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The most important landmark of Schaffhausen is the circular fortress on top of a hill overlooking the old town – a structure that is visible from far away. This majestic ring shaped fortress and tower, called the Munot, is a beautiful renaissance structure. The Munot was built in the 16th century, as a part of the town’s fortifications, according to a prototype design by Albrecht Dürer, the famous painter, print maker and theorist of the German renaissance. The strategic location of the fort on top of a hill overlooking the Rhine suggested that in the past, it played an important role in protecting and regulating trade along the river and preserving Schaffhausen as a free Imperial city of its times – with its preeminent position in areas of commerce, politics and military affairs.

From a back street in the center of the town, we began our ascent to the Munot. We climbed along a series of steps, through a rather long and steep trail up the hill. From the foot of the hill, in the first phase we climbed up along a path that meandered steeply, passing old houses. In the second phase of our climb, leaving behind the roof tops of the old houses, we cut through a vineyard to eventually reach the base of the fortified tower, on top of the hill.

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The fortified tower had an old moat, which is now dry and serves as a deep park. We entered the tower at its base and walked over the moat, through a long corridor along the battlements. From there, a winding cobbled staircase led us to the open air circular terrace at the top of the tower.

By all means, it was a steep and continuous climb from the center of the town to the terrace on the top of the fortress. But once at the circular terrace, we were well rewarded for our efforts with spectacular views of the Rhine river and the old town, to the west of the river.  From that height, we could see the beautiful old houses of the old town and rooftops along the streets and lanes.

The circular terrace was a large open area, with an arched corridor all around. The space serves as a venue for various events, mainly cultural.  We spent the late afternoon in the place, admiring the 360 degree views that stretched far in all directions.

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Apart from its historical and architectural attractions, and the spectacular Rhine falls nearby, Schaffhausen is also renowned for its cultural events. Every three years, it hosts the International Bach Festival in the month of May, an event in which music by Bach is played to the highest standards across different venues in Schaffhausen. Another important cultural event (also held in May) is the Schaffhausen Jazz Festival which showcases most important works in Swiss Jazz.

The old pedestrian town center of Schaffhausen is considered one of the most charming places of its kind in Switzerland and our trip to Schaffhausen was by all means a unique and wonderful experience. Parts of the old town with its well preserved grand houses embellished with beautiful frescoes, stuccos and sculptures, massive clock towers, beautiful churches, fountains, and the Munot fortress, date back by centuries – to the Gothic and Baroque times.

Our visit to Schaffhausen gave us a peep into renaissance era architecture and art and on a few instances, took us back to a glorious period, now long gone.

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