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A Bustling City Protected Against 20th-Century Influences

December 20, 1987|KAREN CORD TAYLOR | Taylor is a free-lance writer living in Boston

SCHAFFHAUSEN, Switzerland — After several intense and exhilarating days of glaciers, hovering peaks and hikes at 4,000 meters, my husband and I were feeling visually and emotionally drained.

That was how we discovered the area around this small, well-preserved medieval city on the Rhine north of Zurich.

If the Alps are like the Rockies to Americans, then the canton of Schaffhausen is Vermont. The architecture that is so fascinating and detailed is more than 400 years old.

The canton of Schaffhausen is the northernmost in Switzerland, almost surrounded by Germany and the southernmost reaches of the Black Forest.

Several castles overlook the river valley, and three miles downriver is Europe's biggest waterfall, the Rhine Falls.

The river, picturesque villages and rolling countryside provide a memorable setting. The trees turn New England colors in the fall.

In October, several villages in the canton celebrate the harvest with traditional wine festivals. People hike the low hills and ski cross country all winter on the numerous trails that wind through the forests and vineyards, then return to cozy fires in heavy beamed rooms.

We began our investigations in the old part of the city after a 40-minute train ride from Zurich.

Industry Hidden

Schaffhausen, population 34,000, proclaims itself an industrial city, and high-tech manufacturing plants and generating stations do exist. Mercifully, they are sited discreetly and impose little upon the landscape.

We got our bearings at the 400-year-old Munot fortress, whose circular keep was based on a design attributed to German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer. The fortress, in which a watchman and his family still live, dominates the town. From it we could look over the river and the old tile roofs onto parts of the original town walls that flank the fortress.

The bustling city below is an architectural prize. City officials have taken steps to preserve the architecture and street patterns from undue 20th-Century influences. They have banned cars in one section and approved special lighting that blends with the old facades.

You can see a different life here in contrast to Alpine Switzerland, where the towns, attractive as they are, have generally been given over to tourism.

Down steep paths from the Munot, we entered the car-free part of town by the Swabian Gate, which is complete with clock tower and the inscription: "Blockhead, open your eyes."

You can't let the upscale shops, interesting as they might be, distract you from the abundance of detail on these stucco or timber-framed buildings.

Dragon-Shaped Spouts

Vividly painted oriel windows, nearly 180 of them, have been meticulously restored. Copper gargoyles, dragon-shaped drain spouts, wrought-iron signs, sculptured designs and lively and elaborate scenes, all symbolic of the original family's profession, aspirations or status, decorate the buildings.

We saw a wine maker's house that displayed a tangle of painted grapevines and a prosperous merchant's fresco that told a tale of Greek heroes.

Clocks, everywhere in Switzerland, are sometimes simple sundials here. Their faces are painted on buildings and their gnomons are fashioned from wrought iron.

Twelve guild houses, embellished with symbols of their respective trades, remain in town as does the Romanesque All Saints Cathedral, built in the 11th Century.

The cathedral was stripped of its "Popish" decoration during the Reformation, as were most Swiss Protestant churches that were formerly Catholic. Nevertheless, it has a light-filled stark beauty, grander but not unlike that of New England churches.

Throughout Schaffhausen, whose name means "sheep houses," we came upon signs with a dark ram displaying golden horns, hoofs and private parts. This is the canton's symbol.

According to local historians, Pope Julius II, in the 16th Century, was deeply indebted to the citizens of Schaffhausen who had protected him from his enemies. As repayment he bestowed upon them the privilege of using gold in these places on their symbol.

Different Kind of Beauty

We cruised the Rhine in the afternoon. The Rhine steamers continually ply the river between the city of Schaffhausen and the Untersee, or Lower Lake, of Lake Constance from mid-April through October. The trip takes about two hours.

At Schaffhausen the Rhine is approachable. It is no longer the Alpine torrent that it is when it rises in the Grisons.

It glides smoothly here between low banks growing deciduous trees that turn bright colors in the fall. Climbing up from the river are fields of corn, potatoes, rye, wheat and rape, a grain grown here chiefly for its oil. Schaffhausen is the biggest German-speaking wine district in Switzerland, and vines of the Pinot Noir cover many of the slopes.

Here and there a village, with its ever-present clock tower, interrupts the vegetation. Diessenhofen, for example, sits at one end of a covered bridge that crosses the Rhine.

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