ST. GALLEN, Switzerland — I have had a love affair with Switzerland since 1971. Of the 40 countries I have visited since, it is my favorite. I like its mountains, villages, trains, chocolate, small hotels, pure clean air--and you can drink its water.
At first I was a typical tourist, visiting all the popular Swiss stops: Geneva, Lausanne, Lucerne, Montreux, Zermatt, Interlaken, St. Moritz. Then I found such gems as Grindelwald, Wengen, Lauterbrunnen, Saas Fee, Arosa, Locarno and Ascona.
Now I have discovered St. Gallen, the capital of the little-known region of eastern Switzerland.
At an altitude of 2,200 feet in a lush, green valley between Lake Constance and 8,200-foot Mt. Santis, St. Gallen is an hour's train ride from the Zurich airport and 2 hours, 20 minutes from Munich.
Give it at least two days. You will need one day to explore the Altstadt , or old town. Its narrow, winding streets, many of which are reserved for pedestrians, are lined with attractive little shops and quaint old houses splendidly restored. Their turrets, bay windows and carved wooden balconies are peculiar to this part of Switzerland and southern Germany.
On the second day take a 45-minute train ride to Appenzell, a charming village of painted buildings and narrow streets, where the Alpine scenery reminds you more of the rest of Switzerland.
Usually, good skiing is available near the village, but on a recent cold, overcast day the mountains had only a light dusting of snow and the ski lifts were shut down in one of Switzerland's mildest winters in memory.
If bad weather knocks out a visit to Appenzell, take a train to Zurich (about $20 U.S.) from where you can catch another train for a day's excursion to many of Switzerland's choicest pieces of real estate. Lake Constance is only 15 minutes away, as is Bregenz, Austria, and its casino.
Why St. Gallen is so unfamiliar, even to the natives of Basel, Geneva and Bern is a mystery. It has been around since AD 612, when an itinerant Irish monk named Gallus found the area attractive and settled here.
By the 8th Century Gallus' hermit cell had developed first into a monastery and then into the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall.
In 1805 the abbey was abolished but its magnificent baroque buildings remained. They are the feature attraction of the old quarter. The cathedral's architecture is so impressive that UNESCO put it on its list of the world's chief cultural monuments.
Even more impressive than the cathedral, however, is the abbey's library. To the Swiss this richly molded, elaborately ornate building, completed in 1767, has the most beautiful rococo interior on any side of the Alps.
The library is a magnificent room, 94 feet long, 32 feet wide and 24 feet high. An intricately designed inlaid floor of walnut, fir and cherry gleams in the light shining through 34 windows. Visitors must wear slippers over shoes to walk on the library's floor.
Baroque furnishings and ceiling frescoes aside, the library treasures are its 800 biblical and liturgical manuscripts (out of 2,000 brought here by Gallus and other monks) and 100,000 leather-bound books that have survived fire, wars and theft for more than 200 years.
The priceless manuscripts were beautifully handwritten as early as the 6th Century by creative artists among the monks. Some are illuminated. They inspire reverence, and after seeing them one can better understand the Greek inscription over the entrance to the library: "The Healing Place for the Soul."
With the decline of the dollar, a visitor to St. Gallen during the Christmas holidays found prices that reminded him of New York City, London and Paris.
A lunch of bratwurst, French fries and a glass of wine cost $14. In a small Italian restaurant a dinner of veal, a small side dish of spaghetti and a quarter liter of wine cost $26. No salad, no dessert, no coffee.
A fondue lunch for two, with a small bottle of local wine at the Hecht Hotel in Appenzell, cost $35. Simple dinners, salad, veal or tafelspitz (delicious boiled beef), potatoes and half a liter of wine, costs up to $65 for two.
A fixed-price dinner for two without wine was $90 at St. Gallen's Einstein Hotel.
Still, it costs less to visit St. Gallen and Appenzell than the popular resorts of central Switzerland and the Bernese Oberland.
The Swiss towns also are cheaper than Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, where double rooms in such luxury hotels as the Hilton and Sheraton can cost as much as $250 to $300.
Double rooms with bath at the little Hecht Hotel in Appenzell cost about $95, including breakfast, tax and service. It is small and central.
Einstein, one of four hotels classified as deluxe in St. Gallen, has 65 immaculate rooms with spacious modern baths. A member of the Movenpick-Radisson chain, it is just a few steps from the old quarter and half a mile from the railroad station.
The manager, Jurg Studer, has given "The Little Grand Hotel" some nice touches. Bathrooms have hair dryers and large heated bath towels. Linen towels are placed on the floor by beds at night. A bowl of fresh fruit is placed in the lobby for guests every evening.
Like most Swiss hotels the Einstein has one of the best restaurants in town. It is on the top (fifth) floor and overlooks the old quarter.
A double room in January went for about $165 U.S. Breakfast was not included.
Other deluxe hotels in St. Gallen are the Metropol and Walhalla, both near the railroad station, and the Santispark.
For more information on St. Gallen or Switzerland in general, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., San Francisco 94108, phone (415) 362-2260.