Stories from the Rhine City of oriels

Issue: Winter 2013
Schaffhausen, the capital of Canton Schaffhausen, is a few miles upstream from the Rhine Falls. The city came into being because ships travelling from Lake Constance to Basel could not pass over the falls and needed a place to stop to unload their goods

Travellers required more hotels and restaurants, and so Schaffhausen expanded as a wonderfully hospitable place. I receive a warm, friendly welcome and realise the hospitality exists to this day. My guide is Hans Peter Rohr, who has now retired from his 17- year stint of showing visitors around his city, but is making an exception for me today. After 80 years of living here, Mr Rohr has a special relationship with the history of the city and collects old postcards of Schaffhausen. His collection has been published in a book, Schaffhausen im Bild Alter Karten.

As we take a leisurely stroll along the cobblestone streets, almost everyone he passes says hello. This is officially a Stadt (city), but it is tiny really. All the locals know each other, and wherever you find yourself, it is only a five-minute walk back to the train station.

Mr Rohr and I walk towards Hotel Kronenhof, along streets full of bay windows. He is a vital spark in this community; his oral history of the place is delivered with such passion.  He tells me that before the arrival of television, the street used to be the only form of entertainment. Side windows allowed the locals to look up and down the street without being seen. Added to that, was a desire to compete with neighbours over the beautiful oriels on the windows. The result is a city known as the Elkstadt, the city of oriels, with a total of 171 masterpieces. Along the window frames are stone carved pillars decorated in red and gold. House names are etched in ornate fonts, and complementing them there are symbols for each house's name, such as two angels curved towards each other to make a heart shape, and a majestic golden ox.

Until recently, houses did not have numbers in Schaffhausen, only names. In a town where everyone knows each other, a quantitative method of mapping out the houses was not necessary. Instead houses were differentiated by colour and symbol, such as rote Rose (red rose), and weisse Rose (white rose). The city grew and society changed so the town finally conceded to having numbers in 1987

We pass by Haus zum Ritter (House of the Knights). It has an elaborate fresco painted on the wall that dates from 1570. In the many panels of red and gold there are scenes of battle, a knight on a white horse about to charge, as if to leap out of the fresco, and in the centre, a naked woman, her hands reaching up into the leaves of a tree. Hans has a gift for translating the pictures into stories, of how when Odysseus was in the land of the lotus-eaters, he was tempted by a woman, but managed to resist. Above this scene, a Roman knight sacrifices his life for his country.

Back at the hotel, we drink coffee sitting in a window seat, and gaze out at the Munot fort, which sits on a hill on the edge of the town. It was built by the residents under forced labour from 1564 - 89, though the rich could afford to send peasants in their place. It is now used for more peaceful purposes such as balls, open-air music and film screenings At 9pm man, who lives in the tower on the castle wall just beyond, will ring the bell; it is a bell that once tolled the shutting of the city walls for the night. Waiters, dressed smartly in contemporary suits, glide past me in the lounge, and I have a sense of the past merging with modern society.



Editor's note: A previous version of this article was published in Swiss News in 2012      


Getting there

Schaffhausen and the surrounding area is situated in North East Switzerland, 36 km from Zurich. Trains run to Schaffhausen, and Neuhausen (for the Rhine Falls), and Stein am Rhein, There is also a train station at Schloss Laufen.

Schaffhauserland Tourismus

Rhine Falls


Stein am Rhein


Photos: Boesch

Author: Kate Orson

Kate is a British writer living in Basel. She has published articles about travel, health and parenting. She also writes fiction and is currently working on a novel.

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