Like the Irish missionary St Gallus, I needed a place to lay my weary head. Unlike that saintly fellow, who simply set to and built himself a cabin along the River Steinach, I needed a bit more ready-made comfort with wireless Internet access, please. But then Gallus had arrived in the year 612 and built his shelter with the help of a local bear, whereas I was a recent traveler to those parts and had more modern ideas about bears.
Named in honor of that intrepid monk, St Gallen is a vibrant, easy-going city and canton (state) in the northeast corner of Switzerland. As some of my ancestors had long been a part of the St Gallen scene, I certainly intended to visit, but I hadn't any idea of spending my whole vacation there until circumstances put a crimp in my loosely drawn travel plan, and I found myself scrambling for a roof over my head.
See, I'm one of those travelers who cringes at being tied to a set itinerary in case I feel like changing directions on a whim. So, I only reserved a room for five nights one night in Zurich, four nights in St Gallen after that I'd let serendipity lead. Catching a head cold and finding no room at the inn wasn't what I had in mind.
None of my advance research had revealed that Switzerland was hosting "Euro 2008" only the biggest football (soccer) event in Europe and that fans would arrive en masse and beat me to every hotel room in the country.
After several failed attempts to find a bed in various locales, feeling out-of-sorts and hard done by, I had a sudden preference for retreating to my own bed at home. Flirting with the idea of giving up on my Swiss holiday, I tried one more resource: Bed & Breakfast Switzerland where I found Irma Ionescu's home listed for St Gallen.
"Come, we'll see," said Irma Ionescu when I called. I went, and that was how I met an inspiring woman who proved to me, once again, the old adage: it is the people you meet on the way who make or break a vacation.
Irma Ionescu got her Romanian name from her first husband, whom she divorced after five children had been raised.
Irma got the house on Scheidwegstrasse from her grandmother when others in the family wanted to sell the 100 year-old brick and stone building. Irma bought them out but went on with her usual life in Zurich until a hard thing happened. Diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration, Irma's eyesight began to fail.
Irma thought her active, fulfilling life had come to and end.
"I cried and cried," she told me over tea one day. "Then, I stopped crying. Enough was enough."
Pulling herself together, she thought what to do. Having had to give up needlework, an occupation she loved, Irma decided to pull up stakes in Zurich, move to St Gallen, and open a bed and breakfast in her grandmother's old house. Now, at age 79, Irma has a new career.
"I like it, and I don't have to travel because the world comes to me," she said with a twinkling eye that belied her condition.
But then everything about Irma belies the condition that is robbing her of sight. She has had the old house renovated to modern standards. Two bright, fully-equipped flats on two floors have three bedrooms each, share kitchen, bath, laundry, lounge, and dining area.
Every day, Irma manages the stairs up to and down from her top floor apartment. She prepares a light Swiss breakfast of bread, cheese, and preserves for guests. She cleans, gardens, and looks after e-mail with the help of magnifying aids. She is still able to take a weekly trip to Zurich to visit family. Once or twice a week she goes out to "gym" classes, and she regularly attends English lessons. One day I found her putting together a new bed and a table of many pieces to equip a downstairs garden flat.
"I like to work," she said. "If I'm not working, I'm sleeping."
And there I was, whining about a sniffly nose and scratchy throat. I pulled myself together and decided to make the most of a prolonged stay in St Gallen. I'd make myself at home, shop locally, dine in mostly, really get to know the place. I'd take day trips instead of hotel hopping all across Switzerland.
Irma's place is about a half-hour walk to St Gallen's attractive downtown shopping core, or a ten-minute bus ride (CHF2.50) to the Hauptbahnhof (main rail station), the heart of town. All city and regional buses begin and end there as well as direct or connecting rail links to all parts of Switzerland.
There are half-hourly direct train connections to Zurich Main Station as well as Zurich Airport (50-60 minutes). Direct trains also go to and from Berne (2 hours), Geneva (4 hours), and Munich Germany (3 hours).
Sightseeing in St Gallen begins in the Abbey district, just a 10-minute stroll from the rail station along Kornhausstrasse, taking a left at St Leonhard Strasse, left on Oberer Graben, then left again into Gallus Strasse where you find carefully maintained 16th century buildings surrounding Monastery Square.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Abbey of St Gall came into existence around 720 when a priest named Othmar began constructing a Benedictine monastery to commemorate the work of the Irish monk, Gallus, who had, in 612, established a hermitage on the spot and who is credited with converting the local Allemanni tribes to Christianity.
Today's Abbey complex includes several buildings of which the following are interesting to tourists: the gloriously decorated 18th century baroque cathedral the Abbey Library (Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen), which holds 160,000 books and manuscripts, some over 1,000 years old and the Lapidarium containing archeological relics from the 9th century.
With a local population of around 160,000, St Gallen is large enough to support theaters, museums, a major soccer club and other sports venues along with regular cultural events. I was delighted to find that within 10 minutes I could be on a hillside walking path (wanderweg) consorting with cows and saying "gruetzi" (hello) to passing locals. I found that most folks in St Gallen politely exchange greetings.
From the rail station it's a 10 or 15-minute walk eastward to the leafy museum district (Museumstrasse) and city park (Stadtpark) following Poststrasse to the pedestrian zone around the market square (Marktplatz). Notable in passing is the imposing Vadian Memorial, a statue of Joachim von Watt (1484-1551) who made a name for himself as a religious reformer.
Museumstrasse and neighboring streets are the cultural and entertainment hub of St Gallen. Within a stone's throw of one another you find the concert hall (Tonhall), home of St Gallen Symphony Orchestra St Gallen Theatre for plays, music, and dance the Natural History Museum, Museum of Art, Museum of History and Ethnology, and the Vadiana Cantonal Library.
With good intentions to visit all of these places when I felt better, I kept putting off mind expanding indoor activities in favor of fresh air, walking outdoors or, at least, riding to places where I explored on foot.
I got in the habit of taking a bus or train ride to outlying picturesque communities just for a stroll around and a bite of lunch in a nearby gasthaus.
Dating from 853, Altstätten, or "Oldstead," is a tourist destination in its own right with a good visitor infrastructure in place. This old town records a colorful history as various feudal uprisings and political power struggles ensued over the centuries. Rising from the plains of the upper Rhine valley to Appenzellerland hill country, Altstätten is a good base for hiking and biking excursions in the surrounding region. I made a circle trip back to St Gallen by way of the Appenzell Railway (via Gais), a rack rail line that crawls up through the hills on a 16 percent gradient.
One sunny, warm day I made another circle trip to the town of Appenzell, a region that duly justifies the term "picture perfect." The train stopped at several hillside towns, all very neat in their distinctively Swiss way, gabled houses brightly adorned with red geraniums overflowing their flower boxes. Huge wooden farmhouses with attached barns dotted the orderly patchwork of green hills and valleys. Even clumps of forest seemed placed for the most pleasing pastoral effect. Then, as the train rounded a bend, the breathtaking sight of the Alpstein Massif suddenly appeared, looming like a giant fortress above the Appenzell hills. Mount Säntis, at 2,502 meters, is the highest peak in the region.
Appenzell is known as a place that reveres and preserves old customs. For example, the Alpfahrt and Alpabfahrt are semi-annual, processional cattle drives up and down the mountainsides with all human participants wearing traditional dress.
The annual Landesgemeinde is a centuries-old way of conducting canton (state) business in an open-air parliament held the last Sunday in April. Eligible citizens vote on issues by shouting and show of hands. In 1991, the Swiss Supreme Court ruled that excluding women was unconstitutional, so that long-standing custom finally, if reluctantly, ceased.
Appenzell, it is said, is a good place to hear yodeling and alphorn playing although I didn't. Actually, the place was pretty sleepy when I was there. Except for the gasthaus where I enjoyed a cooling beer on the breezy patio, all shops and the local museum were closed for lunch (noon to 2pm). In fact, closing during lunchtime is common, though not all-embracing, practice in eastern Switzerland.
To get a good look at the high Alps, I went further afield to Lucerne. Abundantly blessed by its gorgeous setting on the lake, the ice-blue rushing River Reuss, and framed by snow-capped peaks, Lucerne also has plenty of historic allure. In 1332 it was the first city-state to join resistance to Habsburg rulers alongside neighbor cantons, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. Those three regions had, in 1291, formed the pact that began the Swiss confederacy. I had only time for lunch at one of the many restaurants lining the River Reuss, and a look through the History Museum. It was just enough time to insure that Lucerne be on my must stay list for a future visit.
Instead of the train, I took a 30-minute bus ride from St Gallen to Rorschach, located on Lake Constance (Bodensee). This is the place to catch a water-cooled breeze on a warm afternoon. Lake Constance borders on Austria and Germany as well as Switzerland, and boat trips operate to numerous ports around the lake. Cycle touring around the lake is also popular.
Waldkirch, Oberhelfenschwil, and Waltenschwil are other pretty towns within two hours of St Gallen that I visited because of ancestral links, but there are dozens of other quintessentially Swiss places like them. For leisurely excursions to the country with time for a walk, or a bike ride, and a bite to eat, St Gallen would be hard to beat as a starting point.
Making myself at home in St Gallen meant I missed getting to see other places on my sketchy plan A, such as the Bernese Oberland, the Jungfraujoch, the Matterhorn, the major cities of Basel, Berne, and Geneva. But, in retrospect, I don't mind because I realize that I much prefer having enough time in one place to learn my way around. I like to take each day as it comes and as I please, rain or shine. In fact, I actually spent two rainy days resting, doing nothing but nurse my cold with hot drinks, and cough lozenges given by my thoughtful hostess Irma Ionescu, a most inspiring woman I had the good luck to meet, thanks to serendipity.
Information: St Gallen-Bodensee Tourismus.
Swiss Pass: A 22-day pass would have cost US$446 (June 2008), covering the entire rail, bus and boat network plus free entry to 400 museums and a 50% discount on many mountain railways and cable cars. Most convenient.
Half Fare Card: allows unlimited purchase of train, bus, boat and some cable car tickets at half price within one month. Can be purchased in Switzerland. Requires a passport type photo. Savings for me: about $75 overall. Best value.
Irma Ionescu Bed & Breakfast, Scheidwegstrasse 1, CH-9000, St Gallen. Tel. +41 (0)71-244-8141, Mobile +41 (0)76-375-2663. Bus 1 (Stephanshorn) to Krontal. Nicely renovated, old house. Convenient to town, transport, and shopping. Family atmosphere. Rates (2012): CHF 65-80 (C$/US$69-85).