Friday, April 30, 2010

St Gallen: A Swiss city founded by an Irish monk

It all started when an Irish monk charmed a Swiss bear in the 7th century.

The bear gathered wood for the monk and was immortalised. Gallus, the monk, established a monastery around which grew a beautiful town, a textile industry, a sausage called Olma, and a festival of the same name.

Nineteen centuries after St Gallus arrived, we joined the festival, Alpine horns boomed, the procession of cow bells tonked, and, as dancers in folk costumes flounced down the street, a float followed dispensing glasses of foaming, golden, draught beer.

We were in Switzerland's northern canton of St Gallen and in the capital of the canton, also called St Gallen.

When the procession had almost passed, we walked across the road, noosed by a sharp, spicy, aroma. Two women, one who looked like a benign aunt and a younger blonde who we later learnt was from Kosovo, deftly scooped up two sizzling, palm-sized, sausages from a grill, inserted them into packets, and handed them over along with two buns...

Olma sausages have to be slightly charred and are never served with mustard or any sauces.

They are slightly crisp outside, soft inside, featuring a delicious blend of veal and pork with — and this is what surprised us in such a northern part of Switzerland — a mixture of mace, cardamom and white pepper. We asked ourselves 'How did spices reach this distant land?' We got an interesting answer, albeit tangentially.

Gallus probably knew how to make the famed Irish linen and he recognized the shrubs that grew in St Gallen as flax. The first textiles made here were of fine linen, produced from this plant.

Textile traders from St Gallen carried their products to the far corners of the earth and an old building, identified as the Textile Bourse, was decorated with sculptures of the heads of the natives of five continents: Europe, Africa, Australia, America and Asia..

Textiles are still very much a past of the economic outreach of St Gallen. We visited their excellent Textile Museum. It traces the history of fabrics from those found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and Coptic burial sites through the whole range of weaves and embroidery to state-of-the-art textures burnt out by computer-controlled lasers.

The smug prosperity of the traders of St Gallen became obvious to us when we strolled through Gallenplatz: The town square. Here the houses ranged from half-timbered ones with conical roofs like the settings of a fairy tales, to those with the high-status oriel windows thrusting out from the facades so that their owner could look down — quite literally — on the common people walking below!

We then strolled across to the fascinating Abbey Library. This has now been declared a part of World Heritage by UNESCO and draws 100,000 visitors every year.

Interestingly, people entering the library have to wear cloth overshoes to protect the ancient floors.

Apart from books and manuscripts, the library also has exhibits donated by its patrons from all over the world including the beautiful mummy of an 19-year old Egyptian.

A Greek inscription above the baroque doorway leading to the Library expresses the purpose of this great collection. It rightly claims that that library is a Sanctorium for the Soul. The Library was built up and nurtured by the Abbot of the monastery and the learned monks of the Benedictine order.

In the 16th century however, Europe was riven by its own, tumultuous, Great Cultural Revolution: the Reformation.

The Monastery was closed by religious reformers who got the collective title of Protestants because they had protested against some practices of the Catholic Church.

The palace of the Abbot became the seat of the secular civic administration. The authority of the Church and State were separated.

The Library, however, continued under the ownership and control of the Catholics, as it is today.

The most resplendent of all the buildings in St Gallen, naturally, is the Cathedral of St Gallus and Otmar. It is difficult to choose any single feature in this towering edifice.

Naturally, there's a statue of a towering Gallus with a small, rather docile, bear carrying a log. But this is the very least of its treasures.

Artists and artisans have vied with each other to give their very best to this imposing place of worship. The domed ceilings are richly painted; even the furniture of the area where the choir sits has been intricately and painstakingly carved.

Then there is stucco plaster work and a complex wrought-iron grille, highlighted in gold, separating the altar from the pews of the congregation.

Amid all this ornate decoration hangs an old, and rather battered, iron bell to one side of the altar.

Metallurgical tests have established that it has the same composition as bells made in Ireland in the 7th century.

Like St Gallen and his bear, old ties are what make this place special!


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