A fairy tale land

A fairy tale land

A town that looks like a Disney fantasy, Schaffhausen abounds in natural beauty. Hugh & Colleen Gantzer admire the beauty of the Rheinfall, indulge in mouth-watering desserts and take a stroll amid the colours of autumn.

Here, on the German border of Switzerland, we found a South Indian connection. Not that it was obvious at first, though the setting was magical. Autumn was blazing gold, copper and wine-red on the trees and the Rheinfall thundered in this 962-year-old town. The falls had given birth to a settlement. Barges had had to offload their cargo of fat, fluffy sheep before the falls and either sell them here, or have them herded beyond the cascade. The settlement soon grew into a market and burgeoned into a workers’ village. And so they called it Schaffhausen: the word schaff could refer to ships, sheep or Stevedores’ houses.

Most of the old wooden houses had gone, but when we trudged up the winding road to Der Munot, the city’s circular fortification, we got an eagle’s eye view of the town and its quilted valley. From here Schaffhausen resembled a scene from a Disney fantasy. Church towers stood like religious sentinels guarding rows of houses winding down cobbled streets. In the distance, wooded mountains hunched protectively, softened by river mist. Many of Walt Disney’s tales had been spun in such fairytale settings.

Indian connection

Disney towns had a cobbled square and a clock. In Schaffhausen’s town square, there is a 450-year-old clock that still works. It not only shows the hours and the days of the week, the phases of the moon and five other horological events, but a special hand also indicates the rising and setting nodes. We, in India, refer to these as the serpent navagrahas, rahu and ketu. In this clock, the hand that indicates these is shaped like a snake-like dragon.

Then there’s the beautiful Mohrenbrunnen am Fronwagplatz Fountain. It has the statue of a dark-skinned man with a turban, a curved sword and a golden goblet. He is said to represent Caspar, one of the Three Wise Men, who journeyed out of ‘the East’ to worship the Christ-child in Bethlehem. According to Jesuit scholar Father H Heras, the three savants, often called ‘the Three Kings’, were from south India. Do the dragon hand of the clock and the Caspar statue indicate an old trade connection with our land?

We were admiring the intriguing Fronwagturm, when a scholarly-looking man, with a trimmed white beard, wished us and said something that sounded vaguely familiar. He smiled when he saw our puzzled expressions. Then he said, “I apologise. I was trying out my very limited Hindi.” He nodded at the clock and explained, “It is my speculation that the Reformation came from India,” and then he added, “Till that time, very few people questioned established authority. Your Nobel Laureate, Dr Sen, wrote The Argumentative Indian. The religious revolution known as the Reformation was about expressed doubts, arguments. Where did they come from at a time when such questions were anathema? And such a torrent of them! Like the Rheinfall.” Then he raised his hat, bowed, and walked away.

We ducked the question, leaving it to historians and theologians. We choose a more exciting close encounter with those iconic falls.

We boarded a boat along with other thrill-seeking passengers and headed into the swift-flowing river. Soon we were pitching and heaving like a leaf in a millrace. Some passengers clung to the gunnels, their knuckles white as they gripped the edges of the boat. Others stared anxiously at the turbulent, churning waters around us. Most had their eyes fixed on the roaring, snarling, foaming anger of the white cascade ahead as we drew closer, and closer, and closer, its spray enveloping us in a cloud of furious mist. We were awesomely close to the 16,000-year-old Rheinfall, which is 150 metres wide, 23 metres high, gushing 600 cubic metres of water over its cliffs every second. For us, it was an exhilarating experience. But even so, we were glad to be back on firm ground again.

Happy stomachs

When we returned, drenched, shaken and stirred, we realised that the high doses of adrenaline had drained us. We needed a quick recharge. We found it in a Swiss pastry shop. Generally, the colder the climate, the blander the food. But puddings and pastries are a special exception. In the days of great class distinctions in Europe, only the elite could afford to indulge themselves in such gourmet delights. The addition of cardamom, cloves and cinnamon to your confections generally indicated that you were a prosperous person who had access to these exotic spices. We relished these flavours of India, as we recharged ourselves in this very tempting confectionary with its warm, mouth-watering odours.

Then we indulged ourselves in something we seldom have the time to do: window shopping. Walking through wine and gold drifts of autumn leaves, we recalled the time when the Rheinfall came to the town’s rescue. Schaffhausen is German speaking, and was dependent on cross-border trade. From Germany came its prosperity. From Germany, too, came the Reformation. And, in the 19th century, from Germany came a change in trading patterns that almost brought economic disaster to Schaffhausen. Germany imposed customs duties deterring the flow of goods across the border. But from Germany, too, came the Rhein.

Happily, an entrepreneur from Boston had discovered the high potential of Schaffhausen. It offered cheap hydro-electric power and an expertise in watch-making that dated back to a clock-makers’ guild in 1583. Bostonian engineer and watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones teamed up with Swiss watchmaker and industrialist Johann Heinrich Moser to form the famed International Watch Company of Schaffhausen. In the glittering IWC Museum, which doubles as a showroom, we pottered and fantasised and smiled and left when we realised that their most expensive creation would have bought a snug little cottage in our little Himalayan town.

We walked away, a little reluctantly, allowing our dreams to dissolve into soft-focus reality. After all, a slow, hand-holding stroll in an autumn evening, through a beautiful Swiss town like Schaffhausen, is as close to living a dream as you can get.

Comments (+)