The name of this country often evokes scenes of mountains in the mind of many people and to a large extent that is true. After all, Switzerland is indeed more than 60% mountainous – the Alps and the Jura ranges sandwich the middle plateau. But on the middle plateau you will find numerous small towns, each of which seemed to have created its own industry of expertise and specialization.
One such place I visited was Solothurn, which lie in the northwest part of the country.
It is also known as “St. Ursen City”, “Wengi City” or the “City of Ambassadors”. It has also been called a city of culture. Finally, it has been called the most baroque city of Switzerland in part due to the strong architectural influence of that style in the 1600s. The city has a vivid history, being a participant of the medieval struggles of the imperial dynasties of France, Germany and Austria. With so many accolades, you would come to expect a lot!
City walls and cobbled streets
A main attraction these days, the fortification was built between 1667 and 1727 and encircled eleven bastions on either side of the Aare River. The remains of the town wall testify to the level of defense that needs to be mounted in those times. See how thick these walls are! And should you walk the steps up like I did, you’d be tired out by the end of it. The warrior knights of the day must have been really fit.
When one stroll around the walls today during autumn, the only feeling is one of great tranquility as the beautiful yellowing and orange hues of the leaves hang on trees lining the walkway. It must have been a little more “tensed” in those medieval days!
In the case of Solothurn, this translated into the buildings that dot the town. Later, you will see downtown which is not so bustling in the weekend. The reason all this took place in Solothurn was due to the wealth that the city was massing during the time that the French ambassadors to the Swiss Confederation resided in the city (1530 to 1792).
You see, these visitors come bearing gifts, or they spend money while here – confirming that money that goes around, makes a booming economy.
Now when you visit Switzerland, one thinks of chocolates and luxury watches. You probably think that this would be no different for Solothurn. Unfortunately, this town is more famous for precision made metal ware – such as the metal implants that fit in the human body. So, you will not see that many luxury watch shops in the town.
I continued on in my walk and ventured to the old part of the city – the famed baroque part. As in most parts of Europe on a Sunday, I expected the town to be empty. Indeed it was as the shops were all closed. However, there were some people milling around, enjoying the morning sun.
The city itself does not have tall buildings and most are 4-5 levels high especially in the old town area. The preserved character adds to the charm of the town and makes for an enjoyable stroll. I can only imagine the bustle of the day time in the working week when the shops come alive with shoppers and store associates!
The city of elevens
In my stroll through town, I came across many fountains and there is a fascinating story around them. The town has 11 fountains, each one very ornately decorated. The décor and design differ significantly and may had been used to commemorate specific events in the past. But why 11?
We are told that if we ask any resident of Solothurn about the holy number of 11, they will tell you it is because became the eleventh canton to join the Swiss Confederation (this took place in 1481). It is said that the city has eleven churches and chapels, eleven historic fountains and eleven towers.
St. Ursen Cathedral boasts of eleven altars and eleven bells. Its imposing staircase leading down from the main portal is divided into flights of eleven steps! Take your time to verify these… after all there is no shopping on a Sunday!
The dining experience is somewhat strange for me. For Switzerland is country with 3 main languages. Thus, you can as easily find great Italian restaurants as French ones. Tart flambé co-exist with German Wurst (sausages) and pasta. Then there is the unique fondue (cheese or chocolate) and rosti (layered bake potatoes).
If you take the train, it would be barely an hour to reach Zurich. And it is on foot around the city that is best to get the best out of the day(s) you have here. Being here twice was a privilege. And Mel definitely made best use of these opportunities to see as much as he could.
There are numerous towns and cities such as Solothurn that dot Switzerland. Each has its own character and rich history. Students of European history will find rich grounds to explore see and experience the location of epic battles, treaty signings and royal coronations.
After all, Switzerland only gained its famed independence and neutrality through conflict, sealed eventually with diplomacy.
November 2011 / August 2012