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The Rhine is most famous as a German river. Its spectacular falls, however, are in Switzerland. See them and explore two fine medieval towns in the country's northernmost canton, Schaffhausen.

By Jim Johnson

Schaffhausen
Schaffhausen

With an impressive 171 oriel windows, extensive rococo façades and eye-filling Renaissance frescoes, Schaffhausen should be pulling in history and architecture-loving tourists in droves. It's not - yet.

The Swiss city that straddles the Rhine after it leaves Lake Constance, suffers from an identity crisis. For centuries, it was a way-station; first for freight that had to be off-loaded and transferred to wagons to portage the Rheinfall, later as a convenient overnight stop for early train passengers. Today, the city seems undecided whether to be a visitors' annex to nearby Stein am Rhein, the postcard-perfect medieval village, and to the Rheinfall, Europe's mightiest waterfalls, or to show off its own considerable historic and architectural assets.

Happily and justifiably, the pendulum seems to be swinging toward self-pride.

Even local residents are joining tours to learn more about what their town was and can be. They start in Fronwagplatz, the former marketplace, and learn about the distinct architectural styles of the city's 12 former guild halls. They look at Zum Goldenen Ochsen, with its detailed frescoes depicting scenes from Babylonian and Greek legends. They study the differences in the styles of oriels, the often ornate bay windows that jut out from many buildings, and they relax and retreat in the courtyard garden or cloisters at All Saint's, an 11th-century Benedictine abbey.

At every turn, there's hidden treasure: from ornate plasterwork and devilish rain spouts to decorative 19th-century mailboxes and intricate wood-carved stairwells. In the entryway to a former monastery (now a library), baroque stone work is juxtaposed with blue neon sculpture overhead and in the floor. And above the town, the imposing Munot Fortress provides views to all directions, as the powerful bastion has for nearly five centuries.

Schaffhausen is also experiencing growth in the number of art galleries, studios and cafés, as well as an increase in the variety and quality of hotels and restaurants.

One-hour guided tours leave from the Schaffhausen Tourist Office on the Fronwagplatz at 2:30pm every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Depending on the participants, they are conducted in German, French and/or English (CHF 12 for adults, CHF 6 for children).

Stein am Rhein

At Stein am Rhein, the point where the Rhine "officially" leaves the upper stretches of Lake Constance, it's an unfamiliar river - narrow, calm and teal, rather than the surging brown current of Bingen, Bacharach or Bonn. Boats are moored at river's edge, and stone stairs descend from half-timber homes into the water.

You can get a good feel for Stein am Rhein in less than two hours, although you'll need considerably more time if you stop in the many galleries and boutiques, enjoy a meal on the river, or climb 190 meters (575 feet) above town through vineyards to the Hohenklingen Fortress. From the fortress tower, the view extends over the town and into vineyards and farmland. The town square is almost too much for the eye. In three directions, painted façades on 15th-century buildings fill the view. The fourth side is dominated by the 16th-century Rathaus.

Unfortunately, many visitors will not stray far from the town square, which should be just the starting point for a visit. As one of its 3,000 residents put it, "In Stein am Rhein, you have to keep looking behind the curtain." The best parts of the town are indeed elusive, but take the advice to look "behind the curtain," as Stein am Rhein is still very much a living city. A peek into the 14th-century Fronhof, for instance, a small courtyard lined with half-timber houses, will reveal the sounds of kids shouting and playing, the aroma of the evening's dinner, and the sights of drying laundry - perhaps the curtain is best left as is.

But an aware walker will find colorful gardens, intricately carved doors, dragon rain gutters, metal rods that served as medieval doorbells, and dramatic frescoes throughout the village. On the river, long fishing skiffs make their frequent trips to cast nets and lines.

The Rhine promenade leads upstream to the well-preserved, millennium-old St. George Monastery. At what looks like a dead end, just past a sweeping willow tree, a low passageway cuts through the cloister wall, where a museum offers a fine view of town history and culture.

The best way to reach Stein am Rhein from Schaffhausen is by boat. It's about two hours in each direction, along quiet waters past vineyards, farmland and forest. Boats leave approximately every two hours from the Rhine pier. For those in a hurry, trains leave the Schaffhausen and Stein am Rhein railway stations every half-hour. The 11-mile rail trip takes about 25 minutes (with stops). From the Stein am Rhein station, it's a five-minute walk to the Rhine and across into the village. (You can also go one way by boat, the other by train.)