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
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.)
The Rhein Falls
It's an even quicker trip from Schaffhausen to the Rhein Falls, Europe's largest waterfall. Just jump on Bus 1, direction Neuhausen (departs from the side closest to the train station), and in about seven minutes the recorded announcement will alert in English that it's the Rheinfall stop.
Alighting from the bus, you feel cool air wafting from the falls. Follow the signs from the bus to the top of the falls, about five minutes by foot. The sight is - quite simply - breathtaking. Stairs and paths lead to the base of the falls and to a promenade along the somewhat quieted river. From there, you can watch the full power of the Rhine force it way through three jagged gorges formed where the river broke through rock on its fight northward. One-hundred-fifty meters (450 feet) wide, the falls plunge 23 meters (70 feet) down a series of ledges and form intimidating standing waves and roaring froth.
Twice an hour, a bus runs from the base of the falls back to the railway station.
The best deal for getting around Schaffhausen, the Rheinfall, Stein am Rhein and to the near sides of Constance and Basel is the "FlexTax-Tageskarte" daily transit pass. For CHF 17 for adults and CHF 10 for children, the pass gives one-day access to all trains and buses. For the boat to Stein am Rhein, add CHF 10 for adults, CHF 6 for kids. The passes are available at all train stations, at bus stop automats, and on buses. Public transit is excellent, with frequent and clean buses and trains.
Schaffhausen/Stein am Rhine Hotels
A century ago, seven hotels greeted travelers emerging from the Schaffhausen train station. One remains: the privately-owned Hotel Bahnhof, in the fourth generation of the same family. The four-star hotel consists of 52 well-appointed rooms spread across four buildings built between 1798 and 1954. Given its location across the street from the station and adjacent to the old city, it's not surprising that nearly 80 percent of the hotel's guests are walk-ins.
Though privately owned, the hotel is affiliated with Best Western. Guest rooms are spacious with pleasant, if not elegant, surroundings. Upper stories provide views of the narrow streets of the old city and of the Munot Fortress. Windows are double- or triple-glazed, depending on location, to reduce or eliminate street noise.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 150-185, doubles CHF 230-270, suites CHF 350. Garage parking is CHF 14.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
Built in 1414 as a private dwelling, the Kronenhof became a hostelry in 1489 and later became one of the best-known inns along the upper Rhine. Even Goethe spent the night, or so the story goes. Extensive renovations completed in 2000 kept as much of the original architecture as possible - and eliminated all remnants of 1970s renovations.
Of the 40 guestrooms, Number 402 (shower only) is a delightful double with an ample balcony with a view of the castle and vineyards. Number 413 (bath and shower) features a balcony over the peaceful courtyard. One nice touch: an ironing room for guests.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 130, doubles CHF 140-160
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 13/20
Hotel Park Villa
Although it's barely 400 meters (1,225 feet) from the railway station, the Hotel Park Villa feels miles away, thanks to its location in a beautiful wooded park overlooking the city. The hotel was built in 1900 as a private home by a Hungarian merchant who told his architect to spare no expense. The result is a five-story Jugendstil villa with a somewhat over-the-top design and with towers and chimneys as crooked and whimsical as the headwear of the "Cat in the Hat." Inside, it's a step back 100 years, thanks in great part to the abundance of furniture, statues and decorations that the original owner brought from a Hungarian castle, and to the creativity, dedication and antique-finding skills of Max Schlumpf, the villa's soft-spoken but animated owner.
In the evening, many guests relax with cognac and pastries in the Schlossbar, a distinctive early 1900s salon with antique lamps and furniture. Others sit outside in the gardens, conversing by torchlight. In the morning, they gather for breakfast under a massive chandelier and park themselves firmly in hand-carved chairs with period upholstery.
The Park Villa offers a range of 27 rooms, from cramped singles to the deluxe former bedroom (room 17) of the villa's first owner, complete with hand-carved 1827 four-poster bed, parquet floors, Persian rug, ample antiques and a private oriel with a view to the rear. Most rooms fall somewhere in between. Room 19, for example, is huge, with a private balcony and spacious bathroom. It's best to discuss preferences with Schlumpf, who has a long track record of finding the right rooms for his guests.
Daily Rates: Single with shared bath CHF 78-98, single with private bath CHF 149-169, double with shared bath CHF 130, double with private bath CHF 179-229, suites CHF 249-308. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
Villa Iris is a work of love that Gaby and Piewo Rudin have made their life. The 1897 Jugendstil home had fallen into disrepair when the couple bought it. Much of the original structure and adornments remain: ironwork, windows, a functioning Kachelofen (tile oven), marble floors and rosette ceilings. But even more of Villa Iris results from Piewo's abilities as a painter and sculptor and from Gaby's knack of finding just the right pieces to make this house a home away from home. Evidence of Piewo's work is everywhere, from straightforward renovation to painstaking painting and plasterwork. They're the perfect match to Gaby's finds, like art deco lamps, Chinese lions at the doorway ("for good luck"), faucets with swan-shaped spouts, and her extensive collection of antique dolls.
Guestrooms are huge and filled with antiques and the Rudins' personal touches. (All rooms also have private toilet and bath and/or shower.) Number 4 has an antique marble fireplace, an ornate rosette ceiling, and a view to the hills. Room 7 has a large wooden balcony with wrought-iron railings and view to the backyard, a Kachelofen, a Jacuzzi tub set in marble, a working fireplace framed in bronze andirons from an old French castle, and wallpaper Gaby found in England and carried home. Number 1 is on the ground floor and entered through 200-year-old doors with their original locks. The 250-year-old carved wooden farmer's closet stands across from a massive bed. Number 5 is in Louis XVI style, with original period pieces, with Gaby's stuffed animal collection across the top of a closet and antique handbags on the bookshelves.
Despite the comfort of the rooms, most guests wander outdoors to find a quiet place to read, chat or doze—perhaps by the small lily-pond stocked with carp and goldfish. The villa is a 10-minute walk from the train station and three minutes from the #6 bus. There's free parking in front of the house.
Contact: Villa Iris, Eigerstrasse 17, CH-8200 Schaffhausen, tel./fax +41/052/6256550
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 100, doubles CHF 140
Rating: Quality: 16/20, Value 17/20
Hotel Zunfthaus zum Rüden
The Hotel Zunfthaus is one of Schaffhausen's dozen elaborate guildhalls, built 280 years ago by the city's food merchants. Many of the public spaces are elegant, like the stunning ballroom with parquet floors, detailed stucco and dazzling chandelier, and the grand staircase with its original wood and stone landings.
History is evident in guestrooms as well, with many wood beams and stone walls. All are spacious and straightforward, with the expected conveniences (showers only).
Until its remodeling in 1999, the hotel was a meeting facility, and today the majority of guests are still business people. Only fifth-floor rooms are high enough to look out over the rooftops of the city, and Number 506 is the only double on the floor. On the third floor, both Numbers 301 and 302 provide views of the Munot fortress, as well as of adjacent half-timber buildings. All rooms are nonsmoking. It's ideally situated in the pedestrian zone just a two-minute walk from the rail station.
Daily Rates: Single CHF 145, double CHF 220-250. Some weekend discounts.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
While the hotel itself is beautiful, the external architecture - jagged glazed-brick walls - clashes with Stein am Rhein's old town, which starts just across the street. Perhaps it was the excess of the 1980s, when it was built, or an expression of Scandinavian design by its Danish owner, but it's a visual assault on the quiet village. Most guests, however, don't come for the history. The hotel is used primarily by business people, who generally appreciate its private bar, sauna, swimming pool, fitness center and gourmet restaurant (on a terrace overlooking the river).
The hotel's 71 rooms are modern and spacious (all at least 35 square meters/290 square feet), with all the amenities. All have balconies, but only suites have Rhine views. Furnishings are rustic, but elegant. Mahogany furniture in the bedrooms and marble floors in the bathrooms help lend a historic feeling, as do the four-poster beds in 10 of the rooms.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 220-250, doubles CHF 270-310, suites CHF 450-550. Parking is CHF 12.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 12/20
For most of its 400-year history, the Rheinfels in Stein am Rhein has been a customs house, a warehouse and a guild house. Today, it's an unpretentious, clean and pleasant hotel with a super location immediately at the Rhine. The 17 rooms are decorated simply but pleasantly. Unless someone has an extended interest in Stein am Rhein, the hotels of Schaffhausen offer greater variety and services. However, it's extremely tempting to book the Rösli suite, which has a superb view of the Rhine and the homes on the left bank.
Daily Rates: Single CHF 130, doubles CHF 180. Rösli suite with private terrace on Rhine: single CHF 190, double CHF 250.
Rating: Quality 11/20 Value 13/20
Schaffhausen/Stein am Rhine Restaurants
Café Badstube Restaurant
In a 15th-century former bathhouse near the ship landing, guests can sit in old tubs converted to booths and look at painted scenes of men and women in their weekly (or monthly) ritual of bathing and scrubbing. The dining areas were nicely renovated earlier this year, but a solid sense of history remains: sturdy beams, original stonework visible through plaster walls, leaded glass in the windows, and a 1630 price list for bathing (that will be three kreuzen for bath and shampoo, please). Guests can also dine outside, either in a small courtyard under the Witches' Tower or on a terrace between the town's defensive wall and the Rhine promenade.
Service is prompt, friendly and multilingual, and the overall dining experience is relaxed and pleasant.
Prices are reasonable, especially by Swiss standards, with few items topping CHF 20. Fresh fish from Lake Constance and the Rhine are specialties, as is Rösti, the traditional hash browns, served here discus-size in a black skillet. Among the many varieties, the Urschweiz is especially flavorful, with ham, cheese and fresh mushrooms. For CH 7, you can add a trip to an ample and fresh salad bar.
Contact: Café Badstube Restaurant, bei der Schifflände, CH-8260 Stein am Rhine, tel. +41 052 741 2093, fax 741 5114
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 13/20
The Schlössli Wörth, a tiny palace built on a rock promontory jutting into a basin about 100 feet downstream of the Rheinfall, offers the likes of risotto with wild mushrooms, pan-fried trout with scallions and beurre blanc, and imaginative desserts - coupled with a perfect vantage point for one of Europe's most glorious natural sights.
Entrées average about CHF 18-20, especially reasonable given the location. Call ahead and reserve a table next to the long row of windows facing the falls. While sipping local wine, having lunch, or savoring a rhubarb tart, you can enjoy a stunning panorama.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20
From outside, the Schützenstube's fountains, gables and decorative façade are interesting and inviting.
Inside is just as inviting, from the relaxed, upbeat atmosphere, rustic setting and friendly, fast service to the variety and quality of cuisine.
Choices include beef carpaccio with wasabi sauce, breast of duck in honey-sesame sauce, banana curry and lemon grass on basmati rice, and wild mushroom risotto.
Entrées are in the CHF 19-24 price range with some creative salads at CHF 14-18. Most guests were regulars, and the chef came out and chatted. In winter, the restaurant presents variety shows, which explains the stage, curtain and spotlights.
Contact: Restaurant Schützenstube's Schützengraben 27, CH-8200 Schaffhausen, tel +41 052 625 4249, fax 624 3719
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 14/20
The oldest restaurant in Schaffhausen, Zum Frieden offers two dining experiences: a casual one in the rustic downstairs "Stube" and a more formal one in upstairs rooms. Each has a separate menu, but only the upstairs menu is displayed outside.
Although the Stube was empty and the upstairs nearly so, the waiter refused to serve an "upstairs" appetizer in the Stube. It was either choose from the high-priced snack menu downstairs or to head upstairs, where a larger hunger and broader budget might have appreciated choices like lamb medallion provençale, calves liver with risotto, and veal steak, priced from CHF 28-40.
Upstairs one finds rose petals strewn on starched white tablecloths and place settings fit for royalty, while "below decks" the scene was more rustic and, once the ordered salad was delivered, devoid of service. The upper restaurant surely offers better food and service, but ratings are based on actual experience.
Contact: Zum Frieden, Herrenache 11, CH-8201 Schaffhausen, tel +41 052 6254715
Rating: Quality 8/20 Value 5/20