I had arrived at St Gallen around 8pm on a Monday, my stomach growled, having not eaten anything since noon, time to go find something light just to fill the tummy. My host looked at me, the only place open at this time of day is probably the gas station, you could get some stuff there, that’s all that’s still open, unfortunately… welcome to St Gallen on a Monday night…”
He was mostly right. (To be fair, its not that there is nothing available. There are places in the city that are open but don’t expect anything cheap or afforadable).
St Gallen is not necessarily a place you’d think of going to if you didn’t have something on. It doesn’t rank as high as Zurich does in the Swiss tourism pecking order. It doesn’t even make the top 20 must see Swiss sites on the Smithsonian’s recommendations list. St Gallen is today better known for its business school, the University of St Gallen, one of the most renowned business schools in all of Europe and counts the C-level business executives of some of the biggest firms in the world (Swatch, UBS, Swiss Re, Qiagen, Deutsche Bank, Thomas Cook Group etc) as alumni.
But the city is a lot more than just the training ground of future business leaders, it is a cultural gem in its own right being home to the Abbey of St Gall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many other Swiss national heritage sites.
Unlike Zurich, which was set up for the purposes of war, St Gallen was created for the purposes of peace. The Romans first established Zurich as a fort while St Gallen was first established around the abbey named after an evangelical monk, St Gallus.
The Irish missionary, Gallus was one of a number of missionaries whom historians consider as belonging to the Hiberno-Scottish mission. These monks, priests and academics were vital to the spread of Christianity towards Continental Europe from the 6th to 14th centuries. Their evangelical activities were not planned or coordinated, the only similarity was where these missionaries came from.
This place was not somewhere that Gallus had planned to stay and establish his base. He had arrived from Ireland with his mentor Columbanus but had fallen very ill and stayed in the Alemmania area to be nursed while Columbanus had to move on to Italy to continue preaching. Something about the valley of St Gallen however convinced Gallus to stay and establish his base, beginning an abbey and a preaching mission here. His strength of conviction, model the way, and power of speech soon won the new religion many new converts and before long his base became home to an abbey with a community of monks.
It seems almost a theme that Christianity was vital to the early thriving of Swiss cities. Just as the abbess of Fraumunster was the true power behind Zurich for a couple of hundred years, it was the abbot of the Abbey of St Gall who was the true power behind the city. Something that was progressively shed over time, once again by the growing power of guilds – the cloth-weavers guild in particular.
The link with textiles and clothe never disappeared.
While the cloth-weavers guild gained power in the 12 century, the textiles from St Gallen gained popularity in the 15th century, by the early 20th century more than half of the worldwide embroidery production originated from this tiny city.
Today, St Gallen textiles are the material of choice for the haute couture fashion designers in Paris.
It isn’t just textiles though, the canton is also home to one of the most influential chocolate companies in the world – Maestrani.
While St Gallen the city is a cultural gem, St Gallen the canton is also a gem of nature. All these works of human ingenuity pale in comparison to the sheer beauty of the nature all around it, St Gallen is a valley town opening up to the Lake Constance in a distance and aligned down a hill.
The hills and valley also turns an otherwise pedestrian, pesdestrian street into something really beautiful.
At a slightly further distance are even higher peaks such as the Säntis der Berg, one of the most prominent summits on the alps.
Join me as I explore the valleys and peaks of this canton!