The sentinel on the Rhine

The Munot tower sits above the old town of Schaffhausen

Schaffhausen is the northernmost of the Swiss cantons, and one of the smallest, with a population of only 70,000. The region tends to be overlooked by tourists, who head straight for the time honoured favourites of Lucerne or Zermatt. But Schaffhausen, both town and country, is well worth a visit.

This content was published on April 27, 2001 - 14:23

Schaffhausen is sometimes known as the "sentinel on the Rhine". The town was founded on a bend in the river where boat traffic had to be interrupted due to rapids and the mighty Rhine Falls. Schaffhausen of course did good business throughout history helping boats overcome these difficulties.

The town of Schaffhausen itself is dominated by the famous Munot tower, a 16th century round fortress, the only one of its kind north of the Alps. The Munot traditionally had three functions: to defend the town, to store ammunition, food and water, and to protect the population.

In times of war, the people of Schaffhausen would enter the Munot by underground passages and barricade themselves in a huge stone chamber, which can still be visited today.

Access to the top of the Munot is not, as might be expected, by spiral staircase, but by spiral ramp. This was so that horses pulling carts full of ammunition or food could also get to the top.

Since the sixteenth century the Munot has had a resident guardian to look after the tower. He lives in an apartment right at the top, and traditionally his duties included ringing the tower bell every evening at nine.

The sound was a sign to the population to close the city gates, put their fires out, and put their children to bed. Nowadays the bell is still rung every evening, but it's said Schaffhausen's children don't pay much attention to it!

The 16th century builders didn't skimp when they built the Munot: as well as an apartment at the top, there is a huge circular platform. Today, traditional dances are held up there every Saturday in the summer.

The route from the Munot into the old town of Schaffhausen passes through vineyards; this part of Switzerland makes wine, and the people of the region are justifiably proud of their Tokay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.

One of the most pleasant aspects of the town of Schaffhausen is that the old quarter is now mainly a pedestrian area. Visitors can stroll around in an atmosphere which has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. (Despite a mistaken bombing raid by the allies in 1944, who probably thought they were over Germany because of Schaffhausen's position north of the Rhine.)

A walk through the winding streets reveals the ornate baroque houses of Schaffhausen's most prominent former residents. Fancy family crests are carved on the famous bay windows of Schaffhausen - there are 170 in all, and many have a peculiarity of Schaffhausen: little slits cut in the side or bottom of the window. This was so that those nosey 16th century ladies could spy on their neighbours!

The signs of Schaffhausen's twelve guilds can also be seen on some of the old houses; the town is traditionally famous for its craftsmen, from furniture makers, to makers of surgical instruments, to watch makers. In fact, some of the world's first pocket watches were made here in the sixteenth century (audio file).

St Johan is one of Schaffhausen's famous churches. There has been a place of worship on its site since 990, and the remains of the original church can still be seen in the crypt under the more modern building.

The church boasts one of Switzerland's largest organs; with 56 registers and 4,500 pipes. It's the centrepiece of Schaffhausen's Bach festival, held every three years.

Of course a trip to Schaffhausen would not be complete without a visit to the famous Rhine Falls in nearby Neuhausen. They are the largest waterfalls in Europe; 150 metres wide and 23 metres high.

Every second, 700 cubic metres of water flow through the falls. To see them is dramatic, invigorating, and even a little bit terrifying if you take up the offer of a boat trip underneath them, or brave the observation platform right at their centre. But however you view the Rhine Falls, view them you must. Schaffhausen, the "Sentinel on the Rhine", just would not be Schaffhausen without them.

by Imogen Foulkes

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