40: Saint-Ursanne in Pictures + Cafes

Swiss shutters are always picturesque.

Saint-Ursanne is a lovely place to visit if no reason other than that they are kind enough to print their tourism brochures in English, as well as the usual German, French and Italian. It is refreshing to look on an historical monument and not have to make up stories about it from our rough interpretations of non-anglicized leaflets.

One of Saint-Ursanne’s town gates.

Saint-Ursanne has preserved its medievalness by holding on to a non-franchise business model – this means, there is not a McDonalds in sight. The downside of a no-franchise model is that it immediately ups the cost of visiting here. Lunch for $40 a person, anyone? The upside is that the town retains its lovely charm. The lack of neon billboards is very likely the reason the place has such a serene ambiance.

There is, however, one food-related franchise allowed in – a Swiss franchise grocery store called Coop (pronounced koh-op), that sells lovely sandwiches for under seven francs, although it is closed on Sunday. A little convenience store opens on ‘Spanish business hours’ (closes for a two-hour lunch break), where tourists can bump up their blood sugar levels with chocolate and ice cream bars. For the more cultured, a wine and cheese shop is also open on Sunday.

Best to pack a lunch.  We long ago tired of funneling endless dollars into the Swiss restaurant industry, delightful as the restaurants are here, but still enjoy Swiss dining ambiance by whiling away some time over coffee and ice cream at street cafes. This town has a particularly charming outdoor cafe with the restaurant on one side of the street and the tables on the other, shaded by a large white awning tethered to twin rows of trees. The service was good, although the servers refuse to speak any English, and prattled on at us in French and German. We didn’t mind. When it comes to ordering coffee and ice cream, we are fluent in many languages.

A lovely shaded street-side cafe by the rue de quartier sits at the far end of this church grove. It is one of the best shaded eating spots in town.

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41: Saint-Ursanne

When people think of little Swiss villages, the picture floating about in their minds is probably very much like Saint-Ursanne, a tiny 12th Century village we tramped through this weekend. Saint-Ursanne’s warped clay-topped buildings back into the Jura Mountains white limestone cliffs, and overlook the River Doubs and beyond to picturesque grazing pastures.

The train passes above Saint-Ursanne, more than through it, and so the town is a charming 10-minute hike down the Jura cliffs over this cobblestone street. The walk back up is about 30 minutes. We did see a bus take passengers down, but not up. This would be in keeping with Swiss tradition, which is to climb inclines at every opportunity. I’m joking. I’m sure there is a bus ride up the hill, but not that we saw.

The atmosphere here is lazy, with an almost Spanish sensibility, although we were mindful that this is still the shoulder season in the tourist calendar, and the town’s proliferation of antique shops and cafes suggest the place is packed with travellers at the peak of the season.

It is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.

For those interested in church history, it is home to the Maison de la Dime, the area’s bishop-prince’s house where the church’s tithe was held. A tithe today is understood as one-tenth of  a person’s income that is given to God, or because God does not trouble himself with banking, what with owning all the real estate there is, and being able to make more should the need arise, the money is given to the church. Some churches today accept tithing through debit machines and I am sure automatic withdrawals can be arranged, but back in the 1500s, tithing was a somewhat messier business as it represented one-tenth of all livestock and crops. This necessitated the prince-bishop’s storehouse.

Non-church-goers back home in Canada/U.S.: Keep your goats, sheep and other livestock at home should you decide to visit a church. Most churches consider visitors akin to houseguests and do not ask for your tithe, be it in money, cheque, plastic or livestock.

Visiting an historic church in Europe: We’ve never been asked to pay admission, although a few churches keep out a donation box.

Second stops in the small spots of Switzerland.

Just another quiet church music rehearsal.

Switzerland has any number of sites worth seeing a second time, and one of those is Solothurn, where for the second time we stumbled into the Jesuit Church (Jesuitkirche) on the main drag and for the second time, happened into a music rehearsal. Do I detect an echo? (click here to hear what we heard and to see the camera pan over the ceiling frescoes)

Architectural detail in frescoe-jewelled High Baroque architecture found in Solothurn's Jesuitkirch, built in the late 1600s. We had showed up in the Spring and walked in on a colourful folk-gospel rehearsal featuring a female soloist whose voice matched the High Baroque building’s rising arches and columns. This time, we got a “horse of a different colour” with a choral and classical music performance, just for us and a few others drafted in off the street to enjoy the moment. It’s times like these that we have to suspect God loves to show off the good stuff.

Switzerland has a little of everything, including Christian martyrs that the Romans beheaded in the 3rd century, and who are remembered in statuary at St. Ursen Kathdrale. As is usually the case, the Romans did not mind the Christians worshipping God, they were just peeved the Christians refused to acknowledge Rome's deities, demonstrating that what ticked off people then, ticks them off still.

I grew up in a university district with some fairly interesting friends who came from families of broad talents and skills, among them, a few professional symphony musicians.  Maybe my music tastes were crafted during those impromptu violin and piano concertinas that served as intermissions from discussions on international politics, biochemistry and the mental dysfunctions of our track coach. Ever since, my ear has preferred the roughshod uncut take on a musical piece, something like Susan Boyle’s first run at “I dreamed a dream” on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. The heart and giftedness in her uncoached version of that song tops any of her later polished productions.

Which is to say, if you go to Solothurn, or any Swiss town for that matter, be sure to step into the churches and see what’s going on there. Odds are, there will be nothing but grand architecture and maybe the sale of souvenirs, but it seems that in Solothurn, the odds might be excellent that you will see something that you will never forget. Church music, living room jam sessions, rehearsals in unexpected places, these are the things that make memories that will go with us for years to come.

Oh yes, and chocolate. Chocolate makes memories, too. Speaking of which, Solothurn is home to a number of chocolateries, where visitors can idle the afternoon away comparing, cooing and slipping into chocolate comas. Not a bad way to pass the hours.

Other things to see:

    • St. Ur or St. Urses or St. Ursen Kathdrale on a sunnier day

      Kunstmuseum – A small art gallery with big art history, including work by Picasso, Cezanne and other masters. This vibrant museum also hosts modern art exhibits that are as good as anything to be seen in major cities.

    • St. Ursen Kathdrale – This church has been closed to the public, we believe due to renovations (remember our language limitations), but you can still enjoy its exterior, as well as a 250-stair climb up its bell tower for fabulous views. Note: Do not attempt this if you have a family history of heart disease. Click here for a description of the vertical march and to see our sunny-day visit to Solothurn in the Spring.
    • Altes Zeughaus – Weapons museum that we are sure is lovely, but we were too cheap to pay admission, so we offer no appraisal on its merits.
    • Rathaus – An appropriately named office building for the municipal government. In keeping with the foot-dragging policies of municipal governments everywhere, this building was constructed over a period of 235 years. Think of that next time you go to your town hall asking for street lights on your block.
    • Fortified walls, towers and gates – Stroll through the old-town to see remnants of these structures left over from the 1600s.

What’s in a name? Murten or Morat?

The view from Murten/Morat's castle ramparts where on June 22, 1476, 2,000 Murtonians/Moratians beat 20,000 invading French back into the lake, causing many of the armor-clad French to drown. The townspeople were aided by about 10,000 neighbours. This battle is considered seminal to the creation of the Swiss Union. Note: The French were hungover from partying the night before. True story. Also of note: The Swiss are famous for their mercenary soldiers. By this we conclude that it is not the legendary Swiss neutrality that protects against foreign invasion, but Swiss ferocity.

It began with us sprinting through the train much to the horror of our fellow passengers, but it wasn’t really our fault. We blame multiculturalism and its child, multilingualism.

In Canada, multilingualism earns high respect, but here in Europe it leads to high-annoyance. My international readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but even the multilingual Swiss can have trouble clearing language hurdles.***

As an example, the lease negotiations between Dave’s corporate rep and our apartment’s leasing agent were conducted in English, although they both spoke French and German. So why English? Because it was their strongest common language and to use the descriptor “strongest” is stretching it.

We, the mute, listened as they waffled back and forth in three not-very-good languages, hearing one question spawn the response “yes” at one moment and “no” in the next. Consequently, the terms of our lease are a mystery to us.

It brought back memories of my multilingual European father who back in the early 1960s decided we would speak English only, saying that it was better to be eloquent in one language than an idiot in many.

Before you write your angry letters, let me say I know there are people out there who are masters in many languages. I just have not run into many yet.

But I drift from my topic, which is Murten/Morat and how we got lost trying to get there. I don’t drift too far, though, as language formed the foundation for our trouble.

Medieval castle ramparts in Murten/Morat.

We got on the right train, heading in the right direction. As Biel fell behind us and the Swiss countryside opened up, we paid attention to town signs and watched the villages for castle ramparts and ancient churches – the attractions that were bringing us to Murten.

After what seemed a reasonable interval, we began to worry that we had missed our stop.

I recalled hearing the train’s recorded announcement heralding “Morat,” which was not on the map or in the train schedule. As it turns out, Morat is the French name for Murten.

We learned this later – that Swiss villages/towns frequently have both German and French names, but for some reason hidden in Swiss Rail’s corporate headquarters, they switch languages in a sporadic manner. Maybe it prevents invasion from foreign armies, or too many tourists amassing at any single point.

In any case, that is how we missed our stop.

Looking out from Cressier's rail station, Switzerland. April 2011. Clearly, we were in trouble.

We got out at Cressier, which by Swiss standards is absolute Heck as you can see by this photo (right), and then feared that this being a Sunday, there might not be a train for hours. Stuck in Cressier! Switzerland’s “Brugge.”

We were wrong about that and with some help, soon boarded a train returning to Murten.

But our travel-nerves were jangled, so we watched anxiously for signs of Murten – or Morat, call it what you want cause that’s what the Swiss do –  and the minute we saw something that remotely resembled the pictures in our guidebook, we got on our feet. The train came to a stop, but the doors wouldn’t open. We don’t know how trains work here, so we sprinted in a frantic manner through the cars looking for an open door, like rats stuck in a  trap.

One of us may have shouted, “Stop the train! Let us out, let us out, we want to go to Murten,” but I’m not saying who. At that point, a passenger said, “We’re not there yet.”

It is comforting to know that we gave our fellow passengers something to laugh about on that otherwise quiet ride. It is also comforting to know that we will never see any of those people again.

As it happened, the doors did not open because we weren’t actually at a station yet. If we had gotten out, we would have plunged down a steep incline. So sorry to have missed that.

By the way, we have also learned that the buttons we thought were for opening doors were actually emergency-stop buttons.

Eventually, we found our way to Murten-Morat, a charming medieval village by any name at all.

***This is a rant, and so is not bound by logic. If my Dad had decided to school us in European languages, our little sprint could have been averted. But where would be the fun in that?