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.
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Leaving Leipzig

Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the birthplace of the teardown of the Berlin Wall.

Some bad things have happened to my family in Germany, like European airlines extorting money from us in $500 chunks to let our dog or a bike pass through Frankfurt airport, and then my Dad was arrested there for refusing to be an informer for the Soviets. Tough luck, that.

The Berlin "Wall" as it appeared around the time my father tried to cross into West Berlin.

But none of those things occurred on this trip to Leipzig, so hopefully our bad run with Germany is over, which is a good thing because, gosh, their food is much better than expected, and certainly better than what they fed my Dad in that jail.

Leipzig has some sadly decomposed old grand buildings, such as the Astoria, which are almost as interesting to look at as the medieval quarter of town. The city’s northern outskirts are somewhat depressing, stretching out in decayed old industrial zones perhaps still lagging behind due to Communist rule even 30 years after the Germans gave the Soviets the boot. Nevertheless, the city centre outside of the historic quarter is lined with beautiful old architecture.

Leipzig's Astoria hotel, a grand old dam now in serious disrepair.

Less well-known to North Americans (but very well-known to Germans, I imagine) is that Leipzig was a beachhead of sorts during the Second World War. The Brits and Americans were busying themselves with bombing Berlin, when one night the Germans launched a significant concentrated counterattack, punching a big hole in the Allied Forces air fleet. The next night, the Nazis readied their forces for a repeat performance only to have the Allied fighter planes skirt around Berlin and hit Leipzig hard. It was a shock to the Germans, as the Allied Forces had never gone that far into Germany, and in fact, it was thought at the time that such a distance was out-of-range and safe from airstrikes.

Leipzig also housed a concentration camp. As the Allied Forces moved in, 12 Nazi guards torched a bunker with 500 prisoners in it, many of them Russians and Czechs. As some prisoners escaped the flames, they were gunned down by the 12, and those that escaped the bullets died in the electric fencing. Very few lived to relate the story. It’s the sad and shocking history of Germany, and another testament to the fact that there is no army so savage as a defeated one.

Hard to believe the culture that nurtured those 12 guards is the same one that was home to Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, as well as being the birthplace for Schuman. Leipzig still has a vibrant arts community, a university and parks, although I only walked into one park and immediately turned around as it seemed to have a derelict population. Probably nothing wrong, but why take a chance?

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

Bach's burial site in the austere Thomaskirche. We hung around outside the building one night, listening to an organ playing. Most of the lights were out, and the church was dark. It was beautiful and haunting.

If I had learned German instead of French, I would know what this inset statuary is all about at Thomaskirche. As it is, I don't know a thing.

Leipzig, a past that is dark and light. An amazing place, and worth the trip.