St. Gallen: Briar Patch City

Welcome to “the Writing Room of Europe”, or as I like to call it “the waiting room of Europe”.

St. Gallen is the city in which I work both as a ESL teacher and a Starbucks barista.

It is a city where I still wait for my professional dreams to come true, yet seem to stumble over and over again.

In fact, stumbling is what brought this city into existence, if local lore can be believed.

In AD 612, itinerant Irish monk Gallus, a follower of Columba, was travelling south from the Lake of Constance (the Bodensee) into the eastern Swiss forest.

Legend has it that Gallus fell into a briar patch and considered the stumble a calling from God.

After a fortuitous encounter with a bear, in which Gallus persuaded the bear to bring him a log, take some bread in return and leave Gallus in peace, Gallus used this log to begin building the hermitage that would one day morph into St. Gallen’s cathedral.

In the 8th century, one of Gallus’ followers, Otmar established a monastic community around Gallus’ cell and founded a school of scribes and translators.

In the 830s, Abbot Gozbert established the Great Library and St. Gallen’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning grew.

The Abbey Library (or Stiftsbibliothek) is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and famous for its stunning interior and for its huge collection of rare and unique medieval books and manuscripts.

Enter beneath the Greek sign Psyches Iaterion (Pharmacy of the Soul), slip your feet into a pair of oversized felt slippers and slide across the Library’s beautiful wooden floor.

The ceiling is decorated with frescoes, books are ranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves all around the visitor and an Egyptian mummy, a gift to the Mayor of St. Gallen who had no idea what to do with the damn thing, sits uncomfortably in a corner.

Despite the library and the monastery district in which it stands being listed in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, it surprisingly still operates as an ordinary lending library and study centre, with some 140,000 volumes focused on the Middle Ages.

The Library and the nearby Cathedral of St. Gallus and Otmar are what draw most visitors to St. Gallen and justifiably so as they are wonderous monuments of man and God well worthy of a visit.

But what books like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide fail to mention are other exhibits and museums like the Historical, Art, Nature, Textile, Warehouse and Beer Bottle Museums.

St. Gallen is a great city to take in a concert or visit an art gallery or take in a show at either a cinema or a theatre.

It has two indoor pools and four outdoor pools and one can keep fit by jogging through St. Gallen’s forests or run up and down Mount Freuden.

Fancy a game of squash, tennis or minigolf?

Come to St. Gallen.

Like to hike?

Take the Bangor cable car up to Mühlegg and follow at a leisurely pace a path to the Dreiweiher (Three Ponds), or follow the Brückenweg (Bridge Path) and see 18 bridges from many different centuries.

The Weiherweg is an easy walk high up over the rooftops of St. Gallen, while the Planet Path will find you marching through the Solar System and through the Botanical Garden.

In St. Gallen one can ski, skate, watch ice hockey, football or curling.

FC St. Gallen is, in fact, the oldest football club in Switzerland.

One can bowl, play pool, climb a wall or gamble in a casino here.

The University of St. Gallen is internationally famous for its legal and economic faculties and has 30 institutes and over 5,000 students attending classes from all over the world.

(Even today, the university still suffers from a lack of space.)

The wildlife park Peter and Paul is home to the nearly extinct alpine ibex and the wild lynx along with a groundhog facility surrounded by meadows, forests and a ravine.

The Botanical Garden has over 8,000 different plants from all over the world.

St. Gallen is home to a population of over 74,000, many of whom inevitably find themselves walking through, on and over the Stadtlounge, a section of the historic old quarter covered by a red rubber tennis court coating that envelopes chairs, sofas, tables and even a car with the intention of creating an outdoor living room for residents and vistors alike.

The downside of St. Gallen is that life here, as in the other eight major cities of Switzerland, is expensive, so the locals must work long and hard to afford to live here, so those you meet might not be as friendly and patient as you might hope.

But before you stumble back onto a train heading away from the Briar Patch City, stop in at the Starbucks at the Bahnhof (train station), where a welcome as warm as mulled apple or caramel macchiato awaits.

St. Gallen is not Paradise but nonetheless you won’t be sorry you stumbled upon it.

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