Hiking in the Alps

Aarau: a stop-over in a beautiful old town

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September 21st 2019

A visit to a school friend from the Romanche course

This morning I left Arnhem by the 09.17 hrs ICE train to Basel SBB in transit to Zurich, where I will be staying until Monday afternoon. I had a stop-over in the city of Aarau: there Verena is living, a lady I met a few years ago during the course Rhaeto-Romanic (Vallader) in Scuol. We had a connection and as she had invited me already several times to visit her when I had the occasion, I had sent her an e-mail to ask her whether a visit for today would be convenient. That certainly was the case and therefore on arrival in Basel I changed to the regional train for the direction of Zurich. I arrived at 15.45 hrs at the railway station of Aarau, where Verena was already waiting for me on the platform.

By foot we went from the station of Aarau to the old city centre, where Verena is living. Since 2010 the largest (railway station) clock of Switzerland hangs on the exterior wall of the building – the clock face has a diameter of nine metres! – it is the second-largest clock in Europe…. On the station square bright red folding seats are placed, which have when closed the shape of a tulip: it shows the alliance of Aarau with its twin-city Delft in the Netherlands!

Aarau is an old town: in Roman times and in the 11th century settlements had already been on the location and in the vicinity of the present city. Early 13th century the Counts of Kyburg, an old noble family from the north and east of Switzerland, founded the town on a rock above the river Aare. In 1283 Aarau received city rights. Around the main streets which cross each other four quarters have been built (“Stöcke“). A ring of streets has been built around the quarters. In the 14th century the city has been extend in two phases – therefore the former city wall has been demolished or integrated in the new build. A new outer defence wall had been built, except at the north side. To the east and south side where the rock merges into the surrounding landscape a wide canal had been dug. The buildings in the inner city have all been built in the 16th and 17th century, when the Medieval houses were replaced or demolished. The houses have mainly been designed in late gothic style. There is a peculiarity to these houses: their roofs are shaped as “Ründe” (“rounds”) or arched gables with large roof extensions. These ceilings, the so-called “Dachhimmel” are adorned with beautifully decorated bottom sides. The paintings under these ceilings don’t deteriorate, because even with strong winds hardly any rain will reach them. The paintings have floral, geometrical and allegorical images. This construction style can especially be found in those parts of Central Switzerland that in the course of time have been in the sphere of influence of Bern. Therefore Aarau has got the name “City with the beautiful ceilings”. So it didn’t take long before we saw one gable after another – a great variety!

Hereunder a few examples of such (well-kept) “Dachhimmel”:

During our tour through the city centre we had at the west side, because it is situated on the rock, also a wonderful panorama on the eastern foothills of the Jura mountain range. I was slightly surprised, because I had always thought that those mountains were far more to the west, close to the border with France! The view – much closer by – from the point where the church Stadtkirche is standing, on the houses at the foot of the rock also was very attractive.

We also passed several plaques on the walls of the buildings. There was a somewhat faded metal plate with the almost unreadable text: : “Andreas Dietsch, Bürstenbinder, Schriftsteller, Früh-Sozialist und Auswanderer Gründer von Neu-Aarau/New Helvetia in Osage County, Missouri, USA. Er wohnte im Haus Pelzgasse 26 von 1835 bis seiner Auswanderung 1844 mit 100 Gefolgsleuten” (Andreas Dietsch, broom squire, author, utopian socialist and emigrant, founder of Neu-Aarau/New Helvetia in Osage County, Missouri, USA. He has lived in the house Pelzgasse 26 from 1835 till his emigration in 1844 with 100 followers). This Andreas Dietsch (1807–1845) was not only a dreamer and an utopian philosopher about an egalitarian society, but also a doer. He joined the utopian socialism, that would eventually influenced Karl Marx in a way that he propagated the pragmatic socialism. In Aarau Dietsch founded a emigration association “Neu-Helvetia“, and left in 1844 with a large group of like-minded for the interior of the American State Missouri, where his utopia soon turned into a big mess and in 1845 led to his death… Dietsch and his followers couldn’t have foreseen that four years after his departure to America the Swiss Confederation would implement an amendment to the Constitution enabling the development of a modern constitutional state… Another plaque – this time a nice one made of marble – is devoted to the Swiss general who had first served under Napoleon Bonaparte and later under the Russian Tzar Alexander I, en and famous author of military-strategic works Antoine Henri Jomini (1779–1869). He was from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, from Payerne in the north of Canton of Vaud. He had lived in this house in the Pelzgasse when he was 15 years old and studied German and commercial sciences at the institution which was a precursor of the Cantonal School in Aarau. Later on he worked in the banking industry, but his big passion went out to military tactics and strategy, which he studied in his spare time. When he was 19 he was appointed adjutant of the Minister of War of the Helvetic Republic, a vasal state created by the French. He did his job that well, that he got promoted time after time and pursued an illustrious military career. Because of his enormous knowledge of military history and a keen eye on the way the army had to be (re)organised he proved to be of great value for both the French and later the Russians. The term “logistics” appears to have been invented by him. He has led a. o. the logistic operations around the retreat of the French at the Berezina… In 1810 he has returned to Aarau, but then to discuss his career switch to the Russian army. In 1937 the plaque has been offered by the Swiss Officers’ Association, because their chairman, a well-known author of military books himself, had acknowledged Antoine Henri Jomini’s importance as a general, but also as Swiss patriot. The reason that the plaque looks that new is that it has been put on the wall only in 1982: in the Second World War the original plaque had fallen to pieces during renovation works to the facades and the new plaque, paid for by the insurance, had been in storage at the stonemason’s workshop during all these years…

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Aarau: a plaque for the Swiss military strategist Antoine Henri Jomini (1779-1869, who had lived here from 1794 to 1795

The City Hall, Rathaus, has a stepped gable, a lovely clock under the roof-ridge and at each window planters with colourful geraniums. The oldest part dates from the 16th century. In the 1950s a large wing has been added to it, which is of course much more straightforward in design, but which suits well together. Another particularity of Aarau is the city’s stream. Although the river Aare flows past the city, the city that is on a high position, needed to have its own water supply. Therefore an artificial stream has been dug out. Now it flows through the street, mostly in gullies which are covered with plates, but a. o. at the square in front of the City Hall it flows above ground. There is a yearly tradition, that has been kept alive for 150 years: the so-called Bachfischet: the “inauguration” of the stream after the yearly clean-up. In former times this was done by all inhabitants of Aarau, mostly around September 1st, St. Verena’s name day, after which they were thanked with food and drinks. Nowadays it is done by the municipal cleansing department. In the evening schoolchildren with nicely decorated lampoons will pick up the first water that flows through the clean bed, at the city boundary and accompany the water through the whole town to where it flows into the Aare. I had just missed that festivity: it had been held yesterday evening! Andreas Dietsch, the leader of the utopian colony New Helvetia, has not only published political works – he has also written the oldest known (humoristic) story about the Bachfischet! One of the remarkable houses is in the Metzgergasse (Butcher’s alley) and was used as slaughter house in former times. This cannot be seen in the roof ceiling, but rather in the nicely painted images on the wall with a colourful procession of sheep, goats and cows… Now the building houses a theatre and a restaurant. The terrace with the big parasols looked inviting.

In the western part of the city centre is the “Brunnen der Gerechtigkeit” (Fountain of Justice), which in former times had been very important to the city as water supply. Therefore it had been standing originally on a central location in the old city centre, but it has been removed in 1905 and rebuilt at a point close to the church. Until 1634 a statue of a knight holding a flag with the city’s coat of arms had been standing on the pillar. After its collapse it was replaced by an allegorical representation of “Justice” with blindfold, sword and scales. The Bernese Fountain of Justice from 1543 had stood example. The protestant Stadtkirche church is a large, white building that is positioned on the edge of the rock, close by the fountain. Towards the west there is a wonderful unobstructed view to the Jura mountain range from the oldest parts of the city walls (dating back to the Counts’ of Kyburg times). The church has been built in 1471–1478 on the foundations of an older church (possibly already from the 11th century) – the church tower (from 1442 or even earlier) has been kept and in 1663 elevated. In the 1960s the church, which has been listed in the Swiss inventory of cultural heritage of national and regional importance, has been completely restored. The interior is very bright, also caused by the white walls and the straight wooden ceiling with inscriptions in a letter type that looks quite medieval. In the choir the light is special because of the stained glass windows, that are made in 1939–1943 by Aarau-born Felix Hoffmann (1911–1975), an internationally known graphic artist, illustrator and maker of stained glass. In the period from 1938 to 1974 he had designed stained glass windows for several churches in the Canton of Aarau. The Felix Hoffmann-Weg links six of these churches – the stages of this walk through the Canton take in average 1 à 1½ hrs: the Stadtkirche in Aarau is one of them. The newest organ dates from the 1960s, but the late baroque cover from the mid-18th century has been saved.

After this interesting tour through the city, during which Verena, who has lived in Aarau for so long , had been telling a lot, we went back to her apartment. There we had the chance to catch up! The late afternoon sun threw a pleasant light into the room – and warmed it as well! The mushroom risotto with a. o. Bünderfleisch was excellent and the glass of red wine too!

Around 20.00 hrs Verena took me back to the railway station. Around half past eight I boarded the regional train to Zurich, where I arrived some 30 minutes later. From there I walked to my hotel. What a wonderful way to start this holiday!

2 Comments

  1. Isabelle

    Beautiful writing. I will include this in my file for the trip that was going to be NOW but the world is on hold these days.
    Thank you. I will read your other blog.

  2. Micki

    We as well will definitely wander thru this village. We were suppose to be in Switzerland today and an inn keeper from Kirchleerau was going to pick us up at this train station after flying into Basel. NowI have time to add more info and time to a hopeful trip in Late September

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