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Stein-am-Rhein - Stories on Walls

About halfway between Konstanz and Schaffhausen, set among meadows and castles along the most beautiful stretches of the river Rhine, is Stein-am-Rhein, one of the loveliest and best kept medieval villages in Europe.

Stein-am-Rhein is home to 3,000 people. On this Sunday afternoon in September, there were at least twice as many day-trippers from nearby Austria and Germany. About a million people pass through annually. And I hadn’t even heard about it until yesterday, when I happened to leaf through a book about Bodensee, randomly opening it on the Stein-am-Rhein page.

Crossing the river to the medieval village, I noticed old colourful half-timbered houses lining both banks of the Rhine. Boats of every kind were moored along the stone quays. Two elderly women in straw hats deftly manoeuvred a little boat with a small outboard engine along the lively, fast-flowing Rhine. A family of four in a canoe paddled furiously and the two small children seemed to enjoy it immensely. An old wooden barge docked at the quay, tipped precariously on top of a wave.

Luckily, I took a roundabout route into town - taking in the quaint cobblestone alleys and lanes before I saw the Rathausplatz, Market Square. Afterwards, it would have been hard to appreciate anything else. Stein-am-Rhein’s Rathausplatz is considered to be the most picturesque village square in all of Switzerland. Oriels and magnificent, intricate sixteenth-century frescos adorn the walls around the square. One house is more beautifully decorated than the next.

I walked around staring, mouth open, no doubt looking severely deranged, bumping into others in distraction. Fortunately, everyone else did the same. Soon we were all digging out cameras and some pretty frantic picture-snapping ensued. It was as if George Clooney were looking out an oriel window or something.

All the houses tell stories and it’s worth taking some time to examine the frescos in detail. Focussing on just one building was difficult, but as I was sitting at no 9, Altschweizerische Weinstube Zum Rothen Ochsen - The Red Ox, the oldest tavern in town, enjoying a salad and a tiny decanter of house red, it seemed natural to begin here.

The facades have frescos illustrating the name of the house. Zum Rothen Ochsen has a red ox fresco, as well as various medieval village scenes. In one, a group of women in medieval dress are chatting on the square. One of them is busy conversing with God, who holds up his hands in a gesture of either “I bless you” or “OK, OK, you win”. The woman seems quite determined, so it’s probably the latter.

To the left, a well-rounded woman with long, blond hair dressed in nothing but a gold penchant, carries a piece of white cloth attached to a wooden triangle — as a parasol, perhaps.

Another fresco depicts two women chatting in an everyday sort of way, never mind the fact that one of them is holding a dagger in one hand and a man’s severed head, tongue protruding, in the other. This might be a snippet of their conversation:
- "What’s that in your hands, there, Elsie?"
- "Oh, nothing really. Just got tired of old Wilhelm never bothering to shave, so I decided to give him a hand. I got the knife, grabbed his head, and whoops... had no idea that thing was so sharp."
- "I see. You should be more careful you know. You could have cut yourself."
- "Oh, I know. I know."
- "Won’t you get rid of the head, dear? That congealed blood is beginning to smell. Must be this warm weather we’re having."
- "Of course. I’ll just dump it in the river here." Splash.
- "So, how are the children, by the way?"
Voices fade as they walk away.

On one side of the oriel is Sapientia, a woman all buttoned up, looking serene with a book in her hand, probably the Bible — and the words Soli Deo Gloria next to her. On the other is Melancholia, in skimpier dress, head in hand, looking rather, well, melancholic. It doesn’t seem to be much doubt which one I’m meant to emulate.

Above is another woman with an odd-looking little black hat perched on top of her head, who looks about to stick a dagger right into her chest. Dramatic stuff, this.

Another is of a medieval square, where a knight has just arrived on a rearing horse, raised sword in hand. Everyone looks at him but doesn’t seem overly impressed with his bravado. I must say, though, after a few glasses of wine, he looks kind of cute, armour and all.

Next to Rothen Ochsen is no 7, the high, red gable making it the tallest building on the square. This is Zur Vorderen Kronen, The Foremost Crown, sporting a fresco of a large golden crown, carried by two chubby curly-haired cherubs.

On the other side, at no 11, is Steinerner Trauben, or Stony Grapes. The main fresco on this house is of two grey-haired men in ancient Greek dress, carrying a large and obviously heavy vine of juicy, purple grapes between them. Further along, at no 13 is Hotel Sonne, the oldest hotel in the village. The main feature here is a huge, laughing sun overlooking a man trying to hide in a barrel while being interrogated by soldiers.

At the front of the square is City Hall. With its half-timbered top floor and scenes from Stein-am-Rhein’s history, it’s just as gorgeous as the rest. From the tower, bells chime every hour.

On the opposite side of the square is Hotel Adler (Eagle) and next door, at no 14, Zum Weissen Adler (White Eagle) is considered to be the most beautifully decorated building in town. It’s from 1520 and the centrepiece is a white eagle; a thin one with an evil yellow eye and really long claws.

Above it, a couple of young men in musketeer-type outfits, complete with huge, flowing feathers on their hats, seem to be using an old bearded man with tied hands and feet for archery target practice. The king is looking on sternly, a crown in his hand, probably saying: "Now, now, lads — let’s leave that poor man alone, shall we?"

Below, a scene shows a young man lying prostrate at an odd angle, no doubt dead. An older man on a white horse is talking to a sad young, nubile maiden with long, flowing, brown hair: "Now, daughter, he really wasn’t good enough for you. Some day, you’ll thank me for taking him out. Just you wait and see."

Elsewhere, a young naked couple, the woman obviously pregnant, is tied to a pole, perhaps waiting to burn at the stake? They look a bit down at the mouth. Probably being punished for having a bit of unmarried fun, I shouldn’t be surprised.

Below them, a naked woman with long blond hair and a very voluptuous body is holding a chubby child. Endearing scene - until you notice she has hooves and a tail sticking out from her plump bottom.

I had planned on staying in Stein-am-Rhein an hour or so. Four hours later, I was still walking around, looking and bumping into people. Sadly, I had a plane to catch. Otherwise, this would have been a wonderful place to spend the night, living behind the façade frescoes of Hotel Adler, hanging at the Red Ox, drinking red wine and making up stories about the frescos. Stein-am-Rhein is bound to be a very atmospheric place at dusk. Actually, I suspect stories would just leap out from the walls by then, and I wouldn’t have to make them up.