Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Virtual Vacation - Chur, Switzerland

The town of Chur sits like a decorative knick-knack among the Alps of eastern Switzerland. The streets of the old neighborhood are a storybook come to life. The Plessur River flows down from the southeast, cutting a straight line through town, joining the fabled Rhine out on the northwest skirts. The verdant alpine slopes up above watch over Chur like loving grandparents. The surrounding countryside is replete with vineyards, keeping the town in good spirits.

If you aren’t checking flights by now I don’t know what else to tell you.

If you are checking flights, be prepared. Chur sits in the middle of a rough circle formed by Zurich, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, Milan and Geneva. The intolerable wonders of Paris and Vienna are slightly further-flung but eminently accessible. What hell to have to choose which city to fly into! You’ll then have to tolerate being whisked headlong into the Swiss Alps via a train system that is the transportation equivalent of satin sheets.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Travel, of course, is a subjective experience. Memories of moments and places and people are romanticized and clouded over time. Landscapes and cityscapes change. Writers embellish and downplay the good and the bad to self-serving ends, filling in the blanks in their notes with photographs and fairytales.

That said, my own clearest recollections of Chur consist not of the sights of the old town – I have pictures for that – but of how I felt as I wandered, with my wife and one-year-old son, those sublimely rich and incongruously empty streets.

Thoughts can crowd the head. Feelings can flood your heart. Rare – and perhaps sadly so – is that paradoxical sense of contentment and hunger. Of wanting to stay, yet at the same time aching to see what else is out there. That is what I feel when I travel. It’s what I felt in Chur.

Turbulent History of a Quiet Town

The soil beneath Chur has surrendered archaeological evidence dating from as far back as the Neolithic Age (3900-3500 BC). Such findings place the area around Chur among Switzerland’s oldest settlements. Artifacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages have also been unearthed, suggesting this place has held its value over the millennia.

Around 15 BC the Romans expressed their interest in the neighborhood by crashing the party and forcibly remodeling. The next thousand years would see similar house-burnings and house-warmings thanks to the Ostrogoths moving in from the north and east, the Franks from the north and west, the Magyars from the east, and the Saracens from further east.

In the 13th Century, thanks to some brand spanking new walls, Chur could finally relax. Then came the 14th Century, bringing with it fires that would destroy two monasteries and a church no fewer than half a dozen times. On two separate occasions the entire town burned down. All the while the waters of the Plessur and Rhine Rivers were running plentiful on the wrong side of those walls.

By 1367 the people of Chur, antagonized and frustrated by everyone now calling their town Char, began to revolt against the rising power of the bishop by forming an organization called the Gotteshausbund – “the League of the House of God” – as if such a name would make it harder for God to take the bishop’s side in all of it.

The first mention of a Burgmeister (Mayor) of Chur was in 1413. By 1419 the townsvolk had gotten up the pluck to raid the bishop’s residence, poking him in the eyes with his own hat and telling him once and for all to take his tithing and stick it. With this, a more secular form of governance began to take shape. 

Though it took two centuries God finally began to see through the “Gotteshausbund” ploy. In 1646 the Angry Almighty reintroduced the town to the concept of fire and brimstone, destroying everything except for the bishop’s estate and the St. Luzi monastery. But by now dealing with fire was in the people's DNA, and no later than the following year the church had lost all governmental power over Char I mean Chur.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum, a parade of guilds became, collectively, the proverbial new sheriff in town. Guilds were basically spin-offs of the church idea, with less singing, more interesting lectures and a different kind of collection plate. Most popular was the winemakers’ guild.

After more fighting the Protestant Reformation circus came to town and quickly won over the people. The bishop, who was inexplicably still hanging around, decided to finally turn tail and run, leaving the abbot of the bishop’s estate to be the one to lose his head in the town square.

God's ire knows no bounds, and the next hundred years saw more fires eat large swaths of the town. Perhaps due to a collective need to curse more emphatically, the people of Chur adopted German as the common language of the citizenry, ousting the Romance language known as Romansh, favored though it was by the winemakers’ guild.

After all this the Napoleonic Wars amounted to mere nuisance.

When this area was designated the Graubunden Canton in 1803, Chur was chosen as its capital, and remains as such today.

Chur & the World

Downtown Chur sits about 600 meters above sea level. Its official borders actually run another 1200 meters up into the surrounding mountains. Chur’s topography, paired with its temperate seasonal climate and its modest abundance of vineyards, make it the veritable twin of my adopted home of Matsumoto, Japan. Yet Chur’s sister cities are limited to zip codes in Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Luxembourg. For all their resilience, one could argue these folks could stand to broaden their horizons a bit.

Geopolitically-neutral Switzerland boasts four official languages: German (the most common), French, Italian, and that historical leftover, Romansh. To be precise, the official language of the country’s German-speaking region is Swiss Standard German, used on all official written documents but never actually spoken. When the people of Switzerland open their mouths something called “High Alemannic Swiss German” comes out. The people of Chur speak a local dialect of this Swiss version of Hoch-Deutsch, unintelligible to at least one guy who studied German for seven years.

For the record, I speak Classic Secondary Minimalist German and Ichiban Kevin Standard Japanese.

Soccer may dominate Europe’s sporting stage, but Chur plays by its own rules. Fussballclub Chur 97, the local soccer team, languishes in the nation’s fifth tier, just above the country’s best high school teams. In contrast, Chur’s American Football team, the Calandra Broncos, have won nine of the last eleven Swiss Bowls, the last three by a combined score of 117-18.

Their home stadium, Ringstrasse Chur, seats 2,820 raving mad fans.

Why Chur?

Good question. I'm still trying to figure that out. Yes, there is that alpine beauty and that old world charm. There are things, material and otherwise, that I can't get at home. But in this Chur is not unique. So how is it that she still lingers in my thoughts after all these years?

There's an answer, I'm sure. But like that paradoxical desire to both stay in a place forever and go put more miles on my boots, I may have to let my visceral memories of Chur remain unexplained. I probably have little choice.

Besides, while words can open up entire new worlds, they can also limit the view.

So I'll shut my trap for now, and let Chur speak for itself.

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