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The International Writers Magazine: Travel

St. Gallen: Don’t Judge a Building by its Façade
Loraine Balita
Do not judge a book by its cover. This cliché kept circling around in my head as I stepped inside the train after my short day trip around St. Gallen. What was supposedly my silly search for the best Bratwurst, turned out to be a crash course in baroque architecture and on ‘how not to judge a building by its façade’.

St Gallen

With my trusty backpack, I set off in search of the best tasting Bratwurst North of Bern. As I stepped off the train, the cold morning breeze brushed against my cheeks and welcomed me to St. Gallen. I wasn’t expecting much that morning, just a short stroll down the city center, window-shopping for watches, college-boys watching, and my final prize for the day—my favorite sausage, Bratwurst.  So I started my tour, city tourist map in hand, circling the arcades. The brick floored streets were lined with stores selling everything from knives to watches and mugs. After 15 minutes or so of walking, my sausage still seemed elusive.

After a few more minutes of trudging, going in and out of stores, checking watch prices I caught a glimpse of a post card I instantly liked. St. Gallen’s treasure, the card says, is a UNESCO cultural heritage site. A picture of a museum cum library was splashed across the card priced at 1 franc. So I dug up a few coins from my pocket and purchased the card that I then stared at for a few minutes before I started smelling something nice. A few more steps and I got nearer and nearer to a Bratwurst store. After I signaled the German speaking Bratwurst vendor to give me one, I squeezed what must have been a spoonful of mustard all over it and headed straight to where the students were going.

A concentration of Baroque structures cornered a spot where the students sat on grass. A few were reading books, some were frolicking barefoot, and a pair was just lying there too busy sniffing each other. Finally it was just my Bratwurst and I. The grass felt soft and the chilly breeze was perfect for eating hot off the grill sausage smothered with mustard. Just as I thought the day could end here, I remembered my post card. After my last bite I held the card up and lay on the grass. As the rays of the sun peeking at the sides of the card started burning my cheeks I decided to end my frolicking on grass session and take another stroll.

Just after wiping the last straw of grass off my right arm, I noticed a towering structure that stood right in front of me. Sans the clock, this cathedral looked too plain and boring. But I guess since it’s just a few steps away, it could be worth checking, I told myself. And so I walked a few steps up to it’s plain and boring looking door and stepped inside to get one of the biggest slap on the face-shock of my life.

I took a deep breath, couldn’t decide where to finally rest my amazed eyes. With my mouth half open I marveled at the intricate embellishments on the cathedral’s ceiling, altar, and pillars. The white basilica with three naves and a central cupola was brightly lit. My eyes were drawn from the light green stuccowork to the sandstone floor, massive double-width pillars, up to the array of frescoes on the ceiling.  A panel shows Mary sitting on a cloud with angels, while the huge central cupola shows paradise with the Holy Trinity at the center surrounded by apostles and saints. The lavish details all through out the cathedral extends even up to its richly carved wooden confessionals, pulpit, intricately designed choir stalls, and the high altar flanked by black marble columns with gold trim.

 In around 612 Gallus an Irish monk build his hermitage here and on his seventh-century journey from Ireland, he brought back a bell that is still featured in the altar. It is one of the three oldest surviving bells in Europe. The whole cathedral was completed in 1767 and was designed by Peter Thumb from Bregenzafter.

After going around this cathedral in awe I decided to get a front seat and see this cathedral’s effect on other people. I sat beside the door and chose the perfect spot that would afford me a perfect view of visitors’ faces as they come in.  Two women in their 30s came in with the same look plastered across their faces—that of awe and disbelief. The interior silenced their noisy, hurried conversation and like me they marveled at the baroque embellishments with their mouths half open.

I followed the other visitors and exited the cathedral to go around the surrounding complex. The famous library is located around here I was told. After climbing up and down some stairs, entering hallways that stood witness to the lives of monks who roamed there hundreds of years ago I reached a section lined with visitors eager to get in. Grey slippers lined the door just outside the library. After purchasing my ticket I was asked to remove my shoes and look for my size. The soft slippers I was told would prevent the inlaid wooden floor from scratch and dirt. Visitors were not allowed to take pictures so I stared closely at the library’s features and hoped to save a mental picture of it in my head.

Library The same person who designed the interior of the cathedral designed the famous abbey library.  The library had of course the same effect on me only that this time I knew what to expect and so I kept my mouth closed and my awe a bit subtler. It is one of the oldest libraries in the world and was deemed a UNESCO global cultural heritage site in 1983.

Its exceptional collection of books shows the development of European culture and documents the cultural achievements of the Abbey of St. Gallen from the eighth century to the dissolution of the monastery in 1805.  The collection also includes the largely indigenous corpus of Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts dating from the eighth to the eleventh centuries; an astronomical textbook written in 300 BC; and copies made in the fifth century of works by Virgil, Horace and other classical authors.

Something seemed out of place though, an ancient Egyptian mummy that dates from 700 BC at one side of the library sat there seemingly out of place. It was a gift to the mayor of St Gallen at the beginning of the nineteenth century; and it has sat there ever since. Although the library still operates as an ordinary lending library and study center the place was more like a museum of old scriptures, manuscripts and books that housed Europe’s intellectual heritage.  

After exiting the complex I headed back to the train station my cheeks red with embarassment. Just when you thought you know exactly what to expect, it hits you right in the face and then you’ll be left with a lesson you’ll remember forever. Never judge a book, a person or even a building by its cover because you will never know when treasures hide humbly behind plain doors and boring windows.

Gallen2 St Gallen
Gallen 3B& B ST Gallen

Writer's Info:
Loraine Balita is a Manila based freelance writer/editor who has just earned her masters in Applied Media Technology Studies from De La Salle University Manila. To read more of her articles please visit her online portfolio (

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