Tucked at the border of Germany and Switzerland, the medieval town of Schaffhausen touts a dying vacation pleasure – swimming in a clean body of natural water. Escaping the summer heat of Naples, we arrived at the Rheinwiesen campground and pitched our four-man tent between a bevy of campers who came from all over Europe in their exotic RV’s or with cars packed to the brim like us. The highlight of this outdoor living: a mere several meters from our tents flowed the Rhein River.
Once we unpacked, our three girls ran to the banks with their swimsuits, ready to take a shivering plunge. I wasn’t as enthusiastic until several elderly women floated by in swim caps. Put to shame, I bit my lips and jumped into the clear water. That’s when I realized – I hadn’t waded in any river since I was a kid because most rivers and even oceans I’d lived near had become too polluted. But not in Schaffhausen. The kids paddled upstream noting how they remained in the same place, then effortlessly floated downstream to the pier at the end of the campground.
When I suggested exploring Schaffhausen’s town center, which started minting it own coins in 1045, my ten-year-old offered her opinion: “BO-RING”. So we headed first to the KSS: the sports and leisure facility replete with seven pools and two waterslides just cold enough (73 degrees) for the kids to taunt my aversion to the chill. I fled to the warmer pool with jets and waved as they showed off their jumps from the diving boards.
Still not convinced that a world existed beyond water, we drove two kilometers outside Schaffhausen to see the largest waterfall in Europe, the Rhein Falls. We ferried across the river, then walked along several platforms, gangways, and even through a cave that led to a spray of roaring water. The castle Schloss Laufen stood majestic at the top of the Falls and the kids whined the steep way up, but once they reached the knight’s outlook post, the breathtaking view as well as a gift shop brimming with barrels of candy made the trek worth it. My wallet did a little whine after spending 17 Franks (or about $17) for three small bags of sweets, but I brushed it away when they pranced back down the steps without complaint and still enjoyed the boat ride back across the river.
If there was a drawback to Schaffhausen, it was the hefty food prices for a family of five. We bought a good portion of our food at the Coop supermarket down the road from the campground, but the restaurants were too enticing to forego altogether. We ate crepes one morning at the Antik Quelle on Unterstadt – a street that glutted with international cuisine from Spanish to Thai and authentic Swiss.
Then it was time to indulge in some sightseeing of the town itself, which turned out to be a treat for the kids. A few paces away from Unterstadt we climbed up Munotsteig where the kids raced up narrow stairs with vineyards on either side toward a watchtower. The higher we went, the more we could admire the shingled A-frame buildings below. At the top we reached the cavernous belly of the Munot fortress.
Built in the sixteenth century, we felt like we’d entered a Brother Grimm kingdom. We roamed over to the empty moat where we spotted several deer, then dashed up a spiral cobblestone walkway to an open-air floor with another fairytale view of the town. Convinced that trolls, princesses, and knights would emerge at any moment, my girls knocked on a wooden door, but my husband stopped them noting that a guard lives in an apartment in the tower (perhaps at that door) who rings the Munot bell every evening at 9 p.m.
Winding back down to the Old Town, we went inside the St. John’s church (first built in the 1100s) whose acoustics – I know by the clang of three children running inside – must be stunning during the International Bach festivals they hold each year, including on its mammoth organ. Much of the Old Town had pedestrian-only streets, so the kids were able to run ahead while we admired the painted façades, especially of the Ritter’s House with its ivory images against a crimson background. From there, Fronwagplatz was just a few meters away with its guild and merchant houses that told a medieval tale in architecture. Our attention turned, the kids splashed in the two fountains and drank from their spouts. I worried about their tummies experiencing ‘ogre’s revenge’ that night, but so many pedestrians sipped the water that I felt re-assured they would be fine.
In the evenings, we sat at the snack bar on the campground and partook in a little local beer, while the kids played on the grassy field until sundown. They couldn’t resist dumping themselves into the toddler pool with all their clothes on, but the campground provided a washer and dryer so we didn’t fret. When we paid the campground fee, we spent a whopping $25 Euro per night. And all for a few days of camping in a fairytale kingdom.
Getting There: 40 minute drive north from Zurich and 1 ½ hour drive south from Stuttgart, Germany.
Campground: Camping TCS, “Rheinwiesen”, CH-8246 Langwiesen, www.campingtcs.ch
Schaffhausen Tourist Website: www.schaffhauserland.ch or www.schaffhausen-tourismus.ch