In association with Switzerland Tourism
In the VIP suite at St. Gallen’s kybunpark stadium, overlooking the pristine pitch below, Matthias Hüppi is telling me what makes his hometown team so special. Born and raised in St. Gallen, Hüppi was a sports presenter on Swiss TV before he became club president. He started going to games with his father when he was just six years old. Suave and self-deprecating, you could call him the Des Lynam of Swiss football – but the big difference is, he’s now the figurehead for one of the country’s most famous clubs.
Founded in 1879, St. Gallen FC is the oldest football club on the Continent, and though the club has only won the Swiss league twice, it enjoys a unique status in Swiss sport. The average attendance is 12,500 – not bad for a city with only 75,000 inhabitants. ‘The relationship between the club and the people is extraordinary,’ says Hüppi. ‘Everybody is talking about the club.’
The club has one of the smaller budgets in the Swiss first division, but they’ve qualified for the Europa League in recent years, beating Spartak Moscow and Swansea City. The current team is a useful mix of young homegrown players and older players from top foreign clubs, looking for a second chance. Foreign players relish the quality of life here in St. Gallen – the superb infrastructure, the pleasant climate, the clean air, the healthy food…
The mood on match days is very lively, but very friendly. Safe terraces and family areas create an animated yet inclusive atmosphere. ‘If you have 14,000 people in this stadium, it’s rocking – it’s really rocking.’
The kybunpark is out in the suburbs, set against a backdrop of rolling hills, but the bus brings you back to the city centre in no time at all, and what an enticing city it is! The Altstadt (Old Town) is full of brightly painted half-timbered houses, and at its core is the ornate abbey which gives St. Gallen its name. The abbey was dissolved 200 years ago, but the baroque cathedral is still standing – it’s still the cultural and architectural heart of the city, with one of the oldest and most beautiful libraries in the western world.
During the 19th Century, St. Gallen became one of the world’s biggest textile manufacturers, but you’d never know today. Production is now restricted to small-scale specialist embroidery. The main remnant of its industrial heyday is the Palazzo Rosso, St. Gallen’s palatial Textile Museum.
St. Gallen is a great place to eat out, with half a dozen first class restaurants around town (visit www.diegastwirte.ch for more info). If you’re only here for one night, and you want to stretch your legs, you can eat three courses in three different restaurants, combined with a tour of the Old Town. Contact the local tourist office for details. However you don’t need to visit a sit-down restaurant to eat well in St. Gallen. For lunch, I wolfed down a St. Galler Bratwurst at a stand-up sausage shop called Gemperli (a local institution), washed down with an Apfelschorle (fizzy apple juice – very Swiss).
I ate a delicious dinner at Schlössli, a romantic restaurant in an old tower built in the 16th Century and spent the night at Hotel Dom, one of the nicest three star hotels I’ve ever stayed in: simple, stylish décor, original artworks in every room, and a yummy breakfast buffet. I didn’t want to leave.
St. Gallen is also a great base for exploring the hidden hinterland of Eastern Switzerland. It’s only 15 minutes by car or train to the Bodensee, aka Lake Constance – one of Europe’s biggest, loveliest lakes. There are regular trains from St. Gallen’s Hauptbahnhof (central station) to the tranquil lakeside town of Rorschach, with its sleek arts centre, the Forum Würth.
From Rorschach it’s a short ferry ride to Bregenz (in Austria) or Lindau (in Bavaria), or you can walk along the waterfront, to the Swiss towns of Arbon and Romanshorn. Standing on the promenade, looking out across this gigantic lake towards Friedrichshafen, on the German shore (famous for its Zeppelins), you feel you’re at the centre of the Continent, at the crossroads of the German speaking world.