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Capital of the northernmost Swiss canton that shares its name, SCHAFFHAUSEN has one of the most captivating medieval town centres in the whole of Switzerland. In addition, just 3km down river are the mighty Rhine falls, a blockage to shipping on the otherwise navigable river that to this day forces boats making the journey from the Bodensee to unload their goods (or passengers), and then load up again beyond the falls for the journey on towards Basel. Almost as if too far north to be of concern to most visitors to Switzerland, Schaffhausen is nonetheless an unsung, uncelebrated gem.

A bankside docking point had already developed into the thriving market town of Scafusun by 1045. (The name of the town probably derives from its many riverside boathouses – boat is Schiff in German.) During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Schaffhausen grew rapidly, handling salt and cereals from Bavaria and the Tyrol for sale at the town market and for transport on beyond the falls. Granted the status of a free city in 1415 during the Council of Konstanz, Schaffhausen joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501. With an expansion of trade, the town maintained steady growth, its eighteenth-century merchants indulging in the fashion for adding ornate oriel windows to the pre-existing Gothic or Renaissance buildings. Hydroelectric works built in the nineteenth century to exploit the flow of the Rhine brought the area into the industrial age.

During World War II, Schaffhausen was the only Swiss town to be bombed by Allied aircraft: about 100 civilians were killed during a raid by American bombers on April 1, 1944. The US claimed that pilots had mistakenly identified Schaffhausen – the only sizeable chunk of Swiss territory on the north bank of the Rhine – as a German target. They apologized profusely and paid out compensation … only to make the same mistake again on February 22, 1945, this time killing sixteen in Schaffhausen and nine in Stein-am-Rhein (also on the “wrong” side of the river). Records that could possibly throw light onto the allegation that the bombings were in fact an Allied response to Schaffhausen’s munitions industries supplying arms to the Nazis in breach of Swiss neutrality are, as yet, still classified.

In recent years, Schaffhausen has developed into a busy modern town, now expanded well beyond its medieval centre, and capitalizing on its position on the fulcrum between Germany and Switzerland to act as a commercial and cultural bridge between the two. It has also absorbed a high number of Sri Lankan immigrants and asylum seekers, leading to an unusually broad ethnic mix on the streets and plenty of local advertising posters in Tamil.

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