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SOLOTHURN (Soleure in French), some 35km north of Bern, is touted as the most beautiful Baroque city in Switzerland – with justification. Its compact but very characterful Old Town is crammed with an odd architectural mix of Swiss-German sturdiness and lavish Italianate excess dating from the town’s heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In Celtic times, Salodurum was a fortified town, but it was only in the tenth century – after Roman domination and Alemannic invasion – that Solothurn rediscovered some stability. With the demise of the Zähringen dynasty in 1218, the city’s finest expanded their territory to form a buffer zone sitting comfortably between the mighty Bern on one side and equally mighty Basel on the other. As a separate canton, Solothurn joined the Swiss Confederation in 1481. In the decades following, despite the turmoil of the Reformation all around, Solothurn remained Catholic and so, in 1530, was chosen by the Catholic ambassadors of the King of France as their place of residence. For more than 250 years, the French ambassadors lived in Solothurn, overseeing the town’s redevelopment in the contemporary Baroque style. Some destruction followed the 1798 revolution, but a great deal of Solothurn’s graceful Old Town has survived. These days it’s a lively, cosmopolitan place, with thriving industry (watchmaking and precision manufacturing figure large) and a curiously varied mixture of ethnicities on its streets. It’s an easy day trip – or overnight stay – from Bern, with a couple of spectacular Baroque churches, a very worthwhile art gallery, and a high viewpoint nearby for breezy walks.
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