When the lovely people at Gretz Communications asked me if I wanted to come and test some watches in the Swiss-German city of St. Gallen, my first question was: “What kind of activities will we be doing?” When the answer came back that we would be hiking, I politely refused their kind offer. However much I love walking through the Swiss countryside, hiking just doesn’t make for a great watch review story. So, that was that, or so I thought.
I think what happened next was that word had got back to the St. Gallen tourist board that their city wasn’t exciting enough for me, and they were obviously not having that! Before I knew it, I was signed up for parachuting and acrobatic paragliding — what had I gotten myself into?
There was, of course, no way to turn back now; I had asked for adventure and I was going to get it! I suggested doing just one of the activities — acrobatic paragliding without too much of the “acrobatics”, if possible. I mean, I have to be able to test the watch at the same time, right?
There was really only one watch to take with me on such an adventure and that was the Oris Rega GMT, a special-edition timepiece created in collaboration with the Swiss air rescue service – I figured if I got into trouble, it might help having their watch! It is also one of the most legible pilot’s timepieces on the market, which I was hoping might provide a welcome distraction while throwing myself off the edge of a mountain!
A City to Discover
On arrival in St. Gallen, we check into the Hotel Einstein, a delightful hotel with its own spa and swimming pool, and head for the old town. One of the things I love about Switzerland is the changing architecture as you cross the country from the French-speaking side to the German-speaking side. St. Gallen is an architectural dream with its oriel windows and medieval half-timbered houses that sit in harmony with more contemporary creations such as works by Spanish/Swiss architect Santiago Calatrava and Austrian/New Zealand artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
We go for dinner at Schlössli, a gastronomical restaurant inside a medieval castle, where we savor the region’s cuisine and exquisite wines. Delights such as a purple soup made with an ancient variety of potato called the Blue St. Gall is a vision to look at, let alone taste. Other specialties of the house include beef carpaccio with rocket salad and alpine cheese and a local smoked trout from the river Seez that is eaten cold with a fennel, orange and apple tartare. If this was to be my last supper, I am more than content!
Flying High with Free Wings
The next day I leave early to meet Fabio from the Free Wings paragliding school for my airborne adventure. We drive to Wasserauen and take the Ebenalp cable car up to one of the peaks in the Alpstein massif which offers the perfect take-off platform for paragliders.
After being rigged up, my co-pilot carries out the final checks to our equipment, while my legs start to tremble uncontrollably; I’m hoping he doesn’t notice. I double check that the Oris GMT Rega Limited Edition is firmly secured on the outside of my jacket and check the time. It is 10am, perfect timing, as I am given the order to run.
I was expecting to have to run off the edge of the cliff, but three steps in and the sail above lifts us off the ground and high above our take-off point. The experience is thrilling yet strangely not scary, despite the thousand odd meters below our feet. This must be the closest it gets to feeling like a bird. Paragliding is the purest and simplest form of flying that uses only the power of the air. Fabio informs me that he once flew from St. Gallen all the way to Geneva by catching thermals across the country. A trip that took him over 10 hours.
As we are flying through the clouds — my heart rate now at a more comfortable level — I get a chance to appreciate the Oris GMT Rega Limited Edition even more. Aviation has always been an important element to Oris, with their first “Big Crown” pilot watches dating back to 1938. The brand’s partnership with the air rescue foundation Rega started last year with the Oris Altimeter Rega Limited Edition and continues this year with the beauty on my wrist.
It is a large watch at 45mm, but then again most pilot’s watches are on the larger size as they need to be legible for pilots to be able to read them mid-flight. As we start to turn and spin around in the sky, the Oris GMT Rega Limited Edition is very easy to read thanks to its black dial, white luminous markings and gun metal-gray finish (that reduces glare from the sun). The timepiece also features a GMT function with a bright red-tipped hand that travels around a 24-hour time scale along the periphery of the dial. As I haven’t changed time zones, I am not using this function, but I imagine it would be very useful for the Rega pilots when they are crossing international borders for the repatriation of patients.
Back on the Ground
After about 20 minutes, we touch down in a field in the valley below, as delicately as we took off. It wasn’t nearly long enough and I only wish we could take the cable car up again, but there is so much more to see in St. Gallen. We pack up and return to the city center, where I catch up with the other journalists who had spent the morning having a tour of the textile museum.
They eagerly tell me about St. Gallen’s textile heritage that has been an important part of the region’s economy since the Middle Ages. Today this expertise continues with the production of many different types of fabrics, spanning everything from those used for haute couture (Amal Clooney’s Oscar de la Renta wedding dress apparently was made with fabric from St. Gallen), to the highly technical textiles used in the medical industry. I make a note to pop in to the museum if I have time.
The afternoon is spent touring the city with a historian who explains how St. Gallen was founded by the Irish monk Gallus in 612. Legend has it that he fell into a bush of thorns here and then had a close encounter with a bear, which he believed to be a sign from God that he should stay (which would not have been my first instinct, but maybe that’s why I haven’t established a town yet). One hundred years later, the hermitage where he lived became the site of the Abbey of St. Gallen, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses one of the world’s most famous libraries. This incredible building contains over 170,000 medieval and 2,000 original manuscripts that are exhibited in temporary exhibitions — an absolute must-see for anyone visiting the city.
For the last day of our trip, we take the train to Berneck for that originally-planned hike along the Rheintaler Höhenweg alpine path to the Restaurant Maienhalde for a wine tasting of Berneck’s wines. I look at my Oris GMT Rega Limited Edition that has been ticking away with us on our walk. The time indicates that it is only 11am, a little early for wine tasting perhaps. But as the production of these wines is so small that they rarely even make it as far as the neighboring village, let alone the French-speaking part of the country, it would be a crime not to try.
After maybe a few too many sips, our intrepid group of journalists gets back on the train for the journey home to the French-speaking side of the country. It has been an action-packed weekend, full of surprises, and thankfully there was no need to call for the Rega!