Hotel Untertor: charm for $15 a night

His name is Rene Custer. "Like General Custer," he says in welcoming me to this Rhine Plain town of 9,000 and the Hotel Untertor in particular. "You will find, here, that Switzerland is not expensive -- not cheap, perhaps, but not expensive either."

The statement is arresting, particularly in view of the much-publicized dismay over the decline of the dollar and most other currencies relative to the Swiss franc. But Mein Host for the next few days and his wife, Kathie, (who does the interpreting) are firm in their conviction. They offer both their town and their hotel as proof of what they say.

If any two people are capable of commenting this way, it should be the Custers. They are the umpteenth generation of the same family to operate the 410-year-old Untertor --known down the centuries as an eating establishment and more recently as an hotel as well.

By Untertor and Custer standards, then, the US War of Independence is almost a modern event. This home even predates the landing of the Pilgrims by half a century. It is almost difficult to comprehend: the same family in the same home for more than four centuries!

The Alstattens of Switzerland -- towns that are off the beaten tourist track -- have always been cheap by comparison to the more heavily trafficked portions of the country.Yet they are all attractive in their own right (what town isn't in this Alpine land?). Moreoever, the unparalleled Swiss rail and bus service puts you within hours, sometimes even minutes, of prime tourist attractions. You can stay almost anywhere in Switzerland and be within a day's return journey of most, if not all of it. The need, of course, is to buy a Swiss Holiday Card (rail, bus, and lake steamer) before you leave.

Here at the Untertor my single room with shower cost 30 francs ($19) a night, including continental breakfast. Double that rate for two, as Swiss rates for a double room drop little, it at all. Allow $12 to $15 for a good evening meal, excluding drinks. That includes soup and dessert and you will come away pretty well filled. Most people won't want to eat that much so the cost will be less. For my part, lunch usually consisted of a hunk of cheese, dried fruit or an apple, and a cookie or two -- easy to carry if you're out biking or hiking, and easy on the pocket, too.

A Swiss Holiday Card, first class and second class respectively, costs: 4 days, $82 or $60; 8 days, $113 or $79; 15 days, $141 or $104, and 1 month, $197 or $141. The longer you stay, the cheaper the per-day costs become. From my observations, first class offers very little additional comfort for the price, except that the compartments are somewhat less crowded.Altstatten? Well, there's the town itself, modern yet medieval in appearance. The Unteror is typical of the city as a whole -- centuries old and heavily timbered. Yet, tucked into the nooks and crannies of all that antiquity is every modern convenience -- tiled bathrooms and even a triangular elevator, so designed as to fit into the building without dramatically altering its style.

Part of the 600-year-old city wall still stands and fully half, or so it seems, of the downtown region is almost as old. To walk the city itself is fascinating; to hike in the surrounding countryside, delightful.

Up on mountainside pastureland where crocus bloom and the brown Swiss cow grazes in peace, is the site of a historic battle. In 1405 the neighboring Appenzellers swarmed over the mountaintops to soundly defeat the Austrians, then occupying this section of Switzerland, and push them back across the Rhine.

The Appenzellers are the butt of countless Swiss jokes, mainly about Appenzell stature, or rather lack of it. "When an Appenzeller commits suicide," as one jest would have you believe, "he jumps off the dining room table." Small they might be, but tough they assuredly are as the Austrians found out almost 500 years ago. The Austrians archers inflicted few casualties on the appenzellers. "They simply couldn't shoot that low," present-day Swiss contend.

Appenzell, with its interesting customs and "national" dress, is a prime tourist center. It's a 25-minute train ride away from Alstatten (with a change at Gais) on a cog-driven little train, built, presumably, with Appenzellers in mind. You can take the same train over the mountains to St. Gallen --ery visitor -- or the Swiss National Railways will whip you there in equal time via the Rhine Plain and the resort towns on the Bodenzee. And, as the Custers like to remind everyone, hotel rates in Alstatten are "very competitive."

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