Zurich has zest
September 23, 2003
The exceptionally hot summer this year made even the most traditional bankers and elegant ladies of Zurich take off their formal clothes and appear at their offices and tearooms in outfits usually worn at the resorts.
The usual alpine breath of cool air didn’t reach the grand strip, the Bahnhofstrasse, where the world’s rich and famous come to shop. Zurich appeared more informal, less stiff, a bit louder and more fun than I remembered from earlier visits. It seemed to have donned a carefree, almost Mediterranean image. But the proverbial Swiss reliability and punctuality did not change.
I joined the locals, took off my tie and jacket, and sat down next to street musicians and a Middle Eastern man on one of the artistically painted benches. Traffic on the main street is restricted, except for the fast, quiet streetcars and delivery men on bikes. Mothers pushed old-fashioned baby carriages, and lost tourists mingled freely on the sparkling-clean sidewalks that stretch from the railroad station to Lake Zurich.
The Swiss are allowing greater access for citizens of the enlarged European Union, and tourism is booming again. But you also see a lot of Arabs, Africans and Orientals around the station. It is one of Central Europe’s busiest and looks like a U.N. dumping ground of people seeking jobs, hotels or just meals in transit. Migration from east to west and south to north goes on here without pause.
This railroad station has seen Lenin, in 1917, leave town with his group of revolutionaries to Russia and start a movement that changed world history. Little did Lenin know that Zurich would reject his Marxist dogma and become instead a synonym for capitalism.
The Romans, who built a fortified customs station, introduced the idea of business here not far from the huge station. But that was 2,000 years ago. Five centuries later came the Germanic tribes, with Zurich becoming a free city in the Middle Ages. Trade grew during Hapsburg domination, and, after the 1361 alliance with the founding Swiss cantons, Zurich became one of Europe’s most successful commercial and financial centers.
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Most Americans arrive in Zurich by air and take the convenient train from the airport to the city center. The modern airport is my favorite hub for connections to many cities. It is a good Continental counterpart to the American hubs of Atlanta and Denver.
Much too often I just change gates and fly on, missing Zurich. That is a mistake. This cozy city is a fabulous repository of culture and history. Though smaller than, say, New Orleans, it is a world-class metropolis. And, recently, nightlife and gastronomic choices have improved radically.
Before I left Aspen, a neighbor remarked: “When one needs to deal with money or wants to buy or sell art, Zurich is the place to go.” I would add chocolate to the musts, and my wife would not overlook the city’s hundreds of watch shops. And the museums are fabulous.
For dealers, Rietberg Museum is a great source for research in the fields of Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Southeast Asian art. The collection is displayed in a neoclassic villa where Richard Wagner used to be a guest.
Zurich’s dozens of internationally recognized art galleries compete successfully with those in Basel, while the antique market is on par with that of Geneva. The three cities make a true mecca for art connoisseurs.
The old town
The vibrant, diversified city can best be appreciated on foot, starting with the Altstadt, the historic old town. The narrow cobblestone streets have been busy since the 14th century, when the guilds and artisans settled in the hilly area above Lake Zurich. I love this colorful section of town. The boutiques, restaurants, universities and students reflect middle-class life more closely than the sophisticated business side of town.
The city’s three landmark churches are within walking distance. The largest, the Grossmunster, endowed by Charlemagne, is an overpowering Romanesque structure. It has dominated the skyline for centuries and presided over the area’s Reformation movement, with Zwingli as its leader.
The Fraumunster is known for Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows, which make the church a counterpoint to Zwingli’s puritan style.
In a city famous for watchmakers, it is appropriate to have Europe’s largest clock face on the tower of its third great church, St. Peter’s, assuring the punctuality of its burghers.
Zurich, with nearly 400,000 inhabitants and a large number of foreign workers, is surrounded by wooded hills on the two sides of the Limmat, which flows out of the picturesque Lake Zurich. Steamers large and small connect the old settlements around the lake. New suburbs sprawl rapidly for miles. A boat ride is a pleasant way to see the suburbs, the villages and some distant mountains.
The cultural scene is best exemplified by Zurich’s neo-Baroque Opera House, where more than 100 concerts are scheduled during the season, with a repertory ranging from Haydn to Bartok. In addition, the elegant Tonhalle across the lake features recitals and guest orchestras from all over the world.
I spent a couple of hours inside the Kunsthaus, one of Switzerland’s richest museums, to see summer 2003’s greatest hit, the Duane Hanson retrospective. The remarkable American artist, who died in 1996, is well-known to Aspen collectors, but his sculpture has not been seen in Europe before.
Several large Swiss school groups filed by reverently to see the full-size, lifelike scenes by Hanson of “typical” Americans. The show is as much a powerful social critique as it is stunning for its artistic realism.
Shows of famous medieval and modern Swiss artists, Venetian and other European painters are on this fall’s schedule. The first major European show of Georgia O’Keeffe’s large flower images is also included.
The old masters in the museum’s permanent collection are a must for art-lovers. Some of Rembrandt’s great works are here, as are prime examples of Tiepolo and Guardi paintings. Some of the finest canvases of the French impressionists are in the museum, thanks to a well-heeled citizenship.
The main drag
I returned for another leisurely walk down Bahnhofstrasse, lined with linden trees. Famous for the main offices of leading financial institutions, the street is indeed the fountain of the nation’s prosperity. From the heavy stone buildings with well-protected entrances under caryatids and almost invisible signs, the gnomes of Zurich successfully nurture a booming economy and influence world markets.
A stroll here is a living museum tour of capitalism, with 19th-century architecture and 21st-century taste. It is one of the world’s finest shopping boulevards. From platinum watches to designer fashions, it exhibits the totality of 21st-century life’s needs.
For me, the inevitable stop is at Parade Platz, where the confectionery creations of Sprungli have been my favorites since childhood. Locals come here for morning tea, small sandwiches at lunchtime and hot chocolate in the afternoon. I have counted more than 50 varieties of chocolates at the counters. It is also customary to pick at least one variety of Luxemburgerlis, a tiny cream pastry that many Americans think is a joke on our hamburgers.
When I come with my wife or family, we usually stay at the Hotel zum Storchen, on the left bank of the quiet Limmat. It was already on the town’s tax books in 1357, but it is unknown why it was named The Stork. An inn for traders, kings and diplomats ever since, it is a small, first-class establishment, with some of Zurich’s best cuisine.
On the shores of Lake Zurich, near the Quai Bridge, the true grand hotel of the town remains the Baur au Lac. Recently renovated, with luxuries to match its prices, the rooms have huge white marble baths and great views. If I don’t want to splurge, the Schweizerhof next to the railroad station or the Zurcherhof in the old town are excellent.
Money matters a lot to the Swiss, especially now since the country is in near-recession. When Swissair went bankrupt last year, it was equal to a national tragedy in wartime. The market never completely recovered. But the Swiss franc is still the currency of choice for many global traders, and the secrecy of the banks is being defended as strongly as the democracy of a nation that has preserved its freedom for more than 600 years.
In the late-afternoon balmy breezes from the lake, I climbed up the winding alleys to Lindenhof, where two millennia ago Roman legions built a fortification. A small park there is a quiet place for a beer or ice-coffee, with towering whipped cream, of course.
For a fine gastronomic end to a Zurich visit, the Kronenhalle is the restaurant to be seen in. Under original paintings by Picasso, Chagall and great impressionists, the city’s musicians, painters, politicians and bankers gather for Swiss dinner specialties.
I ordered the popular wienerschnitzel, a good wine from Ticino, cheeses from Grisons and Vaud, and – what else – a rich chocolate torte. I tried my Switzerdutch, the strange-sounding Swiss-German dialect, but the waiter wasn’t fooled. “No foreigner can ever master our language,” he said. Indeed, it is a very private language and cultural glue for the small nation.
The neutral, small country hasn’t been in a war that anyone would remember, but it has witnessed the worst fights and cruelties of the past century all around its borders. No wonder it keeps a strong standing army, just in case.
Switzerland is a happy place, and its people know it. With four languages, a superior educational system, stable currency and great industries (not to mention the best chocolate in the world), it represents, in my book, the most livable of modern civilizations.
Paul Fabry is a travel writer in New Orleans but has spent summers and snow seasons at his West End Victorian since the ’60s.