Zurich runs like clockwork but the city can spring a few surprises, writes Peter Needham
WHETHER you’re dining in total darkness at an avantgarde restaurant, or strolling between the city zoo and James Joyce’s grave, it’s surprisingly easy to feel light-hearted in Zurich. For a city so steeped in gold-trading, insurance and heavy financial dealings, Switzerland’s commercial centre (and largest metropolis) is disarmingly pretty. It’s also refreshingly free of skyscrapers. Swans glide along the Limmat River through the medieval Old Town (Altstadt), yachts and ferries traverse placid Lake Zurich, while smart blueand-white trams glide past pricey boutiques.
The city labours under a mantle of money and enterprise: home of the Swiss stock exchange; the world’s primary centre for offshore banking; and the location of leading sanatoriums and clinics. It is an eminently sensible city. Yet, perhaps in response to this, Zurich’s anarchic side is never far away. It was in Zurich that dada, the most irrational of art movements, first clearly surfaced, late in 1915.
Best getting around: Most visitors zip through Zurich on the way to Lucerne, Zermatt or beyond, but it’s worth lingering. Zurich is easy to explore. Local taxi companies have highly memorable phone numbers, such as 0444 444 444 and 0777 777 777, but you probably won’t need a cab. Walking is a delight and Zurich’s public transport runs like a Swiss clockwork cliche. Catch trams, buses, boats, the cable car or S-bahn (suburban trains) anytime from 5.30am to midnight.
Best transport deal: The ZurichCARD costs about $17 and covers all public transport for 24 hours, plus free admission to at least 40 of Zurich’s museums and galleries.
Best investment: On the city’s elegant Zurcher Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street, a chocolate shop named Merkur displays a mouth-watering selection of frisch schokolade (fresh chocolate), including fruity, pink, rough-edged slabs of the local himbeerbrombeer variety. I buy 100g for $5.60. Delicious. You can’t leave Zurich without investing in something.
Best gallery: Setting out with my ZurichCARD on a sunny morning, I jump on a tram to the Bellevue terminus near Lake Zurich, then switch to a bus. My destination: the gallery of Emil Georg Buhrle, an early 20thcentury industrialist who amassed one of the world’s great art collections. The gallery is known for its French impressionist paintings: works by Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin and van Gogh, plus a couple of cubists, Picasso and Braque. Admission to this collection is not included on my ZurichCARD, perversely, but never mind.
Best detour: Alighting, I postpone great art for a hearty bratwurst, with mustard and a slice of fresh, crusty bread, a bargain at $6.50. I then unfold my map, check my bearings and set out on foot. I seem to be lost, but the sky is blue, the air fresh and crisp, the birds are chirping and the 19th-century architecture is most engaging.
Cyclists speed past. Zurich has plenty of cycle lanes and (as I learn later) bicycles can be borrowed free during summer from Bahnhofstrasse near the station, provided you show ID and pay a deposit.
After a 20-minute walk, I reach the gallery, an impressive, ivy-clad stone villa, only to find the gates shut. A sign tells me the gallery is open, eccentrically, just four days a week: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; and even then, only in the afternoons, from 2pm to 5pm.
I’ve arrived in the morning, and on a day when it’s closed. I must have misread my free civic brochure, probably because I grabbed the German-language copy by mistake. But what an excellent excuse to return to Zurich.
Best snowscape: Putting the gallery out of my mind (Zurich has plenty more, after all), I walk up a side street to find, unexpectedly, the cityscape giving way to a hillside, sprinkled with snow and lined with neat rows of vines. The sight of spring snow on vineyards so close to the city centre is uplifting. It’s enough to make a visitor feel frivolous, a word seldom associated with Zurich.
Best vantage point: In the afternoon, I set out from the imposing Hauptbahnhof railway station, with Switzerland’s square flags flapping overhead, on the way to the best vantage point central Zurich can offer. The Jules Verne wine bar towers six storeys above Uraniastrasse in the city centre. Its domed tower is visible for many blocks in all directions, yet finding the entrance is a challenge. Walk around the block seeking the door and you’ll turn up in another street, without being able to locate the point where you started. It’s a bit like being trapped in an M.C. Escher etching. Determined to find the secret entrance, I stride boldly into the Brasserie Lipp, a French-style art nouveau restaurant, seemingly unconnected with the tower. This turns out to be the portal. I walk to the lift, press the button and emerge in a stylish wine bar, all aluminium bolts, wickerwork, canvas, nets and ropes, reminiscent of a hot-air balloon or submarine, with windows on all sides.
The vista of lake, city, towers and mountains is wondrous. The Jules Verne dome doesn’t revolve but visitors can achieve the same effect by turning their heads. I sip a dry martini ($13.50) and contemplate a premium quality cigar ($21). Cigar smoking is popular in Zurich; citizens puff their way along the streets.
Best sums: Prices, for cigars or anything else, are easy to calculate. Switzerland remains outside the euro zone but the Swiss franc, by fortunate coincidence, is worth almost precisely one Australian dollar. The cost of a glass of champagne, a plate of cheese or a cuckoo clock is apparent immediately. Just down the road from the Jules Verne, for instance, a fish shop sells cooked prawns for $75 a kilo. They are pre-peeled, as they should be for that price.
Best shops: I emerge from the Jules Verne and head along Bahnhofstrasse towards Lake Zurich. Switzerland’s most important business and shopping thoroughfare is charming, rather than grandiose, but the big names are here: Cartier, Chanel, Ermenegildo Zegna. Their prices reflect the long-held Swiss belief that anything of real quality should cost serious money. Bucherer offers a wide — and comparatively affordable — selection of Swiss Army knives plus every imaginable type of Swiss watch, from superb Rolexes to humble but zany Swatches.
Best moments: I sample excellent beer in Old Town courtyards and enjoy a hearty zuri gschnetzlets (veal in creamy mushroom sauce) at one of the many open-air restaurants in little squares in bohemian Niederdorfstrasse, a cobbled street on the East bank of the Limmat.
Best bets: Zurich’s Old Town is anything but staid. There are almost 500 bars, nightclubs and discos. The Grand Casino Baden, just outside the city, is known for having Europe’s highest jackpots.
Best bohemian restaurant: Blindekuh (blind cow), in a renovated church, keeps diners in permanent darkness. Run by about 30 blind and partially sighted staff, it takes its name from the German blind man’s buff.
The menu changes weekly and is projected on to the wall of the lobby, so memorise it as you enter. A blackout begins beyond the door and you won’t see anything during your meal. If you’re thinking of dinner rather than just bar snacks, book well ahead, it is phenomenally popular. A few sighted people work in the kitchen and the waiting staff know, somehow, where you are.
Best statue: Imposing monuments abound, but the accolade goes to the statue of James Joyce by American sculptor Milton Hebald, beside the great Irish writer’s grave in Fluntern cemetery. Joyce is depicted with characteristic cane, book and cigarette, one leg resting on his knee as if listening. Joyce lived in Zurich while he was writing Ulysses and is buried here alongside his wife and son.
Toast him in the James Joyce Pub on Pelikanstrasse 8. Its fine old bar, shipped here by the Union Bank of Switzerland in the 1970s, used to stand in Jury’s Hotel, Dublin, a watering hole mentioned in Ulysses.
Best day to avoid: This year, August 11. A giant street parade dedicated to techno and house electronic music (slogan: ‘‘ no drugs, no dealing, good feeling’’) attracts about a million young fans of thumping bass to Zurich annually. Organisers have stockpiled millions of earplugs for this year’s onslaught (www.street-parade.ch).
Best square: Peterhofstatt takes the title against much competition. With its fountain and tree, the square is soothingly quiet and bounded on all sides by historic buildings. St Peter’s Church is crowned by Europe’s largest clockface, 8.7m across, installed in the 16th century. Another enormous clock lies beside Lake Zurich: it is horizontal and composed of plants and flowers.
Best airport: For plane spotters, Zurich Airport is a must. It has two observation decks (one open all year); flights deliver 18 million passengers a year. Set apart from Burger King, Lindt, Burberry, et al, a large grey building with small square windows on the runway perimeter is: ‘‘ A prison for those arriving who are not legal in Switzerland,’’ our guide explains candidly.
Best rainforest: The city’s answer to the Daintree, in the Masoala Hall of Zurich Zoo (not far from James Joyce’s grave), re-creates the ecosystem of a rainforest in Madagascar. Wander into this heated sanctuary in midwinter, wipe the snow from your boots and spot panther chameleons and red-ruffed lemurs. Peter Needham was a guest of Star Alliance.
Singapore Airlines flies direct to Zurich via Singapore, from Sydney and Melbourne (each twice daily), Perth and Brisbane. Thai Airways flies to Zurich via Bangkok from Sydney (twice daily), Melbourne (12 flights weekly), Perth and Brisbane, and is presently offering Sydney-Zurich economy fares for about $1800 including taxes. www.singaporeair.com www.thaiairways.com.au www.zuerich.com www.myswitzerland.com
Clocking on: View across Lake Zurich to the alps beyond, top; above from left, antiques; festive candles on the Limmat; bar at the Storchen