SWISS PRE­CI­SION

Zurich runs like clock­work but the city can spring a few sur­prises, writes Peter Need­ham

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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