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WHY ZURICH? Ah, well… I lived in Zurich more than ten years ago, and as a student, which has obviously coloured my impressions of the place, possibly in more ways than one… For the purposes of this review, however, this means firstly that if you're looking for accounts of its most luxurious hotels, its Michelin-starred restaurants, or for gushing tales of sprees along the gilded collection of Haute Couturiers and jewellers that constitutes the celebrated Bahnhofstrasse… my advice would probably be to read no further. I've been back to Zurich many times since, but most of my favourite haunts are probably still those that I first encountered as a student.
ANARCHY & SWISS FRANKS: I first arrived in Zurich as a naive seventeen year old. It was 1992. Smells Like Teen Spirit had just come out, and the youth of Zurich were in the throes of a full-blown grunge epidemic. The same was pretty much true the world over, but in 1992, Zurich was Grunge Central, mainly by virtue of the Park at its very centre, the infamous 'Platz Spitz'. This was the Needle-Park, so-called not because of some valuable collection of conifers or pines, but because it had been completely and utterly taken over by the cities heroin addicts, dealers, prostitutes, pimps, and tramps. I was warned to avoid it from the moment I arrived, so obviously, it was one of the first places I set out to explore... Picture Hyde Park as being, to all intents and purposes, shut off to the public altogether. Picture lawns un-mowed, shrubbery overgrown, trees un-pruned or dying, and the sordid detritus of Class-A drug use; needles, lager cans, condoms, over-bent spoons, scattered in all directions and clumsily concealed beneath every bush. Well, that's what the Platz Spitz was like, when I first arrived in Zurich, and it was a pretty terrifying spectacle. It was also symptomatic, of a much larger schism in Swiss society. The park may since have been cleaned up, the dealers jailed, the addicts hustled along onto the Langstrasse or shepherded into re-hab, but most of the underlying problems still remain. So too, however, does Zurich's thriving cultural and underground scene; a vibrant and anarchic melange which proves there's more to the Swiss than just cheese and timepiece efficiency.
HISTORY: Zurich (then known as Turicum) was founded as a Roman customs post around 15BC. It remained something of a backwater until the latter part of the 19th Century, when political reforms lead to a boom in its Banking and manufacturing sectors. Swiss neutrality during the two World Wars resulted in Zurich playing host to a glamorous array of expatriate dissidents, including Lenin, who plotted the Russian Revolution from there. James Joyce penned Ulysees in a little garret behind the University, and died there in 1941. The Dada movement originated in the city, finding its spiritual home in the now infamous Cabaret Voltaire, opened in 1916.
In many respects, Zurich is Switzerland's unofficial capital. Some imagine the capital to be Geneva, with its UN and WHO credentials, and general reputation as a repository for all things sane and neutral. The real capital, of course, is Bern, a quaint, medieval town that houses the Swiss Parliament and boasts a rather unsettling and decidedly un-PC bear-pit at its centre. But Zurich has an unrivalled position at the country's cultural, intellectual and financial heart.
LOCATION: Extending along both sides of the River Limmat, with hills and mountains rising up around it in all directions, Zurich is set in a spectacularly scenic, almost alpine location, which belies its status as Switzerland's largest city. It's actually possible to take a train from the Hauptbahnhof & be travelling through the countryside, cows, fields and all, within ten minutes. The Zurich skyline is dominated by four spires, with the dual towers of the Grossmünster on one bank, and the towers of the 13th Century Fraumünster and the church of St.Peter on the other. On one of the hills above the city, and locally referred to as its 'crown', is the enormous, early 19th Century University… Then there's the lake. Suffice to say, the mountainous, lakeside setting, combined with an eclectic array of architectural treasures, mean that Zurich really is beautiful all year round.
ALTSTADT: The locals refer to the old part of the city, located on the west side of the River Limmat as the 'Niederdörfli'. It is an entrancing little district, a confused collection of twisted, cobbled, medieval streets. There are some fabulous places to eat, from beer halls, such as the Rheinfelder, which is basic but has real atmosphere, to restaurants, including two very popular fondue stuben. The one at the Hotel Adler was always my favourite, but I'm not entirely won-over by its recent refurbishment. The Pinte Vaudoise on the Kruggasse is more atmospheric, set in a traditional, dark-wood den. There are some amazing boutiques and second-hand clothes & furniture shops, such as Time Tunnel, on Stüssihofstatt, which sells all things vintage & has some real gems. There are also some of the most charming antiquarian bookshops you'll find anywhere, all interspersed with a few seedy, red-light peep-shows, some decent kebab takeaways, and plenty of bars. My favourite is probably BabaLu, which has been a Zurich staple for years & also has some good bands.
LANGSTRASSE: Zurich's most infamous squat, the Wohlgroth, once stood on this site. Actually, the Wohlgruth was really much more than a squat; it was an artistic collective, a theatre, a gallery, and a live venue. Above all it was an impossibly bohemian and exciting place to be. The squat owed much of its notoriety to a sign they painted on the old roof, a mockery of the Swiss Rail signs, using the Swiss Rail font, and rendered on such an enormous scale that it was patently un-missable to anyone arriving in Zurich by rail. It said, simply, 'Zureich', in other words, 'Too rich'. The authorities tried to close it down for years, perhaps unsurprisingly given the commercial value of such an enormous chunk of prime real estate, but they failed & failed again. I was desolate when I discovered, a few months after leaving Zurich, that the inevitable had finally happened, and I can't take a train into the city, even now, without looking to my left and feeling a little empty inside. Ironically, though, the space has now been re-claimed, and the Langstrasse has become home to an almost mile-long stretch of converted factories housing alternative boutiques, galleries, live venues, bars and indie film theatres. However despite some pretty draconian behaviour on the part of a lot of Zurich's police, the illicit drug scene & attendant prostitution are still very much in evidence, especially here.
BAHNHOFSTRASSE: Whilst Zurich is divided into various quarters, one principal boulevard, the Bahnhofstrasse, is at its centre. This ends at the shores of Lake Zurich and begins at the main train station, or Hauptbahnhof. The HB is a spectacular19th Century edifice, filled with about 200 shops, a stylish 1920's tearoom, and a public bathroom with incredibly clean and well-designed public showers. Walking up the Bahnhofstrasse, you'll pass Globus, Zurich's famous department store, set beyond a small park on the right hand side. This is definitely worth a visit. The food hall, located in the basement, is sumptuous, almost on par with the one at Berlin's KaDeWe. A good place to buy truffles, by all accounts, or cheese, but whatever you buy it will probably be beautifully packaged. Further up along the Bahnhofstrasse, there's an array of gob-smackingly expensive designer shops and massive banks, Credit Suisse, UBS and so on, generally housed within pompous 18th & 19th century monoliths. Blonde matrons of indeterminate age, generally dripping in jewels and in winter, enveloped in the longest and most suspiciously exotic-looking of furs (endangered species, anyone?), promenade along with little dogs on strings. There's also no shortage of beggars, slumped bleakly against the inch-thick glass of shop frontages, many bearing little homemade signs outlining their HIVstatus…
THE LAKE: The Zurichsee, Zurich's own eponymous lake, is located at the end of the Bahnhofstrasse, and is so clean, the local authority has actually certified it safe to drink… In summer, it is a delightful place to be, with little paddle-boats dotting the water, and large sun-bathing lawns, restaurants and open-air café's lining its banks. A brilliant flea-market is held near its banks every Saturday, not quite in the same league as Geneva's, but still well worth a visit.
CULTURE: When I was a student, the most scornful word in the lexicon of my Swiss friends was 'Fiddlyburgher', a term referring to Switzerland's spoil sports, the moral middle-classes, that large and vocal body which holds sway throughout most of German -Switzerland, especially in its smaller towns. Well, Zurich may be very clean and very efficient, but the Fiddlyburger's certainly don't hold sway here, and culturally speaking, Zurich is both varied and exciting. The Rote Fabrik, another subcultural former-squat near the lake, has a gallery & theatre, excellent cheap food, and is one of the best live venues in Europe featuring both bands and big-name DJ's. The August Street Party is an enormous, unmissable, and slightly hedonistic event, taking place over three days. Zurich also hosts various other festivals throughout the year, such as Fasching, in February, and the Sechselauten, to celebrate the end of winter, which includes a rowdy street parade, and culminates in the 'burning of the boog' an effigy of a snow-man, which is filled with explosives & set alight. Obviously, there are a number of very good museums, and the main one, located behind the HB, is very comprehensive, containing treasures such as Napoleon Bonaparte's fob watch, amidst more salubrious collections. The Kunsthaus Gallery is first rate, with artists such as Picasso & van Gogh represented. Zurich's Opera House is one of the leading opera and ballet venues in Europe. Zurich is home to Switzerland's oldest and most prestigious university, and its Stock Exchange, founded in 1877, is now the forth largest in the world.
MY ZURICH: Grunge was probably always a middle-class affliction. We tirelessly bewailed our poverty, but somehow always found enough money to fund the latest CD, or third-world trinket, or those summer train tickets to Amsterdam. We always railed against the evils of commercialism, but a lot of my old friends from the Wohlgroth days have since sold their souls to Ernst&Young anyway. Perhaps we were just pretending to be poor, or disenfranchised, all along, but it's easy enough to feel poor in a city like Zurich, where conspicuous, ridiculous wealth is well, so ridiculously conspicuous. It was easier to identify with the addled junkies than the fat cats on the Bahnhofstrasse, especially when rifle-bearing police-men stopped you & demanded an ID card at every opportunity, just because you were young, surly and dressed in black.
When I visit Zurich now, my old friends aren't the same cynical philosophy students anymore. Mostly, they've become photographers, artists, bankers or even television presenters, and they take me to newer, more grown-up places, where all & sundry is charged to some sickeningly-slick Black Amex. And yet somehow, against all odds, the vibe is still the same. At any rate, for my money (and such as I have any!) Zurich still remains one of the most exciting cities in Europe…