Zurich: Getting down to the schicki-micki

By Jim Eagles

Zurich is full of narrow old lanes. Photo / Jim Eagles
Zurich is full of narrow old lanes. Photo / Jim Eagles

Peter Ern is one of the gnomes of Zurich who keeps a keen eye on the kiwi dollar ... but what he really lives for is his coffee and cake.

A tour of his city pays little heed to the great financial institutions on which its wealth is based but focuses instead on its wonderful cafes and the artists and writers who have patronised them down the centuries.

This Zurich revolves around places such as the majestic old Kronenhall Restaurant where Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Monet and Matisse used to eat and the works they sold to the owner still line the walls.

Peter reckons: "You haven't been to Zurich if you haven't eaten at the Kronenhall."

Another focus is the Cafe Odeon, which is jammed with smoking, coffee-drinking patrons when we wander through on Sunday morning.

In yesteryear, the likes of Kafka and Lenin, James Joyce and Albert Einstein solved the problems of the world over their coffee at the Odeon, and that tradition is carried on by modern patrons.

Nearby is the Vorderer Sternen, selling "the finest sausages in Zurich", eaten in crispy bread rolls.

"They are so good that when the opera is performing the patrons come over here in their dress clothes to buy sausages at the interval."

It isn't open for business as we stroll by but Peter's enthusiasm persuades the staff to let us have a look around and to savour the rich odour of spicy sausages and new-baked bread.

I am in Zurich for only a day, en route to a cruise down the River Rhine on the Avalon Tapestry, and the overwhelming impression I'm building is not one of the clinking of coins but, rather unexpectedly, of the wonderful cafe scene.

Perhaps the priority given to food over banks in my tour is because Peter is not one of the powerful gnomes I remember former Prime Minister the late Sir Robert Muldoon blaming for undermining our dollar.

Those gnomes play with the billions in gold and silver, stored in the vaults under the elegant Bahnhofstrasse, where banks mingle with fashionable shops.

Peter on the other hand is a small gnome - his day job is as a tourist guide - who has money invested in New Zealand bonds "because they pay a very good rate of interest".

True, he does take a moment from showing off the glories of his city to urge: "Work very hard when you go home so your dollar will rise and I will get a better return on my bonds when they mature."

But he ends his speech with a chuckle so it's clear his highest priority is sorting out the right place for us to go for coffee.

"When I first heard you were coming I thought of a schicki-micki cafe near the Central Station. But now I have met you, I think that would not be appropriate."

Schicki-what?

"It means a place where people go to see and be seen. The coffee is not so good but it is very fashionable to go there."

So, having seen that I am definitely not schicki-micki, Peter leads the way "to one of my favourite coffee houses" in the heart of the old city.

This involves a journey through Zurich's marvellous old lanes lined with houses four or five stories high and dating back 500 or 600 years.

Many carry plaques giving their history. One such plaque explains that the bottom two stories of its building date back to the 13th century and the three on top were added 200 years later.

Another plaque proclaims that this was where Lenin lived before making his dramatic train journey to Russia to launch the revolution. "I think," says Peter, "he left without paying his rent."

Along the way we pass through a succession of charming squares each with its own fountain.

"There are 1200 fountains in this city and they are one of our special features. Look at this one. It is probably the most politically incorrect fountain in the world."

He could be right. The fountain features a sculpture of a large, angry man with a hefty club giving a serious beating to three or four small children. But then, the next fountain is not very politically correct either. It shows a scantily-clad, young woman holding lots of babies.

"Each of these fountains carries a message," explained Peter. "The one with the man was to remind parents of the saying 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'. The woman is to tell us that it is good to have lots of babies. I don't think we would erect such sculptures today."

In a larger square, overlooking the river, is the Grossmunster Church, said to have been founded in 1100 by the mighty Emperor Charlemagne after his horse fell to its knees at the tombs of Zurich's two patron saints, Felix and Regula, who were buried there. Unfortunately, we can't explore the church because a service is under way and, anyway, it is time to worship at the shrine of the great god coffee.

But there is time to notice a lovely old house opposite the church, where Charlemagne is supposed to have stayed when he was in Zurich, its frontage marked with the symbol of a snake.

This particular story concerns a snake that called upon Charlemagne for help with a giant toad which was sitting on the snake's eggs. The great emperor dealt with the problem and, in gratitude, the snake gave him a ring.

The tale apparently has some deep symbolic significance but I never found out what it was because we had reached our destination.

"This," said Peter, waving his arm excitedly at a marvellous building which turns out to be 700 years old, "is Cafe Schober, one of the two great chocolate-makers in the city and one of the finest places to come for coffee."

The cafe's popularity is obvious. Inside is like a rabbit warren, with dozens of small rooms on different levels all jammed with tables and chairs, and all full of people smoking, talking and drinking coffee.

The coffee, Peter explains, after placing our order, is "just how I like it, very strong but not bitter, because the beans have not been roasted too long. And I have it with cream because that produces the right balance of flavour without cooling it too much as happens when you use milk".

The special highlight of my autumn visit is the cream cake topped with a vermicelli made from chestnuts soaked in caramel and a dash of kirsch.

We sit outside in a tiny stone courtyard just big enough for two tables, serenaded by the ringing of bells from Zurich's many old churches and shaded by the leaves of some big old trees, to savour this rich delight.

When the cake arrives Peter is in ecstasy.

"You like this?" he asks, eyes flashing with excitement.

"The flavour of the chestnut is so different. Isn't it glorious? Only at this time of year can you have this so you are lucky. You notice the hint of kirsch? Doesn't it set off the richness of the cream perfectly? But it's the chestnut that makes this cake special."

It is indeed.

There are more chestnuts roasting in some of the little squares we walk through to get back to the river.

"They are nice to eat hot especially on a cold day," said Peter.

"But the cake is better. It is ... amazing."

It was amazing. And so was Peter Ern's Zurich.

I want to go back one day and try some of those sausages. And have more coffee and cake.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to London, via Hong Kong or Los Angeles, with onward connections to Europe through Star Alliance partner airlines.

Long-term fares start at $2799 plus airport and government charges. Call (0800) 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

Cruising the Rhine: Avalon Waterways is offering an eight-day Romantic Rhine river cruises, visiting some of Europe's most picturesque regions, from April to October 2008. The cruises are available from Basel to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to Basel, visiting the magnificent towns of Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Mainz, Koblenz and Cologne along the way.

Built in 2006, the Avalon Tapestry cruise ship features a lounge and restaurant at its front, as well as an outside viewing deck enabling passengers to fully enjoy the scenery as they cruise.

Most staterooms have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors for optimal viewing.

All meals onboard are included, with wine complimentary with dinner.
Cruise fares are priced from $3019 per person, twin share, for a trip departing June 15. Other departure dates are available including June 22, July 20, August 3, August 10 and October 26.

Further information: See your travel agent or visit avalonwaterways.co.nz for a brochure and free DVD.

Jim Eagles cruised down the Rhine thanks to Air New Zealand and Avalon Waterways.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 24 Sep 2014 01:38:11 Processing Time: 920ms