Zurich: A Swiss city of surprises

By Alexia Santamaria

Beneath its austere exterior, Alexia Santamaria finds the beating heart of Zurich.

A view over the downtown of Zurcih and the Limmat river on a beautiful summer day. Photo / Getty Images
A view over the downtown of Zurcih and the Limmat river on a beautiful summer day. Photo / Getty Images

It's embarrassing to admit that you've judged a place way too quickly and have to eat your ill-informed words less than 12 hours later. But in my defence, Zurich is a deceptive city. Some parts, full of austere banks and similarly imposing buildings, would have you believe it's a city with no soul. As you wander around you realise this Swiss jewel is full of fun and frivolous surprises.

Our day starts with an easy-breezy boat cruise on Lake Limmat with the Lake Zurich Boat Company. It's always wonderful to see a city from the water and we enjoy the view of old buildings, clock towers, churches and museums jostling for space amid cobblestone alleys, as a contrast to the far more sparse — but equally beautiful — vistas we get from the water in New Zealand.

We disembark at the Buerkliplatz area and head towards the Fraumunster Church.

I think to myself, "Nice, clean but dull", as we pass a series of grandiose buildings which appear extremely unapproachable. It's not long till I realise I'm very wrong; these pristine, grey structures hide all kinds of little surprises if you know where to look. A tiny hidden garden here, a beautiful foyer in a building there, a small square with fountains (there are 1200 in the city, all with fresh drinking water, and many are small works of art) and busy cafes tucked away in courtyards you could easily miss.

Our guide Ursula explains this is because of the Protestant reformation in the 1500s which removed the previous Catholic excess and decreed Zurich's beauty should be more subtle. She takes us into one of the banks to illustrate this point — what looks like a very ordinary building on the outside has exquisite tiled floors, magnificent stained glass and a gorgeous mosaic roof in the foyer.

Things get even more interesting as we walk towards the heart of the old town. The Fraumuenster Church is a large, impressive structure but again, the true treasure is inside.

In 1970 Belarusian-French artist Mark Chagall completed five stunning windows, and these modern interpretations of Biblical scenes are breathtakingly beautiful.

Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's small entrance window made from thin cross-sections of semi-precious stones has us lingering too.

Ursula encourages us to venture through a brown door to the left of the church and once again, surprises await.

Gerold Chuchi bar in Zurich, with an installation brightly coloured umbrellas hung overhead in the alley outside.
Gerold Chuchi bar in Zurich, with an installation brightly coloured umbrellas hung overhead in the alley outside.

Behind the door (that I never would have thought to push open) lies a serene, sunny courtyard with arches and greenery that half make me expect to see Jane Austen characters and their ladies-in-waiting discussing issues of great importance.

As we cross the bridge into the Niederdorf area, things become livelier still.

Funky shops, cool looking restaurants and cafes are everywhere — some modern and some old and quirky, but all enticing.

We are seduced by the opulent three-levelled Conditorei Schober, filled with pastries, cakes, chocolates and everything dainty and delicious.

It has several spaces in which to enjoy a Swiss hot chocolate so we take the opportunity to rest our legs temporarily. There are multiple spaces depending on your mood — outside tables in a courtyard, a bright flower-filled tearoom or opulent moodily-lit cavern with dark wood and plush red velvet seating.

Ursula takes us to peek in at Oepfelchammer (website in German), the oldest originally preserved pub in Zurich. It has massive oak beams from which people hang, while drinking a glass of wine, to earn the privilege of carving their name on the wall, beam or table.

The walls are full of names etched into the wood — those crazy Swiss!

We amble back down Niederdorfstrasse poking around the interesting shops and boutiques. There's time for a quick change into evening clothes at our lovely hotel, Central Plaza, and then we're off on a quick 10-minute tram ride to Zurich-West.

Any initial ill-judgments of Zurich are obliterated here. Where an old industrial area once stood is now a vibrant scene.

Gourmet food shops at Markthalle and arty boutiques everywhere, this is totally my kind of place. We fall instantly in love with Frau Gerold's Garten (website in German). Started 2012 as a temporary project, this beer and kitchen space, as it's called, has since grown into something of an institution with shops, art, a garden community and great food and drink sold from stalls and renovated shipping containers.

Frau Gerolds Garten, Zurich.
Frau Gerolds Garten, Zurich.

We wander down the road in the balmy evening to a bar called Gerold Chuchi and, like so many before us, are blown away by the fabulous installation of what must be more than 60 brightly coloured umbrellas hung overhead in the alley.

We enjoy a beer, then have a casual relaxed dinner at Les Halles, one of the restaurants housed in a former warehouse in Zurich-West. There's also a wholesale grocer's market stall integrated into the restaurant.

Zurich has been a huge lesson in not judging any city too quickly. And this is only what we saw in a day; we're told there's so much more to delight visitors.

The Protestants may have tried to dull its light some centuries ago, but Zurich has definitely got its groove well and truly back.

Epfelchammer, the oldest originally preserved pub in Zurich.
Epfelchammer, the oldest originally preserved pub in Zurich.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Emirates has daily A380 flights from Auckland to Zurich, via Dubai.

Further information: See zuerich.com.

- NZ Herald

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