Zurich is a disarmingly pretty city. Its roots go back to being Turicum, a Roman customs post. In 1336, the guilds formed by the artisans and merchants took control of the government. Thereafter, Zurich became a hub of intellectual activity and also a financial centre. Situated at one end of the lake Zurichsee, it is divided by the River Limmat. This is the country's biggest city and has a huge influx of immigrants. For many years, Zurich has had the reputation of being a robotic city to do business in or a base to fly in and out of Switzerland. But, it's a city that has re-invented itself — it has a large dose of old-world charm commingling with chic ‘modernity'.
We take the famous ‘trolley tour' of Zurich on a bright red bus with commentaries in eight languages available on headphones. We start our tour at the pedestrian streets of the old town (called the Alstadt) on either side of the Limmat River. There are small, winding cobblestone paths and tall heritage houses and guildhalls with wrought iron and wood facades. We lose ourselves in the narrow alleyways, peeking at quaint carvings on doors, family crests and baroque facades. In the distance, we can see the old St. Peters church, dating to the 15th Century, which has the largest clock-face in Europe. The Fraumunster church with its slender spires is famous for its five large stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. We are so entranced by the pipe organ and the interiors, as the sunlight streams in, that we nearly miss the trolley tour! This used to be a Benedictine abbey for noblewomen (Frau, German for women). Outside, in Munsterhof Square, we see an interesting plaque, commemorating Winston Churchill's famous ‘Europe, arise' speech at Zurich University in 1946. We see the historic Café Odeon nearby, where Lenin is supposed to have sat and plotted the Russian revolution, and which used to be the haunt of artists of that era.
Across the river is the Gross Munster, the symbol of Protestant Zurich, dedicated to the patron saints of this city. According to legend, Charlemagne discovered the graves of the city's founders here and ordered that a church be built on the site. Its interiors have been stripped of all paintings and trappings by zealots but its beauty is in its history — the Reformation under Zwingli started here in the 16th Century! There is a large crypt here, and an endearingly-aged statue of Charlemagne dating to the 15th Century. A walk up the stairs can take your breath away but we are rewarded by the wondrous views of the city — the church steeples, the blue lake and the red rooftops. We drive past the University of Zurich, the biggest university in the country, which has produced Nobel laureates such as Albert Einstein. We go up the steep cobblestone incline to the Roman settlement, Lindenhof, the city's highest point, and are once again entranced by the panoramic view of the city. This was once the site of a Celtic and, later, a Roman fort. Now it's a place where old Zurichers gather for a game of giant chess.
We walk on Bahnofstrasse and Paradeplatz, where the whole of Zurich seems to congregate to shop and eat — this is the centre of Swiss chic. We see dark-suited men walk with purposeful strides and chic women in designer dresses. Rumour has it that the Swiss banks squirrel their gold reserves in vaults under this street! Designer shops, insurance companies and banks line the street. We ogle at diamond-encrusted watches and the tantalising truffles, pralines, cakes and pastries in the windows of the famous Confiserie Sprungli. The Kunsthaus, the Zurich Art gallery, is home to Monet's ‘Water lilies' and Alpine landscapes by Hodler. We continue to the castle-like Swiss national Museum that showcases Swiss culture and history. There is an astounding array of paintings, costumes of different periods, watches, toys and pre-historic objects here.
Zurich discourages cars in the heart of town. The tram system is clean, punctual and a pleasure to use. Bikes can be rented for free by just showing some identification. We reach Burkliplatz, named after town engineer and a quay builder, Arnold Burkli, from where all the cruises on Lake Zurich originate. Lake Zurich is huge and looks more like a river with snow-capped mountains in the background and attractions all around. Zurich is famous for its ubiquitous fountains (almost a thousand in number), which are works of art with historical significance, and provide drinkable spring water. Zurich is supposed to be a city that lets its hair down by night, but we don't have the time to check that out. But, one thing's sure — whether you are a couture hound or a history aficionado or a Nature-lover, Zurich definitely has something for everyone!
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU METRO PLUS, 2010