Table of contents for Switzerland
Zurich (“Zu-reich” in German means too rich), the business and cultural capital of Switzerland, lies at the north end of Zurich Lake, in the valley formed by the ridges of Uetliberg on the west and Zurichberg on the east. 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.
Zurich dates its origins from 15BC, when the Roman customs post of Turicum was founded. Zurich was at the centre of the Swiss religious Reformation in the 16th century, under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli, whose motto ‘pray and work’ had a profound effect on this diligent city and by the 19th century it had grown into the commercial and financial centre of Switzerland.
Despite its size, Zurich retains much of its old world charm and is both large enough to offer every amenity and small enough to discover on your own. So, on Thursday, October 10, immediately after walking past some of the exciting food kiosks (and there are over 200 of these) at the Hauptbahnoff (HB) railway station and asking for directions from the Tourist Office, we headed for Bahnhofstrasse, the store-crammed boulevard (Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Cartier, Tiffany, Dior, Globus, Manor, H&M and what not!!), which is one of the world’s most prestigious and exclusive shopping avenues.
Bahnhofstrasse starts at Bahnhofplatz by Zurich HB and ends 1.4 km away at Burkliplatz on Lake Zurich. This is the gateway into the modern city, where all of Zurich comes to walk, eat or shop, whether to browse in inexpensive department stores that crowd the first third of the street, or to sign away Swiss Frs. 25,000 on a Rolex watch or on a Vuitton handbag at some super-chic boutiques further south.
Walking up the Bahnhofstrasse, and along the elegant, uniform and neat nineteenth century buildings, we visited Globus, Zurich’s famous department store, set beyond a small park on the right hand side. The food hall, located in the basement, was simply overwhelming. It is a good place to buy truffles, by all accounts, or cheeses, but whatever you buy it comes attractively packaged. Manor is another good store worth a visit. There are so many varieties of chocolates and cheeses there that at times, making a selection becomes a problem. Manor also has a less expensive cafeteria “Manora” on the fifth floor.
Further up along the Bahnhofstrasse is a busy square called Paradeplatz. It is around there that Zurich’s serious money begins. The streets in this area are home to most of the banks, insurance companies and top designer outlets. Most Swiss banks are headquartered here, generally housed within imposing eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings. No wonder then that in the Paradeplatz, blonde matrons of indeterminate age, generally dripping in jewels and in winter, enveloped in the longest and most exotic-looking of furs, strut along with little dogs on fancy leashes.
Switzerland’s most luxurious hotel, Baur au Lac Hotel, is located just off the Bahnoffsrasse and walking past this hotel, I recalled an episode from the celebrated book The Haj by Leon Uris, where Ursula calls Haj Ibrahim, (the central character of the book and an Arab leader) and asks him to meet her at a shop called Madame Hildegard, close to Baur au Lac Hotel. That luxurious hotel still stands in all its glory.
Crossing the famous bridge, Quaibrucke, under which River Limmat empties itself into Lake Zurich, we reached Burkliplatz, to take the suggested 90 minutes boat trip. The Swiss pass entitled us to a free passage in the second class and we settled in the bow of the boat. The boat was large enough to house a small cafeteria and a well- stocked bar and had two levels of decks. The boat zigzagged its way through the crystal clear water and provided us wide-angle views of the Swiss mountains and the impressive Lake Zurich shoreline. It was a serene and pleasant morning with the glorious sunshine, which even the geese and ducks were enjoying.
Most round trips stop on the right bank, known locally as the Gold Coast (as it gets the late afternoon sun), before crossing the lake at Kusnacht Helsibach. From here the boat sailed down the left bank back into town. We got off the boat at Kusnacht Helsibach, for refreshment in the scenic lakeside bar, had a quick beer and some sizzling hot snacks and returned by the next boat.
The Zurich skyline is dominated by four spires, with the dual towers of the Grossmünster on one side of River Limmat and the towers of the thirteenth century Fraumunster and St. Peter’s Church on the other. The Old Town spans this river, and some of the most interesting lanes and buildings are clustered along its banks. We headed there from Burkliplatz, the distance being just less than half a kilometer.
In a city of modest, small-scale architecture, Grossmunster (“great minster”), a Romanesque-Gothic style church that played an important role in the history of the Protestant Reformation, looks dauntingly gigantic.
Construction on the Grossmunster began in 1090, and most of the cathedral was completed by 1230. It was dedicated to Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius, the patron saints of Zurich.
Before talking about the cathedral, it would be pertinent to say a few words about the Patron saints of Zurich – Felix and Regula. Legend has it that these two Roman Christians fled to the city after the massacre of their legions in Valais in the third century AD. They were decapitated for refusing to pray to the Roman Gods, whereupon they picked their heads and carried them up the hill to the spot where they wished to be buried. According to popular belief, when Charlemagne (King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 742 – 814) arrived at the same spot during a hunting expedition, his horse suddenly went down on its knees in deference to the saints buried there. Charlemagne founded a church, the forerunner of the Grossmunster, and an adjacent chapterhouse in honour of these saints. Ever since the thirteenth century, images of the saints carrying their heads were used in the official seals of the city and on their coins (they still appear on the seal of Zurich).
Zurich was at the centre of the Swiss religious Reformation in the sixteenth century, under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli, who initiated the Swiss-German Reformation in Switzerland from his pastoral office at the Grossmunster, starting in 1520. Zwingli won a series of debates presided over by the magistrate in 1523 which ultimately led local civil authorities to sanction the severance of the church from the papacy. These reforms make this church one of the most important sites in the history of the Reformation.
Its two three-storey towers stretch into the sky above Limmatquai. The view from the left tower (about 200 steps up) is impressive and provides a good view of the entire city, including some of the nearby churches.
The most impressive approach to the cathedral is across Zwingliplatz to the main North Portal, which has a carved door and capitals adorned with Romanesque carvings of animals, birds, and a fiddle player (on the far left). At the base of the north tower is a modern statue of Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor.
The interior of Grossmunster, unlike the interior of many other churches, is quite bare, still entirely stripped of the statues and paintings denounced by Zwingli. The beauty of the cathedral lies in its simple Romanesque architecture, lofty austerity and venerable history.
The original ornamentation consists of some capitals decorated with battle scenes and Charlemagne’s discovery of the graves of Felix and Regula (third pillar on the north side), as well as some unique faded frescoes in a side chapel. Most of the ornamentation one sees today has been done later as has the pulpit (1851) and the organ (1960). The beautiful stained-glass windows in the choir were made in 1933.
Grossmunster’s crypt is the largest of its kind in Switzerland. The long triple-aisled hall is dominated by a weather-beaten, fifteenth-century statue of Charlemagne, which once stood atop the south tower. A replica now takes its place on the tower.
Left of the Grossmunster on Zwingliplatz is the cathedral’s chapterhouse, now the University’s Theological Institute. Here a door leads to a cloister, built in the twelfth century and renovated in the 1960s. The Romanesque arched windows and capitals are carved with an interesting variety of gargoyles, monkeys, dragons, humans and centaurs. The church houses a Reformation museum in the cloister.
We had spent the morning walking around and needed a lunch break. As we walked down a lane, I was thrilled to see a bookshop displaying some books on sale. Though most of the books were in German, we did manage to pick up couple of rare books –The Obstacle race on renowned women painters and their works and another one on the Dutch painter, Vermeer and that too for a pittance – just five francs each – a sort of loot in the real sense.
Further up the street, there were about half a dozen art galleries, where we saw some of the good modern art, the price tags of which are better not discussed. However, if you have always wanted a Degas or a Renoir but not been able to afford one, this treasure-trove of the high-quality reproductions of the world’s famous masterpieces by Picasso, Chaggal, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt might provide a reasonably priced alternative.
Crossing the nineteenth century bridge, and walking past the statue of Burgomaster Waldman, during whose rule the city gained influence over much of the surrounding lands, we reached the slender, blue spire of Fraumunster (Minster of Our Lady), which is best known for housing magnificent stained glass windows.
At the reception, we were given a leaflet with a brief history of this magnificent edifice.
The Benedictine abbey was founded in 853 by Emperor Ludwig (Louis the German), the grandson of Charlemagne for his daughter Hildegard. She became the first abbess. In 874, her sister Bertha added a simple basilica with a crypt beneath to hold the relics of Felix and Regula, who were martyred nearby.
The abbesses gained considerable rights in the eleventh century and the convent was the home of many German noblewomen until the thirteenth century. The present church dates from the 13th century, but the crypt of the old abbey church is preserved in the undercroft.
The convent was closed during the Reformation in 1524 and the last abbess (Katharina von Zimmern) was subscribed to the Reformation movement. She donated the church and abbey to the city of Zurich. As at the Grossmunster, all the icons, images and the organ were destroyed here too.
The chief attractions of Fraumunster are five stained-glass windows – each with its own colour theme- designed by Marc Chaggal in 1970. These are best seen in the bright morning light. The basilica has three aisles and the nave is in Gothic style.
At this point my wife’s aching feet needed some rest so we spent a pleasurable half an hour at the nearby café and then proceeded to St. Peter’s Church.
Zurich’s oldest church, St. Peter’s Church is on the left bank, south of Lindenhof. The church was built in the 13th century. It features the largest clock face in the world – 9 meters (28.5 feet) in diameter. The minute hands alone are almost 4 meters (12 feet) long. The bells date to 1880. The interior of the church is marked by Romanesque and baroque ornamentation.
Located close to the railway station, the Swiss National Museum is a massive edifice that provides a comprehensive survey of the culture and history of the Swiss people. The museum’s collection is housed in a nineteenth century Neo-Gothic castle. The collection includes a vast amount of religious art, including sixteenth century stained glass from Tanikon Convent and frescoes from the Convent Church of Mustair. Some of the Carolingian art dates back to the ninth century. The altarpieces are carved, painted, and gilded. The prehistoric section is also exceptional, with some of the artifacts dating back to the fourth millennium BC. The rest of the collection includes a large display of Roman clothing, medieval silverware, fourteenth-century drinking bowls, and seventeenth-century china, as well as painted furniture and costumes of various periods. A display of weapons and armour shows the methods of Swiss warfare from 800 to 1800. There’s also an exhibit tracing Swiss clock- making from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
By the time we time had finished seeing the artifacts in the museum, we were close to calling it a day, we took Bus No. 13 to the railway station, picked up our hand bag from the cloak room and headed for the Youth Hostel, where we planned to spend the rest of the evening.
Friday, October 11
Zurich is surrounded by some of the most interesting sightseeing areas in Switzerland. One of the best short trips out of the city is to the hill of Uetliberg, which is just a twenty minute train ride. This is a favoured getaway for the locals and a popular hiking route. It is only a ten minute walk up the hill to the summit, from where one can have 360-degree views over Zurich, the whole curve of the lake and on a clear day can even see Austria and as far as southwest as the Jungfrau.
And who has not read or heard about “Heidi”, the most enchanting book by Johanna Spyri. Don’t be surprised if I tell you that Heidi’s world is not just a children’s story – it really exists! It’s a world of mountains and valleys, alpine lakes and meadows, waterfalls, gorges, caves and fascinating scenic reserves, just a fifty minute rail ride from Zurich.
I will endeavour to write something about Ueteliberg, Heidiland and the Rhine Falls in my next post.
Thank you for visiting.