Wednesday 13 May 2009

In praise of Zürich

Zürich is without a doubt one of our favourite cities. It is not too big, about the size of Edinburgh, so there is little danger of getting lost. We have been going there for over a decade now to visit to Emma. Now that little Alessio has come along, we have even more excuses for visiting Zürich. Thank you Emma for choosing to live in such an interesting place. Here are some personal reflections on what makes Zürich such a wonderful city.

Cafés, coffee and cakes
Vienna is perhaps the city par excellence for cafés, but Zürich can give it a good run for its money. There are cafés to suit all tastes and they come in all shapes, sizes and locations. Over the years we have tried out quite a few, but there are three that we keep going back to. Café Ernst is a traditional style café on the Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street. This was one of the first cafés we visited and it still has a luxury feel to it. On the first floor you can get a window table and look out on the passers by below. Features a wall length mirror and delicious cakes. A more bohemian look dominates the Café am Neumarkt, which shares the building with the Theater am Neumarkt, Zürich's avant garde theatre. A very small and intimate place, the café serves wonderful amaretti biscuits. If you want to sit outside and watch the world go by, then there is no better place than the Rathaus café where you can sit by the river Limmat. The Rathaus café is very tiny inside, so it is best kept for a sunny afternoon. On our last visit we came across two new cafés. The Caffetteria am Limmatplatz is a bit out from the centre, but is on the route to the Museum for Contemporary Art. Another long established Café but less luxurious than the Ernst. The final newcomer came via Emma and is definitely the most luxurious of all the five (no surprise there). Café Felix am Bellevue is inside a renovated old style hotel and is very much like a classic Viennese café, with richly ornate décor and the sumptuous cakes. These are really just thick squares of cream with a paper thin surrounding of pastry or sponge – but delicious nevertheless.

A word on coffee in Zürich. We always order a café crème which consists of a strong black coffee served in a medium sized cup with real pouring cream served on the side. We love it as it suits our taste perfectly. However we have found it quite difficult to get this combination elsewhere. When we asked for a café crème in Vienna for example we got a large black coffee with thick cream on top. Eventually on our last day there we discovered that to get a café crème in Vienna you have to ask for a “brauner mit crème separat”. A bit of a mouthful.

Lake, rivers and hills
One of the charms of Zürich is its setting. Most of the old town is centred on the two banks of the Limmat river and further expansion took in both sides of the river Sihl. As a result much of central Zürich is built on a plain which makes it very easy to wander about on foot. The rivers themselves are interesting, especially the Limmat and you can walk along much of the river. There is also the Schanzengraben, which was formerly a moat in front of the city's defensive walls. Now it is a pleasant waterway with a pathway which leads all the way to the Lake. Though much of central Zürich is relatively flat the city is surrounded by hills, including the Zürichberg and the Uetliberg, the latter rising to 871m. The Zürichberg is part of the city and is great for walking and of course has wonderful views of the old town.
For us the main attraction of Zürich's setting is the Lake – the Zürichsee. The waters lap the eastern parts of the city and provide a welcome if crowded place to take the sun and watch the activities on the lake. The one disappointment is that the much of the lakeside is privately owned so there is no complete walkway round the lake. Still there are enough publicly owned spaces to keep most people happy.

Window shopping
Zürich is a shoppers paradise, with a wealth of shops catering for the wealthy and the super wealthy. Unless you actually own a bank or have an MP's expense account better not think of buying anything in Zürich, other than the basic necessities. However some of the window displays are so beautifully created that they are almost works of art in themselves. And it is always insightful to glimpse at how the top 5% or so live, or at least what they spend their money on. In addition to the main world renowned labels – Armani, Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna, Grider etc – Zürich also has a wide range of small and trendy designer shops, most of which are just as expensive. Still nice to pop into a few of them now and again. A particular favourite of ours is the furniture design shop – Neumarkt 17. This really is a work of art. A very old, narrow building has been converted into this shop displaying some fancy and pricey furniture of all kinds. Much of the space had been opened up to allow you views up and down. This has been helped by the use of suspended iron walkways. There is even a pool of water on the lowest floor. A must place to visit and adore.

Boats, trains, trams, buses and bicycles
Another great plus for Zürich, at least compared to the UK, is the comprehensive and integrated public transport system. A daily or weekly ticket allows you unlimited travel on all means of transport. The trams are a favourite of ours and whenever possible we choose a tram to get around the city. The fleet is gradually being modernised though there are still some of the older models in use. Since much of Zürich is relatively flat it is perfect for cycling, even for those who are not particularly fit. There is an excellent cycle network and you can hire a bike from the main stations for free – you just leave a deposit. Wonderful idea. For something a little different the boats on the Zürichsee are hard to beat. Lovely old steamers with open air upper decks, the boats ply their way all around the lake, all the way to Rapperswill at the other end of the lake. As Emma now stays in Kilchberg, just outside the city, we often take the boat to get back. If you time it right you can even take the long route – one hour on board – for no extra charge. You also get wonderful views from the boats. On our latest visit the mountains were still covered in snow.

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