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Zapping around Zurich

Determined to avoid the modern face of this Swiss city, TANUSHREE PODDER took a detour from the main shopping hub, into the bylanes and discovered a whole new world.

A bird's-eye view of Zurich.

I WAS quite prepared for Zurich to be a scenic city since it is located in Switzerland, which is nothing less than a picture book come to life. I was also prepared for efficiency, smartness and a business-like ambience because it is also a city with world famous banks. I had visualised staid bankers in their impeccable dark suits and ties moving about in a perfectly disciplined manner that is so typically Swiss. Whether it was the Swiss trains, traffic, watches or the manners, it was precision all around. What I didn't expect was the old world charm and the haunting recall value of the place.

Zurich is all that you would expect of a modern, efficient city with its medieval air and historical attractions. These are juxtaposed so interestingly that one glides smoothly from the present into the past without feeling the jarring effects of a time-warp. There exists a city that is as vibrant and as alive as any other in the world — the cobbled streets of the Old Quarters throbbing with the live music of the street performers, its crowds cheering lustily as a fire-eater licks the flames of a torch and the juggler performs unerringly with four pairs of plates.

When I landed in the city on a beautifully bright day last April, I was quickly sucked into the whorl of activities that seemed to envelope the city during the weekends. All through my Swiss sojourn, especially around the countryside, I found very few people around. Hence Zurich, with its streets bustling with activity, was reassuring to the soul. A walking tour through the old city was recommended and I am glad I did so because I discovered the beauty of the city that would otherwise have passed me by. It is here that one can catch these images and mull over them without the trappings of modern day sights so familiar elsewhere.

Situated at the northern end of Lake Zurich and surrounded by wooded hills, Zurich is divided by the Limmat river. With 3,60,000 inhabitants, it is the largest Swiss city. For centuries, walls surrounded the city centre and have helped preserve the historic old town, Alstead. Its character, formed by artisans organised in guilds in the 14th Century, can be seen from the Lindenhof. Even today the square is in the heart of Zurich. It is this amalgamation of the cosmopolitan and the historical that must have attracted celebrities like Richard Wagner, James Joyce and Gottfried Keller, who spent many years here.

Determined to avoid the modern face of Zurich, I took a detour from the main shopping hub, Bahnhofstrasse, into the bylanes and discovered a whole new world — the real Zurich, or "Zuri" as the locals call it. There were elegant houses lining the narrow streets, made for pedestrians mainly because I couldn't imagine a horse driven carriage making it through them without brushing the doors of the houses. There is a Victorian feel about the place; the ornate water fountains that recreate the times when women would congregate around them in the mornings and exchange gossip. I was quite enchanted by an ornate one standing in front of Hotel Storchen. It had the statue of a grape picker of yore, with a basket slung on his back.

Like the Chandni Chowk in Delhi, the streets here are named according to the trade followed in that area. Like the "Paranthewali Gali" in Old Delhi, which sells paranthas, Zurich has its "Winegasse", the wine street.

Most of the houses are very old with quaint carvings on the doors. I came across a house called "Hausen Kindle", meaning the "House of babies", the frontage of which shows a child seated on a skull with an hourglass by the side. Those days most babies died at an early age, hence this depiction.

Old houses with heritage value, have their numbers etched on a blue plaque. Such houses can't be renovated from the outside although alterations are permitted on the inside.

Almost every family in Switzerland has a crest, depicting the place where the family belongs, their trade or other significant information. Since I had always associated crests with royalty, this was an interesting piece of information. I saw a butcher's crest displayed prominently around a street and was told that the house belonged to a butcher who had made a lot of money. In another street I was fascinated by a butcher's shop, which had been turned into a swanky boutique but which still bears the butcher's crest. In a bid to suit the change, the meat hooks lining the sides of the showroom had been converted into clothes hooks.

I saw the house where Goethe stayed with his friend Lavater and the one where Lenin stayed for almost a year, when he tried, in vain, to influence the Swiss with his communist thinking. There were several guild houses that have now been converted into popular restaurants. The amazing Baroque facades of the guild houses bring back memories of ancient trading and by merchants who were all-powerful and dominated the social scene. I was disappointed to learn that I would miss the annual Zurich Spring festival, "Secheslauten" held on the third Monday every April. Almost medieval in character it has the men parading around the city, clad in their traditional guild costumes and finally gathering at the Sechselauten Square in the evening. And then a cotton wool snowman symbolising winter is burnt on a giant bonfire while bands of guild horsemen gallop around his place of execution.

The history of Zurich is interesting. The town was founded by the Romans, around 15 B.C. who established the customs of Turicum on the Lindenhof hill. Zurich had become an ecclesiastical centre by the Ninth Century. In 1218, it was designated a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. It was around 1336, that the craftsmen's guilds gradually took control of the town's running. In 1351, Zurich joined the Swiss Confederation. The Swiss Reformation was initiated here in 1519 under the leadership of Zwingli. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the community developed as a manufacturing and cultural centre.

The era of religious tussle and a power struggle seems to come alive as one stands in front of the amazingly old churches. The Zurich skyline is distinctly lined by the spires of these churches. The twin towers of the Grossmunster Cathedral, a Protestant Church, stand prominent, reminders of the times when pastor Huldrych Zwingli preached from its pulpit.

This church is supposed to have been founded by none other than Charlemagne. Careful scrutiny reveals the remains of Romanesque cloister with sculptures from the 12th Century. Originally the cathedral's chapter house, the building was transformed into a girls' school in 1853. It is now home to Zurich University's Faculty of Theology.

The tower of St. Peter's Church has the distinction of bearing the biggest clockface in Europe while the spire of the Fraumunster Cathedral stands lofty and imposing, proud in the knowledge that the stained glass windows contained therein were created by the famous Marc Chagall. Frau, I knew, means women in German and I was wondering about the connection when I was told that it was formerly the church of a Convent for Noble Ladies founded by King Ludwig of Germany. The church has some structures, which date as far back as the Ninth and the 11th Centuries.

A short walk took me to the University of Zurich, which was founded in 1833 and prides itself on its association with names like Albert Einstein.

Just under its imposing structure is located a cafeteria but one that serves excellent food at a nominal price. Overlooking the Limmat river and the tall spires of the churches, it offers a bird's-eye view of a large cross-section of the bustling city.

I was intrigued by the colourful benches that were scattered around the city. I spotted one with storks designed on it, placed outside Hotel Storchen while another, shaped like a pair of exotic dark glasses, finds place outside a shop selling sunglasses. At another, a travel agency has a bench with the world map and tourism related artwork on it. Some others were shaped like a submarine, a cake or a crocodile, but most were painted with designs ranging from cats to aliens to desert islands.

What I learnt about the origin of these benches made for another interesting story. On December 26, 1999, Europeans woke up to face one of the most lethal storms of the century. Known as "Lothar", this typhoon lashed many parts of the continent with devastating results.

In Switzerland, vast areas of forests were flattened.

From the trees felled arose a new art form called BenchART, exclusive to the city of Zurich. Some 1,075 benches created from the timber were distributed and scattered throughout the city. Sponsors — individuals or local businesses — bought them and had them painted by professional artists or local art students. Some businesses have used them to advertise their wares, such as the cake outside the Spruengli bakery.

There are so many interesting facets to the city, like the "Blindekuh" restaurant or the "Blind Cow", which is the world's first completely dark restaurant run by a team of visually challenged staff. It claims to heighten the senses of taste, smell and touch by offering a dining experience in total darkness. Situated in a former church, it has become one of the city's hottest eating spots. Blindekuh is also the German phrase for blind man's bluff and seats 60 guests. Daily specials include prawns in garlic sauce, fresh pasta or meat.

There is also a hotel and wellness centre called "Ladys First". In 1994, eight women from different professions decided to create a boutique hotel exclusively for women, the first such project in Zurich. Needless to say, it is quite a hit with women who travel alone for business or pleasure.

There are lovely walks through the narrow streets of the old town, which are packed with restaurants and art galleries. Some like the Kronehalle at the Bellevue Square are legendary.

The place is lined with famous works of art by painters who frequented the restaurant and didn't have money to pay for their bills, hence they did so with their paintings. The Café Sprungli is another place one can't afford to miss, serving absolutely out of this world confectionery items that have to be savoured and experienced, not described.

From here it's a stone's throw to the lake, which has a fleet of two paddle-wheelers and 15 diesel-engine ships, including a fondue boat where visitors can dip into a typical Swiss dish of melted cheese, called "fondue".

Saturdays seem to be reserved for entertainment, recreation and fun. Right from the restaurants on the side walks to the ones in elegant surroundings, every eating joint seemed to be packed to the seams. It is said that even the bankers, known as the gnomes of Zurich because of the mounds of gold stored in underground vaults, have to relax. And what better way to do so than to have a gastronomic experience with street music playing in the background.

There are several Chinese eateries, and restaurants that serve exclusive Indian fare, apart from Swiss specialities. Settling for a Swiss meal, I dug appreciatively into local favourites like the "Rosti", which is potatoes grated then fried, and Zuri-Gschnatzlets, which is veal in strips with mushrooms in a wine and cream sauce. All this while watching street performers from the window.

I am told that in summer, people flock to the bars by the river or stroll through the Dorfli (one of Zurich's amusement areas), and tune in to some of the music played by the street artists and musicians.

As I stepped out into the cold night, after my dinner, I joined the crowds clapping with delight as the performers began another popular number. The night suddenly felt warm and nice and the stars seemed brighter. Was it the effect of the wine or the ambience, I wondered. To me, Zurich will never be the same again!

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