Quirky Zurich

The Bizarre and Cosmopolitan Seem to Converge Along the Cobblestone Streets to the Limmat River

On The Town | Margaret Childs | December 2006 / January 2007

In the old city of Zurich, the 18th century city stands astride the flow of the Limmat river. In the land of the Swatch and the coo coo clock, time seems to stand still (Photo: Creative Commons)

Bookers of cheap weekend getaways should stay away from Zurich. A credit card is quickly maxed in this luxurious city if one wants to stay full bellied and in the loop –

That is, however, not to say you’re not getting your money’s worth.

The airport train wisps off from Gate E station to the baggage claim. A Swiss voice greets the passengers: "Welcome to Zurich, Bienvenue á Zurich, Wilkommen in Zürich!" and is followed by mooing , alphorns and cowbell sound effects and the occasional yodel to get you in the mood.

"Enjoy your stay in Zurich! Goodbye, au revoir and aufwiederluaga." Aufwiederluaga? This dialect would take a bit of getting used to! I shouldered my bag and made my way to board the train to Zurich Central Station.

For a city of 350,000 inhabitants, the shopping street beginning at the station was bustling with people. It feels like Vienna or even Paris, except for the fact that everything is very, very clean. An old school buddy of my boyfriend, now living in Zurich, met us, and led us off to what he called "a Swiss version of a Cuban pub." What seemed to me to be an unconscionable assemblage of oxymorons was, in fact, a two-floored rustic establishment called "El Lokal," located alongside the Limmat River, with an oil painting of Ché Guevara above the door. As we sipped our beer and white wine Spritzer – and yes the Swiss do call it a "Spritzer," unlike the Germans, who Weiss Wein Schorle Sauer– we outlined our game plan.

First on the list was Oerlikon, which I later found out to be a former industrial district, recently converted to "must-have" business space and housing. This "Greenwich Village" of Zurich, the area has become a popular space for galleries, and what was formally a ghetto – of course by Swiss standards the term ghetto is much tamer than in New York – is now an artist’s haven. We were lucky, having arrived on the 17th we had come on the opening night of the KUNST ’06 exhibition, which only ran for three days. As we entered the huge factory building, across from a recently inserted park, we became part of a chattering bustling torrent of people making their way through the halls upon halls of modern art from around the world. The coffee company Nespresso had taken the opportunity to make an "artistic" appearance and, enlivened by it, there was no stopping the art-lovers.

We, on the other hand were quite hungry and after a good one and a half hours at the gallery, examining papier-mâché children coming out of photographs and skyscrapers in color enhanced 3D, we decided to find some scrod.

Our starving bellies were rewarded at what, from the outside, looked like the Oerlikon station bistro, but has in fact been renovated and is now a fine-dining favorite called Gleis 9 (Track 9). French-Swiss Beef tartar and Sprüngli salad (what Austrians call Vogerl Salat and in English, corn salad or field salad) with egg and bacon were a fine introduction to Swiss cuisine, simple but lighter than the traditional Cheese Fondue or Raclette.

Unknowing tourists as we were, we tipped the waiter the usual Austrian 10 percent, for which he practically kissed our feet.

Driving to our domicile over the hills surrounding the city, the vista looked peaceful and oh so small. And the twinkling lights of Zurich under the clear night sky promised a beautiful Saturday.

By day, the center of town is full of shoppers. We weaved our way through the hum of every conceivable language, looking into shop windows and gawking at the occasionally jaw-dropping displays. One thing you’ll never be short of in Zurich is kinky underwear, watches and fine, very fine, cigars. Not that H&M, Tally Weil and Burger King don’t exist, they just don’t gain half the presence of the private boutiques and eateries.

In the Altstadt, or old city, the streets wind upward, or downward, depending on where you’re coming from. Car-less and cobbled, the lanes remind you of Tuscany mixed with Prague, but again, cleaner. Slowly it began to dawn on me that paying a few Swiss Francs more for your coffee or train ticket affords so much more urban comfort – they must be doing something very right. After passing an extremely pink and salmon toned lingerie shop called Elodie, we rounded the corner to find ourselves on a wide square, looking over the Limmet and the entire old city.

Dusk began to descend over the illuminated boats on the water and from our bench on the hill, we could almost see the lights of the club we were planning to go to that night.

After dinner at the picturesque hillside Restaurant Am Waid by our apartment, we taxied down to Pelikanstrasse in the center of town and to the disco Kaufleuten.

This is not just any old club. Formerly a department store, (hence the name, meaning Vendors) the building has been renovated into restaurants and bars and the one of a kind dance hall. It is renowned for the 60 SF entrance fee and out-of-this-world theme performances.

That Saturday two DJs from London were mixing and the theme was Mme Pompidou, meaning dozens of girls in outlandish burlesque get-ups, parasols and wild wigs and an amazing acrobatic display by a bald and very pliable young woman hanging from a sash attached to the ceiling.

Every few hours she would do a 20-minute routine, hanging upside-down in a split and spinning herself into the cloth and letting herself fall only to catch her body with one hand and swing it around again. Like most of Zurich, she was priceless.

The crowd in the VIP area was mixed, from international, "older" playboys (playmen, might be more suitable) to young, scantily clad fashionistas and sweaty throbbing, vodka Red Bull-sipping victims of the night. The show went on until the later wee hours of the morning, but by five thirty we were spent, figuratively and literally.

As we stumbled to the coat-check, one of the break dancers started saying something to me in Schweitzer Deutsch and, not understanding a word, I smiled sweetly assuming he was flirting and began to walk away when one of my friends explained that I had stepped on his foot with my stilettos. I quickly turned to apologize but he was limping out of sight.

Ah, the morning after. Zurich is easy on the hung-over. Sundays are quiet and the coffee is strong. After lunching in an inner city bistro we made our way to the Airport to return to Vienna.

How do they do it? They invented Swatch and the coo coo clock and still manage to take themselves seriously, and they can party. For a culture that says "oder?" at the end of every statement, they seem very sure of what they’re up to.

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