Zurich – so many preconceived notions preceded our visit. Boring financial capital, glassy modern buildings, materialistic, mono-focus on money… In fact, prior to our move to Paris, we had spent some time looking into neighboring European countries at their economies, job markets, lifestyle etc. Switzerland, especially Zurich had all going for it in terms of a high salary, standard of living and little else. There was no “life” outside of this that we could perceive sitting far away.
And, now that we have spent all of ONE grand day there, I feel differently :-p
First, we got to spend a few hours in Zurich on the way to Samedan from Paris. By 11am or so, we were already wandering about the city center. The train station has high vaulted ceilings, and rolls out into the busy tram-filled streets of Zurich. We picked up a city map and started down Bahnhofstrasse – a busy street with many touristy shops close to the station that evolves as you walk down, becoming more and more upscale, and eventually less touristy and more ‘normal’. This street leads straight to the Zurich lake. A direct walk from the Zurich train station (Hauptbahnhof) to the lake probably takes no more than 20 minutes.
By chance we came upon a unique café restaurant, called Hiltl – purely vegetarian and serving a delicious buffet. Turns out this is a very fancy and popular destination among locals too, as it is Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant (breaking barriers since 1898!). It was admittedly a tad expensive (like all things Swiss!) but the range and quality of vegetarian food did impress us. Do look it up if you have time in Zurich.
We had a very pleasant brunch chatting all the while with a young mother and her little one, discussing the Swiss way of life, outlook to parenthood and contrasting it to French and Indian ways. It was already starting to look interesting. A friendly stranger in a cafe willing to converse about a wide range of topics.
On our way back from Samedan, we got to spend almost an entire day. In a matter of 7-8 hours, we had walked through most of the city, under bright blue skies & sun, torrential rains and cold, powerful winds. There, reason enough to not want to live there. But, that said, we found none of the dullness that had been attributed to the city.
It has plenty of history going for it, with several houses and balconies bearing placards on some “illustrious” politician (Lenin for example), writer, thinker having taken refuge there during the second world war. [Switzerland, very controversially, chose to stay neutral during the war and seemed to value trade over principles. I cannot help but wonder how they justified making vast sums of money by supplying weapons to the axis powers while still claiming neutrality]
The architecture was interesting too. Along the cobble-stoned narrow streets were well-kept old houses with colorful patterns painted on the walls. We loved the adorned windows and covered balconies, jutting out of the main facade. They were not covered by curtains, instead pretty little trinkets were hung, perhaps not enough to secure privacy but definitely sufficient to distract the roving eye from going places it shouldn’t.
Maybe it was because we were returning from the quiet, literally black and white (and green) town of Samedan, but Zurich to me was colorful, vibrant and very youthful. We met several young people on the streets, in little outdoor cafes, shopfronts. Heck, we even saw these very young old-women discussing hats and styles outside a little store.
A river flows through the city and joins the rather large lake at Zurich (By this time, we were quite accustomed to seeing lakes that would take 10+ minutes to get around by train).
While we were wandering by the lake, the weather suddenly changed. Dark clouds gathered and within minutes, it started to pour like I hadn’t yet seen so far in Europe.
We ducked into a coffee shop and met a nurse who was also waiting out the rain. Interestingly, this time, we spoke politics and had a near 30 min discussion on the nature of the “federal democratic republic” that Switzerland is, making it potentially the largest state with direct democracy. For any new law or amendment to an existing law to be passed through, it has to go through a public referendum – meaning, citizens need to vote it in or out! She was describing to us that this means, they get to vote almost every month on initiatives like building parking garages, restoration of public buildings… you name it. While it can be a nuisance and disruptive to bring everything to the people (and it certainly assumes that people know what’s best for them – !), I was quite taken by the efficiency and efficacy of the system. Of course, it is not applicable in the same form in India, but a version of it… maybe?
I guess, in all, we enjoyed the burst of life that seemed to be everywhere in Zurich, and best of all, it never crowds you. Yes, they are an affluent lot, and take great pride in their country, city, its tremendous resources and their participative democracy.
A few pictures from Zurich