Zurich, Switzerland, is the perfect destination for a break away from the norm

Although it may be of a similar size to our own capital, Zurich has a distinctly different feel, with royal blue trams criss-crossing the centre against the backdrop of bridges, clock towers and the beautifully preserved buildings, writes Arlene Harris.

AS THE aircraft doors opened, we were hit with a blanket of unexpected heat. 

Zurich may be known for history, culture and high-end shopping, but it isn’t the first place which springs to mind when contemplating a few days in the sunshine.

But unanticipated or not, the 35C temperatures were a welcome surprise after leaving behind an unseasonably chilly morning in Dublin.

The Swiss are notoriously efficient and within 20 minutes of disembarkation, we were sitting on a city-bound train which whizzed into the central station in jig time.

With little or no knowledge of Zurich, we were pleasantly surprised to find our first destination within walking distance of the station. 

The Baur au Lac hotel, which is located on Lake Zurich, has been a landmark for more than a century and it isn’t difficult to see why.

This imposing but elegant building overlooks the vast lake which is central to the city and since its opening 170 years ago, has looked after the needs of both international royalty and A-List celebrities.

With many of the original fittings still in place, the hotel oozes old world charm and after checking into our sumptuous suite (with a real key), we were sorely tempted to while the day away in luxury, but there was so much to see and so little time, so we reluctantly headed back out into the glorious sunshine.

Zurich, Switzerland, is the perfect destination for a break away from the norm

The Baur au Lac is located at the end of Bahnhofstrasse — Zurich’s main shopping street and one of the most exclusive retail areas in the world.

The further away from the hotel you get, the more reasonably priced the shops are, so needless to say, we put in a good number of steps before opening our wallets.

The city itself is home to 400,000 inhabitants, so it’s roughly the same size as Dublin but has a distinctly different feel to our own capital city.

Firstly the royal blue trams criss-crossing the centre and out into the suburbs create a Continental image against the backdrop of bridges, clock towers and the beautifully preserved, still-functioning buildings belonging to members of a long-ago guild of craftsmen.

The city also holds the unusual title of having more water fountains than any other in the world — with 1,200 spots to quench your thirst, there is never any need to buy expensive bottled water — all you need in Zurich is to carry a little cup about your person and whenever the streets get too steep or the sun too hot, just take your fill of the crystal clear water.

Whenever I visit a new city, I try to get as much of a low-down as possible and usually the best way to do this is to take a walking tour — sure, bus tours are a relaxing way to see the sights, but you don’t really get a feel of your surroundings unless you have actually walked the walk.

We joined an English speaking tour which began at the main train station and was led by an extremely knowledgeable guide called Filomena.

During the two hour exploratory trip, she led us down alleys, over bridges and into nooks and crannies we would never have found on our own.

We discovered the apartment where Lenin lived for a year, reputedly plotting the Russian revolution. 

And when he gave notice, the landlord, concerned for his tenants’ safety, warned him not to go back to St Petersburg as apparently a revolution was underway.

Albert Einstein and Richard Wagner also lived in the city as did our very own James Joyce who apparently claimed that Bahnhofstrasse was so clean that you could eat minestrone soup off the pavement.

This may be a slight exaggeration but littering certainly isn’t an issue in Zurich.

The Swiss have long been known to be clean and tidy and this is very apparent, even in the middle of a busy urban space. 

There wasn’t a speck of dirt to be seen around the streets, buildings and shopfronts were well maintained and even the parks boasted tidy lawns, well-tended beds and an obvious dearth of layabouts — in fact, the only people who didn’t appear to be going with the orderly flow of the city were two gentlemen who were obviously still revelling from the night before and looked resplendent in white suits as they lounged on a park bench and pondered on the mysteries of life.

For anyone with an interest in art and history, Zurich is brimming with possibilities — from modern art to classics and everything in between there is a gallery or museum to suit every taste. 

We headed to the Cabaret Voltaire to take in some Dada (European art and literature of an avant-garde nature from the early 1900s). 

With the centenary of the movement coming up next year, there is currently a resurgence of interest so we had to see what all the fuss was about and spent a pleasant hour lingering amongst some of the celebrated works from the last century.

Switzerland has always had a reputation for being expensive and the current issues with the euro certainly haven’t helped but with a little research, it is possible to eat and drink well in Zurich without your monthly mortgage repayments taking too much of a hit.

WHILST exploring the city during the day, a lengthy lunch isn’t necessary so there are various options for a snack on the move. 

The ‘Best Bratwurst in town’ can be found at Vorderer Sternen, the Shamrock Bar at Wollishofen will be a magnet for anyone wanting a taste of home and for those who really want to keep prices down, a visit to Migros in Puls 5 is a great option.

This food store has a great variety of hot and cold foods on offer throughout the day and is usually crammed with students and tourists alike, filling up on tasty titbits before heading back out into the streets.

Purchasing a Zurich card (which covers transport and entrance to various attractions) is also a good way to combine food with exploration of the city as card-holders are entitled to a ‘culinary surprise’ at various participating restaurants.

With a cacophony of bells chiming across the city, as the sun goes down, the bars and restaurants become livelier.

There are countless venues to choose from, including the wonderful Pavillon restaurant at our own Baur au Lac hotel.

In contrast to this gastronomic indulgence we also decided to make the trip to one of the city’s most difficult-to-find restaurants.

Recommended by our tour guide the previous day, we made it our mission to find Rosso (Geroldstrassse, 31) which supposedly served the best pizzas in Zurich.

The raised eyebrows of the concierge when we asked for directions should have alerted us to the unusual location of this restaurant, but armed with our smart phone sat nav, we took several trams followed by a ten minute walk across the industrial heartland of the city, before coming to a stop outside a warehouse.

Surely this couldn’t be our final destination?

Gingerly opening the aluminium door, we discovered a vast, bustling space full of diners being served by a young, hipster staff — all of the tables had been reserved, but as we had arrived between bookings, we were ushered to a long trestle where we were perched in between several other diners.

Not sure what to expect, but ravenous after our eventful journey, we ordered food from the simple menu and beers from our trendy waiter.

Within 10 minutes our meals arrived and wow, were they worth the journey. 

Delicious aromatic pasta and a huge crisp, flavoursome pizza was delivered without ceremony — not needing instruction, we tucked in and enjoyed a delicious dinner in somewhat unusual surroundings.

Dinner for two with local beers was less than €70 which for Zurich was a bargain indeed — sated and pleased with our navigational skills, we spent our last few hours in the city centre ambling along the waterside, listening to various different street entertainers and enjoying a nightcap under the stars.

Zurich isn’t a very common destination for Irish travellers, but it should be. 

Only a short plane-ride away, it is the perfect destination for break away from the norm.

GETTING THERE

FLIGHTS:

Dublin to Zurich flights cost from €86pp – www.swiss.com 

ACCOMMODATION:

Room prices at the Baur au Lac vary depending on dates — www.bauraulac.ch Bargain accommodation can be found at www.airnb.com 

THE SITES:

To book a walking tour or for more information on the city visit www.zuerich.com 

For avant garde art and culture visit the Cabaret Voltaire — www.cabaretvoltaire.ch  Easily spotted from almost every point of the city, St Peterskirche was built in the 13th century and while the rest of the building was remodelled in the 18th century, the original clock tower is worth checking out. It also overlooks the square of St Peterhofstatt.

THE SHOPPING:

Bahnhofstrasse is the place to go for shopping with practically every well-known label represented on the street — remember the closer you get to the lake, the more exclusive the shopping — www.bahnhofstrasse-zeurich.ch  Zurich’s biggest flea market is the Kanzlei flea market, and with up to 400 stalls, it’s the largest of its kind in Switzerland — www.zurich.com 

The Rosenhof Crafts market is a treasure trove of Swiss crafts and while it doesn’t operate during the winter, from March onwards it is the place to go to find unusual yet inexpensive gifts to take home — www.zurich.com 

THE FOOD:

The Pavillon restaurant at the Baur au Lac Hotel is a fabulous dining experience for those wanting a special evening — www.aupavillon.ch 

Or take a tram for pizza and pasta with a difference at www.restaurant-rosso.ch Homesick travellers should visit the Shamrock Bar at Wollishofen. — www.shamrock-irishpub.ch 


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