Technical articles, travel letters, essays, & translations
[home]         [about]         [links]

From Zürich

By Sahand Rabbani

from Zürich

Dear Friends,

An early Saturday morning flight out of the conveniently located and painless London City Airport had me into Zurich well before noon. After a short train ride into the city, I checked in to the Park Hyatt Zurich, which I had been eagerly anticipating. The hotel is centrally located and has great service, but it did not meet my disproportionate expectations, set by other hotels in Europe and the Far East. Perhaps because Zurich is so expensive that this hotel was forced into Hyatt's top category, but I feel that many lower-category Hyatt hotels (such as the Park Hyatt Saigon in "from South East Asia") are exceptional and incomparable. To its credit, though, this hotel featured the only shaving kit I have seen to contain both aftershave and cologne.

Despite a chronic lack of sleep from the busy week leading up to this weekend, I relied on my adrenaline to carry me through the morning and early afternoon. I began with a walk through Zurich's emblematic Bahnhofstrasse, a dense boulevard of the fanciest designer shops. Quickly bored by this, I ducked into the nearest Sprüngli, a flagship Zurich establishment selling sandwiches and chocolate. Their cheese and roasted vegetable sandwich with flaky croissant-like buns was remarkably delicious and paired well with a much needed coffee.

I then embarked on a comprehensive stroll along the Limmat riverfront. Soothing and familiar central European pastels painted the facades that lined the river, accompanied by the backdrop of pointy cathedral clock towers and distant hills. I snaked through Niederdorf, Zurich's minuscule old town, on the east side of the river and crossed over onto the west side, culminating atop Lindenhof, a hill and site of a former Roman fort. On one side of the hilltop terrace are benches that overlook the river and on the opposite side are three large-format chess boards about two meters in length. I arrived near the end of one game where a tall balding man with long grey hair wearing ear-bud headphones was down a pawn to a smug younger man, just as tall. The latter's position was vastly superior, but the endgame drew on in agony as the favored exterminated the pawns of his tenacious opponent, so I abandoned my kibitzing and challenged a few of the other bystanders. To my dismay, none of them cared to play.

With a few daylight hours to spare, I descended the hill and made my way toward the lake, stopping by the opera house to check on the weekend's performances. They were sold out, but I was instructed to return the following day in the event of a cancellation. From there, I hugged the west bank of the lake and strolled south along the boardwalk, admiring views of the small lakeside communities against the tall hills that formed the valley, their leafless trees and snow-carpeted peaks barely piercing the fog. The air was crisp and calm, a few degrees above freezing, but it was a comfortable cold. Along the lake, I passed a park where families were playing frisbee and a gang of tight-ropers was practicing on low cords strapped between trees. As evening fell, I made my way back to the hotel.

That night, I set out for Zurich's fifth district, commonly known as Zurich West. The former industrial area lies to the northwest of the city and is traversed by a deprecated viaduct that has been repurposed to house an assortment of sleek, modern boutiques beneath its arches. The stores sell clothing, accessories, books, furniture, and more. A block from the end of this viaduct is the iconic Freitag Tower, arguably Zurich West's defining feature, a few-story building fashioned out of old crates. Inside is a shop famous for its premium two-hundred-franc messenger bags quilted out of recycled ingredients into unique haphazard designs, underscoring the undying hipster-meets-yuppie pretentiousness that pervades this neighborhood and reminding me of my experience in Copenhagen seven months earlier (see "from Copenhagen and Helsinki").

The particular restaurant that I sought that evening was a well regarded pizza kitchen named Rosso. It proved almost impossible to find, and, when I did finally locate it, I was met by a quite unwelcoming maitre d' who, rejoicing smugly that his establishment lay well hidden, ignored me for minutes before chiding me for thinking I could score a table without having reserved it days in advance. I availed him of my burden and returned to the street, seeking shelter from the impending rain in a dim restaurant in the viaduct, sensibly named Restaurant Viadukt. This establishment was only unpresumptuous when compared with the previous, but it served my purpose well that evening. So I pulled up a chair amid the slicked-haired tight-pantsed gingham-donned locals and smashed a plate of some sort of local organic beef and a glass of wine. The meal was satisfactory in the elementary-school report-card sense of the term. I rode the tram back to the hotel to avoid the rain.

On the following morning, I tumbled down to the opera house and literally took a number at the ticket office to try my last-minute luck. Fate favored me that day (unlike the poor Rigoletto) as a premium main-floor seat had opened up to that day's matinee performance of Verdi's masterpiece. To kill time before the performance, I ate a delicious sandwich at a Globus cafeteria and stumbled about Niederdorf and the Limmat in a review of the previous day's lesson. Back at the opera house, I took my seat among an alarmingly well dressed crowd whose twentieth percentile age was no less than seventy years.

The contemporary, minimalist production of Rigoletto featured a single stage setting of a large steel-framed table surrounded by several chairs. The choice was unusual if not suspiciously economical. In any case, the performance was spectacular: Gilda nailed her challenging high notes, Rigoletto was inspiring, and the Duke paid great honor to the opera's most anticipated (albeit uncomfortably misogynistic) aria: "La donn'è mobile."

The opera concluded shortly before three in the afternoon and the sun set soon afterward. For the evening's adventures, I set off along the wet riverwalk of the Schanzengraben canal, a futile task in the dark, until I came upon the bustling central train station. From there, I crossed back into Zurich West, but this time in search of the curious Langstrasse in District 4, an infamously nocturnal and lewd strip of road. Along the way, I stumbled upon Lily's, a pearl of a Thai restaurant where I stopped for a dinner of delicious chicken curry while watching the evening crowd roll in.

Perhaps because I found it on a Sunday night, Langstrasse's red light district was surprisingly muted. Apart from a few strip clubs and seedy bars, the neighborhood was not unreasonable. I did notice several police, two of whom were interrogating a pair of high-heeled girls on account of what seemed like alleged soliciting outside of the designated areas. Interestingly, from my American perspective, prostitution is largely legal in most of Western Europe and, in the less common case of Switzerland, well regulated.

During my walk back to the hotel from Langstrasse, I stumbled upon the Swiss Börse in my personal tradition of locating the stock exchanges of the countries that I visit. I ventured out again once more that evening, back through the old town and Lindenhof, now eerily silent, deserted, and lifeless.

On my final morning in Zurich, I returned to Sprüngli for another delicious roasted vegetable sandwich. Checked out of the hotel, I pulled my suitcase along to my final objective: a ride on the Polybahn, a short funicular, up to ETH Zurich, a renowned university. I enjoyed views of the old city from the terrace and rolled around the campus, overhearing the diverse languages and accents of the student population, until it was time to descend for my train to the airport, concluding a relaxing and satisfying weekend.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
All rights reserved.