Published: February 17th 2013January 29th 2013
We catch a train to Zurich after the rush hour. Kristy was adamant that we stay put until after 8:30 or so. Roughly two million Swiss per day use the trains across the country and the line between Winterthur and Zurich is the most used. She tells me that the one time she has found the Swiss to lose their reserved politeness is on public transit and definitely during rush hour. If you don’t shove your way on, you will NOT get on. Simple as that.
In 15 minutes, we’ve left the village suburb of Winterthur and entered the famous Zurich. The look of this city is much like the others with its stone-walled and wooden-roofed buildings reminiscent of 1600’s paintings. But there are a few iconic buildings that make Zurich’s skyline unlike the others, namely the churches: Grossmunster and Fraumunster. Even just walking the comforting-close streets from the train stop to the river, you can see the spires of one of the two churches pointing the way to the still-beating aged heart of the city.
As with many Swiss cities, this one was built around water. Lake Zurich occupies center-stage to the south and development sprang
up around the Limmat river coming in from the north. Zurich was originally a Roman “town” named Turicum that came into being around 400 CE. The original settlement was likely right around the places where the new conquerors and Christians erected their churches, their stamp on history.
We reach the churches right before they open (10AM) and we just happen to pick the double-towered Grossmunster on the east bank as our first tourist victim. Little did we know the major pro of that choice. We walk in, agog at the stained glass windows (more on that later) and see a young woman seated a spare wooden table at the back with postcards around her. It looks like a ticket-taking setup so we walk over, presuming there is a fee to walk around the church. We pay our fee and she tells us, “the door is there.” We look to our left and there is a door, right there, in the column next to the table. So we head up the Karlstrum (south tower).
We are the only ones in the tower, ascending a narrow, tight stone column. Right as I start to wonder when or if the thick,
tight stone staircase will widen out (these are the pre-panic moments of claustrophobia), we reach the first of several wooden platforms. Every time we reach another wooden platform via thick, well-worn wooden steps, we think we’ve reached the top. But there are more stairs, and more, and more. I wonder at the age of the steps. They seem like they very well could be several hundred years old. Or there are just lots of tourists endlessly going up and down. (This church was founded in the 9th
century by Charlemagne himself.)
We finally stop in a octagonal room with four double shutters. We throw them open (the girl downstairs had told us we should) and gasp at Zurich. This is a view well worth the climb. We see the lake in its unassuming morning bounty, its silvery sheen set off by the white and dark mountains beyond. The city is mostly inhabited by the light-brown peaked roofed buildings, throwbacks to the bygone architecture…or can you say that if the whole city is still dominated by that style? But there is one blue-green skyscraper, a recent addition, jutting up like a misplaced obelisk to the new era.
Note the one skyscraper on the left
photos, we descend again to take a more leisurely look at the rest of the church which is also quite surprising and fascinating. The stained glass windows are unlike any I have ever seen. The most striking are the ones that seem to be fashioned of cut geodes, looking like a fanciful, abstract painting of cellular structure but with the most delectable colors imaginable. Other windows are pale abstracts of what I presume are biblical stories. The main altarpiece is of deep vivid hues, so deep and closely set that I cannot determine if there are actual story-telling shapes or just glowing colors.
In the crypt, behind the main altar, there is a copy of the enormous cartoon-like statue of Charlemagne that used to reign over some corner outside. It dominates the columned room which is bare otherwise. But there are hints of former lithe paintings, some which have outlines that are lightly penciled in. I wonder if there will be further restoration or if this is just a hint at the past, a half-remembered memory. The crypts are now all firmly sealed up with some inscriptions on the covering stones. Swiss history lesson
We proceed north
Front door of Grossmunster
You can kind of see the gorgeous stained-window
through the old side of town (on the east bank), down a pedestrian street lined with chic shops. Here I realize that I have seen very little obviously touristy shops or attractions, here in Zurich or in Lucerne (Winterthur is not a major tourist destination). No shops filled to the brim with cheaply manufactured kitsch that is quintessential Swiss or someone’s imagining of it.
Our next (and what turns out to be final) stop is the Swiss History Museum, housed in an old castle-type building. It is an extensive museum, walking visitors through intimate looks at the various religious movements that started or fomented in this tiny country, the proud cantons that banded together despite significant differences, the array of famous people who were Swiss…or moved to Switzerland at later stages in their life (the Swiss Museum claimed them quite without hesitation), and other tidbits about their political, religious, economic systems. I admit that I think it was quite a good museum but so huge that by the time we were nearing the end (but with no end actually in sight), I was starting to lose focus. We end up spending 3 hrs in just that one museum. I
Swiss History Museum
an "illegal" shot from inside the castle-museum. The wheel depicts classic (or stereotypical) images of Switzerland including Heidi, the Alps, coins, a classic Alpine horn, and more
have a desire to go to another but one that’s much smaller. Zurich is museum-mecca, turns out, with 43 credited museums packed into a few square kilometers.
However, by the time we emerge from the depths of the castle, it has started to rain. And both of made the expeditious and ultimately foolish decision not to bring umbrellas today. So we go back and forth about our options but all of them would involve either getting severely wet or buying (another!) umbrella just to toodle around for a few more hours. And Kristy is flagging. I likely am too but I refuse to acknowledge it. However, we finally decide to return to Winterthur.
After a low-key pasta dinner at home, we journey briefly out. Both Stefan and Kristy warn me several times not to expect much from a Swiss bar on a Tuesday but I am undeterred. And we are all pleasantly surprised to see their pick, the Sahara Bar, well-filled on this off-night. It’s just the three of us for the evening. Kristy had invited friends but as much as the Swiss love to party, they seem to not be a spontaneous people. No one takes her
up on her invitation and so we kick back, talk about Swiss festivals, Kristy’s postdoc, the baby, and eventually wind our way back to apartment. Tomorrow I leave for Israel and due to the fact that I’m flying out of Basel (cheaper flight) and the fact that we have to contend with rush hour, we’ll be leaving fairly early in the morning.
There are more photos below