churches, cabarets, and a few quick words about trains


Saturday morning, I woke up, feeling at least 20% more human. With great joy, I left my backpack, laptop and assorted other work accessories in the hotel. With a little bit of fiddling, I found out that I could fit the Lonely Planet Switzerland guide into my right shorts pocket. Five minutes later, I realized that if I turned it precisely in one orientation out of three, the Lonely Planet logo would not be sticking up out of the corner of my pocket. (Seriously, I think someone very clever and exceedingly evil did this on purpose.) Realized I’d spent five minutes re-adjusting a book in my pocket and realized that a cup of tea was probably a higher priority than I’d realized: I slipped out of the hotel quietly enough to not wake my snoozing coworkers, and grabbed a tram.

A moment, here, to talk about the trams of Zürich:

Elvis fucking wept.

According to a snippet of promotional video that I heard on my incoming flight, Switzerland has the densest public transit system in the world. I didn’t pay this much mind on my way in: I’ve lived in Manhattan and been a frequent visitor in London, so I consider myself pretty unflappable about such things. Like many such self-assured considerations in my life, this was dead wrong. Zürich’s public transit system is a miracle, and I’m here to testify.

The miraculous nature of the ZVV, to me, is that it successfully challenged one of my central prejudices about public transit. As a former resident of Philadelphia, Boston and New York, and a current resident of San Francisco, I’ve had an unshakable belief, grounded in harsh experience, that in order to do public transit right in a city of any size, you need subways. Multiple subways. Heavy rail, underground: no shortcuts, no wimping out. Light rail, trolleys, busses and Bus Rapid Transit all formed the Ugly and Broken parts of Boston and Philadelphia’s systems, and they form the core of San Francisco’s system which is all Ugly and Broken. There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, and the real thing is the A/C/E Train: end of story. Right?

Wrong. Zürich does it all with street-level trams, and it works. To do it, some cabal of goddamn geniuses put together a system that merely does everything correctly. For starters, let’s look at the map:

(click for links to much bigger versions)

If you’re a trainspotter like me, you’re already sexually aroused. (If not, well, you probably skipped over this entire section and are looking at more pretty pictures now.) This is what a hub-and-spoke system is supposed to look like: multiple hubs, multiple spokes. Central Zürich is covered with a spiderweb of tram lines, and no matter where you’re going, there’s (a) a tram stop near you heading toward the right hub, and (b) a tram from that hub heading to within a few blocks of where you need to be.

But it doesn’t stop there. Ever stood in line for five minutes, waiting to get onto a city bus in the US because the fare is $1.95 or some other ridiculous sum, and every single idiot in front of you (and, let’s be honest, you as well) waits until they’re at the farebox before rooting around in their pockets trying to find the exact change? Doesn’t happen in Zürich: The drivers don’t collect fares at all, and you can get on or off through any door in the tram or bus. Fares are card-based, and it’s enforced by random card inspections. If you don’t have a valid card the first time, you get fined $60. If you don’t have a fare the second time, you get fined twice that and taken down to the police station to get yelled at. I think a third offense gets you deported to Lichtenstein.

How to get a fare? Simple: every single stop has an electronic ticket machine that sells one-way and round-trip cards with shortcut buttons for popular stops. If that’s not enough, prepaid daily, weekly and monthly cards can be bought at most stations, convenience stores and hotel lobbies. Just to hammer the point home that they know what the fuck they’re doing, the time-based prepaid cards don’t actually start ticking until you want them to, by activating via sticking them in a slot in one of the ticket machines… you know, the ones that are at every stop.

At this point, it almost seems unfair to mention that most of the trams are built so that the floor is roughly six inches above street level: there are no stairs to climb before getting on, so everybody boards in seconds. Every. Single. Time.

But of course, the best trolley system in the world does you no good if it’s stuck in traffic, and here is where the industrial-strength genuflection begins: it doesn’t seem to happen here. Through a fiendishly clever system of timed lights, lightless pedestrian crossings (that keep car traffic slowed down and wary) and dedicated right-of-ways (usually at the biggest intersections), Zürich’s city planners manage to put together a system where the trams just glide through the city like ghosts, unimpeded by any mere physical obstruction. To an American, this has effects that appear to bend the laws of space and time: on multiple occasions, I opted to walk the equivalent of two or three tram stops because I didn’t see a tram coming behind me, saw traffic ahead of me, and figured that there was no way a tram could beat me down the half kilometer to my destination. Each time, like an overconfident rabbit, I found myself staring ahead of me at the finish line, wondering what the hell happened.

Did I mention that Zürich is a city that is, in both population and geography, roughly half the size of San Francisco? HALF. My modest proposal: put the entire staff of MUNI on a plane bound for Switzerland. Have a planted operative hijack the plane to Cuba. Meanwhile, kidnap the ZVV board of directors and say “hey, we’ve got this very understaffed public transit system in a lovely city in America that we’d like you to run…if you do a good job we’ll let you go back to Switzerland in 2020!” A boy can dream, right?

Right, where was I?

Oh yes: Saturday morning. After managing the purchase of an iced tea and a mandelgipfel at the Hauptbanhof, I started my tour of the old churches of Zürich. Zürich on a Saturday morning is a very quiet city: tourists and natives alike were mostly still asleep, and I had the streets largely to myself until around 10am.

Walking south along the river, the first stop was St. Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church), the oldest in the city, and with a clock tower face that is allegedly the largest in Europe:

I poked my head inside, but nobody was home.

Next on the list was the Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady), which is apparently famous for having its interior stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. It was a bit further south and another block or two away from the river. Picking my way along with not much more than a sighting of the church tower for reckoning, I ended up going down a passageway where the original stone stairwell had been removed and replaced with rough steel over a rockfall, leading between two buildings each of which were probably older than my country:

As I got to the end of the passage, I heard the unmistakable sound of…brass. And sure enough, as I got closer, there was an honest-to-god amateur brass band seated in the courtyard the the passage opened out onto. Nobody around but me, a handful of shopkeepers, and 15 musicians in traditional Swiss clothes making oom-pah-pah sounds. I’ve never felt more like Number Six in my entire life.

A few blocks away, I finally found the entrance to the Fraumünster:

…only to find a small note on the door explaining that the Church was closed until 1pm today. Time to re-adjust my plans then: I headed across the river to the twin-towered Grossmünster. The Grossmünster doesn’t have stained glass by a famous modern artist, but it’s still plenty pretty on the inside, and more importantly for a small CHF 2 donation, they’ll let you climb up one of its towers. And I mean climb, and I mean up:

After about five minutes of carefully picking your way up the tightest stone staircase you’ve ever encountered in your life (medieval monks: small, patient creatures), secured only by an intermittently available rope, you emerge onto a wooden platform and realize that you’re only halfway up, and the rest is a series of increasingly step tiny wooden steps that slowly morph into rickety ladders by the time you reach the summit. No matter, onwards. Luckily, the view is completely worth it.

(Obviously I took more than one photo from the tower. More later. Many more. Same goes for any reasonably picturesque location, really.)

The ground floor of the Grossmünster wasn’t bad either:

…and beneath and behind the altar is the crypt, which has a statue of King Charlemagne (who founded the church) dating from the 1370s:

Temporarily churched out, I made my way to one of Zürich’s icons of Weimar-era decadence and modernity, the newly re-opened Cabaret Voltaire:

The Cabaret Voltaire is a small personal touchstone for me. There aren’t many art movements that I give a damn about, but dada is one of them, and this is where it started: a small, flickering light that guttered quickly and was lost in the advancing darkness of the 1930s. (If this is greek to you, go read “Lipstick Traces” by Greil Marcus.)

These days, the Voltaire is a cafe/bar on the top floor, a gift shop featuring wares from local artists on street level, and a performance space in the basement. The walls are covered with a mix of dada artifacts and works by contemporary Swiss artists. Every time I managed to find a free minute to stick my head inside over the weekend ended up being in the early afternoon, so of course the place was empty. 2pm just isn’t rush hour for underground performance spaces, no matter how historically important:

By this time, it was around 1:30pm, and I was getting hungry, so back over the river again and through a bit of the business district to Cafe Sprungli, the cafe and confectionary run by the Lindt company, mostly known in the States for their ubiquitous chocolate spheres. In Switzerland, they’re a much more wide-ranging chocolatier, featuring everything from bulk confiture for restaurants and bakeries to truffles, macaroons, pies, tarts and cakes, as well as a full-menu lunch and breakfast cafe. I spent a few minutes wandering around the immense salesfloor with a wolflike expression on my face before coming to the important realizations that (a) it was still midday, (b) it was already over 80f outside, (c) it was probably going to get hotter, and most importantly (d) they would be open at 7am on Monday morning, giving me ample time to do a last-minute chocolate run before fleeing the city. That sorted, I bought a sandwich and some mineral water and grabbed a table outside to watch the (sigh) absurdly good-looking people pass by. Many of whom seemed to be exceedingly well dressed for a hot-verging-on-muggy saturday afternoon. (That’s foreshadowing.)

My lunch disposed of, I wandered in the direction of the Fraumünster. Getting there, I found that most of the better-dressed people I’d seen walking up Banhof Strasse during the last 20 minutes were all gathered in front of the church: apparently it had been closed for a wedding. (In a town comprised 80% of bankers, I don’t want to know what your net worth needs to be to reserve the Fraumünster for your wedding ceremony.)

The wedding itself was apparently over, and the tourist entrance at the back was open, which was how I found out that alone among all of Zürich’s churches, the Fraumünster prohibits all photography in its interior, all the better to sell you CHF2 postcards and CHF20 picturebooks of those fabulous Marc Chagall stained glass windows. Alas, no snapshots for us.

My last stop on Saturday was the Le Corbusier Pavilion, about a kilometer south of the Fraumünster, in the park alongside Lake Zürich. Now, any time you get within eyesight of the river or lake in Zürich, you’re going to see an inordinate number of white swans: they’re gorgeous, but after a few days even I got tired of taking photos of them. This afternoon, however, I spotted something that was unusual-looking enough to warrant a photo:

“What an odd-looking bird,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what it is? Oh well, there’s no way I’ll actually remember to look it up tonight…” And then twenty feet later, directly in front of me, I found an enormous sign helpfully labelling every single bird that a tourist might ever see along the river:

The Swiss are apparently not merely efficient, but well-nigh telepathic. The English name for that bird is apparently the European Coot. I was, and remain, delighted.

Several dozen large lawns and patios of half-naked sunbathing Zürichers and Euro-2008 tourists (an entirely unexpected fringe benefit, I assure you all) later, and after a bit of backtracking through an enormous outdoor childrens’ sports center once I realized I’d overshot, I found the Corbusier pavilion, which as advertised looks like a Mondrian painting sprung into three dimensions:

The building is actually officially the Heidi Weber Pavilion, but was designed by Le Corbusier and holds a permanent collection of his papers. Or so the guidebook said: while the building was beautiful, the sign on the door kindly informed visitors that it was only open between 3pm and 6pm Friday through Saturday, and it was only 2:30.

At this point, I took a quick inventory: I was 2km from my hotel, hot, tired, and sweaty. I had a camera, a guidebook, a small bottle of sunblock, my passport and a pocketful of Swiss coins and lint. My shoulders still felt like rocks, not in the good way, and my ankles were starting to make their own complaints heard. Next to me was a large, cool lake and several thousand sunbathing europeans. My course of action was obvious. CHF12 got me entrance into the nearest reserved bathing area, a secure locker for my camera and a towel rental. No swimtrunks, but the lake water was clean and I was wearing shorts anyway.

The next few hours passed uneventfully.

Around 5pm (give or take), I managed to drag myself up off the lawn and back in the direction of the Pavilion. Which was still closed. Closer examination of the sign revealed that it is only open between 3 and 6pm… in July and August. Apparently the lure of a million tourists in town for Euro 2008 wasn’t enough to convince them to open a few days early. Perhaps next time, then.

My plan for saturday evening had been to grab a wurst and a bier, and to park myself somewhere along the promenade and watch the Euro 2008 final match with the rest of the city. (When in Rome, etc.) This plan was foiled by the inconsiderate fact that the final game was actually on Sunday night. Sausage and beer happened anyway, and then as I was limping back toward the hotel, I found the greatest thing ever: one of the many, many vendors along the river park was, like you’d find at any street fair. 20 minutes later, if I wasn’t quite a new man, I was at least able to walk with my spine and shoulders in something approximating their normal configuration.

By this time, it was past 9, and while Zürich was still out to see and be seen along the river, I was getting a bit tired of being a lone face in the crowd. Solo travel is fun during the day, but it palls a bit at night when you’re on your own somewhere you don’t speak the language: everyone around was having a good time, but my social skills are all built around what is, in Switzerland, everybody’s third-favorite language. I apparently didn’t look completely like a lost American tourist, since during the day people would occasionally come up to me and ask for directions in German, but conversations tended to trail off once it became obvious English was my only language. My urge to play the Chatty American being minimal anyway, I called it a night and walked up the riverside to my hotel, through the gathering dusk.

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