Lifestyle / Travel

Zürich: A Tale of Two Quarters

Exploring two contrasting sides of Zürich reveals that it’s much more than a global banking and finance centre

Apr 03, 2018 | By Jason Kwong

A Tale of Two Quarters

With a population of over 400,000, Zürich is the largest city in Switzerland. The spoken language is the Swiss German dialect. As for quality of living, it’s constantly ranked amongst the top cities. Drinking water flows from almost all public fountains, for example.

I was standing in front of a well-kept building – its muted yet rich design in concert with buildings around it, on a tree-lined street. It was a quiet one, a moneyed street. I saw a limousine parked between two street lamps, diagonally across the heavy ornamental doors of a brownstone building.

In the front seat sat a uniformed chauffeur. The history-steeped guild houses here bore witness to the period between 1336 and 1798, when Zürich’s history was significantly influenced by its guilds. Scattered throughout were hints, worded allusions, and a few direct chronological references. I’m reminded that most Zürich residents are tenants – only a small percentage of them are homeowners.

These associations attempted to gain political power. They only succeeded in doing so following the Brun’s Guild Revolution in 1336. Under the leadership of nobleman Rudolf Brun, a Constitution of the Guilds was drawn up, regulating the balance of power in the city. With time, the craftsmen’s guilds also developed into political and military organisations with immense power. The coats of arms on the entrances of various buildings in the Old Town indicate which guild used to meet behind the respective doors.

It reminded me of spy films where multi-billion-dollar transfers occurred by means of espionage and a thorough knowledge of Swiss banking practices. The statutes pertaining to banking confidentiality are among the most sacrosanct at Paradeplatz. For some, the stakes may seem lower these days. But if anything, it gives this locale more character even as law firms and fine-dining establishments have infiltrated its confines.

From Lindenhof, we started walking towards Lake Zürich, around which the city is built. Lindenhof used to be a Roman fort. These days, the square is worth a visit for the view alone and it’s also a meeting place for amateur chess players. The Limmat River, which winds its way past Old Town, is a steadfast stream of tranquillity. After dusk, several riverside and lakeside bathing areas are transformed into bars. Boat services provide access to the abundant nature along the southern fringes of the lake.

Once a year, the aptly named Zürcher Theater Spektakel converts the left bank of Lake Zürich into a stage where members of the contemporary performing arts scene congregate to present spontaneous open-air performances. Situated on the opposite bank of the Limmat River is Schipfe, one of the city’s oldest districts. This quarter is still dominated by artisans today, and visitors can often obtain expert advice from master craftsmen such as goldsmiths and carpenters.

I walked the length of Bahnhofstrasse that links the Main Station with Lake Zürich. The further one walks towards the lake, boutiques such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Tiffany & Co. come into view. The Jelmoli department store, which opened in 1899, is the oldest one in Zürich and also the largest of its kind in Switzerland. The area is also a delightful hunting ground for intrepid gourmets. There, I had dinner consisting of compulsory veal and mushroom sauce and rösti at a café. In the vicinity, the Swiss National Museum – also known as the Landesmuseum – is situated just behind Zürich Main Station, and houses the country’s largest cultural-historical collection within its fortified walls.

Not everything has a long-standing history here as I also took a tour of the FIFA World Football Museum, with over 1,000 exhibits telling the story of the game in an interactive and multimedia manner. Of course, the absolute highlight for me was the original FIFA World Cup trophy that’s a selfie magnet. In the games area, I gave the gigantic pinball machine and other interactive stations a cursory inspection.

This was followed by a brisk hike to Grossmünster Church, which was built on the very spot where patron saints Felix and Regula died as martyrs. Religion also manifested itself with St. Peter’s Church – the oldest parish church in Zürich. The original foundation walls dating from the ninth century can still be seen under the chancel even as one gazes up at the clock face on the tower.

Go West

Go to Frau Gerolds Garten, an acquaintance said when I told him about the prospect of bumming around Zürich-West. Or try grooving to electronic music at the Supermarket – it’s a club, trust me. Alternatively, savour Swiss cuisine at the Restaurant Viadukt, under the massive stone arches of the old Letten railway viaduct that was originally used to transport coal since 1894.

Zürich-West lies in the valley plain between the Limmat River and the railway tracks that run northwest of the main train station. The locals frequently use the term “Zürich-West” to mean the area along Hardbrücke bridge between Hardbrücke train station and Escher-Wyss-Platz. The area flourished at the tail-end of the 19th century.

Pioneering factory owners thrived with the Limmat River as a water source. This was once an industrial quarter where ships were built and various factories operated. After the 1980s, they gradually moved away, leaving behind empty factory halls. Escher-Wyss-Platz, for example, is named after Escher, Wyss & Cie., which constructed machines and turbines.

With the new millennium, creative firms and boutique agencies took up residence in these abandoned factories and warehouses with complementary auxiliary service providers following suit. As I looked around me, I briefly forgot that I was just a tram ride away from Zürich Old Town.

After checking into the Renaissance Zürich Tower Hotel, it was time to do a little exploring. Hedge fund managers and auditors walked about as creative types idly chatted away, offering each other more coffee at cafés. The relatively new Prime Tower, with its swanky apartments, offices, and a fine-dining restaurant on the top floor, was my North Star.

My guide came to Zürich as an immigrant from Hungary and described vividly how this cordoned-off industrial district transformed itself organically over the last few decades. It did not totally reject the prevailing styles of architecture but assimilated new appendages that provide functional autonomy. I favoured Zürich-West to Old Town, despite the former’s very reserved nature that’s evident during the day.

I kept going back to Frau Gerolds Garten for the sun on the terrace. It’s a colourful garden that unites an open-air restaurant and a flower nursery to create an urban oasis in the heart of Kreis 5. It’s also hippie (as oppose to hipster) in many ways. Much like how creepers extend their influence on the remains of decaying flora, this is how the district has been reinvigorated. Much of the same veneer still exists. Except that much of it isn’t functioning in its original capacity.

The garden is surrounded by other institutions of Zürich’s nightlife. The range of clubs offering alternative music is subsidised by other trippy nightlife establishments that resemble garage parties. Despite their cosmetic differences, revellers adopt similar codes of behaviour. It all started in the 1990s, when joints such as Club Palais X-tra (today’s Xtra Club) established themselves in the adjacent Kreis 4 quarter, bringing with them illegal parties that flourished in the empty buildings without official permits.

I found myself standing in a second-hand shop, which sells Swissair cabin crew satchels. The throwback artefact can fetch a pretty Swiss Franc on a good day. Nearby, on sale at the various stands at Zürich’s first market hall were fresh food, delicatessen products, flowers, and household items.

The Gerold-Areal site is also brimming with design specialists. Les Halles, for example, is home to numerous quirky items, ranging from vintage racing bicycles to amusing advertising signs and designer furniture. Nearby, in an impressive tower of stacked-up freight containers, are 1,600 bags and accessories from Freitag – the largest selection in the world of these recycled freeway bags. For the record, I purchased a bright yellow Kowalski style even though it looked a little worse for wear, but that’s the whole point, I guess.

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