Zürich has won awards for its high quality of life. With Swiss Alps stretching on the horizon across a tranquil lake, this “Little Big City” of 380,000 boasts safe, spotless streets and unsurpassed mass transit. Zürich’s Altstadt, or Old Town, is especially alluring. Largely spared fires and wars, neutral Switzerland sports some of Europe’s best remaining medieval architecture. Promenading through Old Town’s perfectly preserved 12th century buildings is like time traveling back to a beguiling “Guilded Age.”
One city tour highlights Zürich’s 14 guilds, self-help artisans’ associations such as bakers and butchers that arose in the 14th century. Ornate guild houses line the river Limmat, splendid examples of Middle Ages edifices. “A ‘new’ building here was one built in the 19th century,” explains guide Evelyne Marti.
Marti’s urban excursion wends through mostly car-less streets, pointing out details: A stone carving of a horseback rider; a 1324 gilded bay window; intricate metallic signs hanging from walls, advertising businesses below; public art adorning walls. Passing by a mauve-colored building at 10 and 8 Brunngasse (Fountain Lane), Marti notes the well-maintained 13th century home belonged to Zürich’s first Jewish bankers. Today’s inhabitants enjoy age-old fading frescos with Hebrew letters conserved behind Plexiglas.
Marti enters Zunfthaus Zur Schmiden, the blacksmiths ’elaborate guildhall, built in 1412. Wood paneled rooms are illumined with colorful stained glass windows. Marti unravels the code of various guildsmen’s coats of arms — the recurring motif of a crowned serpent entwined around hammers, thongs and razors symbolizes tools produced by blacksmiths for surgeons. Atop a large 1673 grandfather’s clock, its golden hands shaped in sun and moon designs, a robed, bearded figure beside a bell and skeleton symbolize that in time, everyone dies.
Marti explains how craftsmen joined guilds, undergoing apprenticeship, becoming journeymen, then masters. Many guilds, such as blacksmiths, are no longer necessary, with autos and tractors replacing horses and oxen. “Guilds today serve largely as social clubs, like Kiwanis and the Rotarians,” says Marti.. “Their halls can be rented for functions; many offer public restaurants.”
We proceed to a guild eatery, Zunfthaus Zur Zimmerleuten (House of the Red Eagle), the carpenters’ guild house, with its distinctive peaked red roof and view across the Limmat of a centuries-old skyline dominated by Fraumünster and St. Peter’s churches, the latter bearing Europe’s largest clock face. This guild dates back 850 years; renovated following a 2007 fire, Restaurant Zimmerleuten has lost none of its historical ambiance or fine dining allure. I lunch on vegetable salad, delicious coq au vin and juicy fresh fruits (www.zimmerleuten.ch/).
After lunch Marti goes to Roman baths from A.D. 90, when ancient Rome ruled Zürich, then called Turicum. Nearby on a narrow backstreet beneath the elevated Lindenhof (formerly a Roman toll station), we enjoy Elisabetta Capei’s chic “Chocolate & Lifestyle” boutique Truffe, seller of exotic chocolates from around the globe. Switzerland’s a renowned choco-Mecca: Café Felix at Bellevueplatz serves delicious traditional hot chocolate using milk. Zürich’s richest hot chocolate is served in Sprüngli at Paradeplatz. Dark chocolate mousse with cantaloupe and pineapple at Glogge Egge (“Bell Corner”) is also exquisite.
Kunsthaus Zürich (www.zimmerleuten.ch/) celebrated its centennial recreating Picasso’s 1932 exhibition at this modern art institution, the artist’s first one-man museum show. Across from Kunsthaus Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage premiered April 19, 1941 at Schauspielhaus. Biographer John Fuegi noted: “Only tiny Switzerland, surrounded on every side by fascism, would dare to” present this antiwar play then.
At the Opernhaus (www.opernhaus.ch/en/about/zum_haus.php) I enjoy Don Giovanni. Mozart’s opera buffa about philandering Don Juan premiered in Prague in 1787, but the Opernhaus’ production, set during the Jazz Age, features lingerie-clad flappers amidst Art Deco sets, although the glorious opera retains the grandeur of the composer’s sonorous score.
Supertitles above the stage translate the Italian lyrics. My plaster angel-adorned box seat offers views of the stage and orchestra pit; a chandelier dangles from a ceiling with an allegorical mural depicting love, tragedy, comedy, music and composition, representing luminaries such as Shakespeare and Wagner. It’s impossible to get a bad seat in the ornate1200-seat, 1891-built Opernhaus, which – like much of Zürich — oozes Old World charm.
Zürich Tourism: www.zuerich.com/en/Visitor.html.
Air Berlin: www.airberlin.com; (866)266-5588.
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. was interviewed at Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine “48 Hours,” and National Public Radio’s “Savvy Traveler” interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production “Hula Girls,” which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.
Photos by Ed Rampell