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From culture to couture, Switzerland holds pleasant surprises

ZURICH

As I left the city's cavernous train station several days into my visit, I heard my name echoing through the rafters. I turned to see a woman I'd met a few days earlier on a train. She was a retired museum guard from Zurich, and she wanted to be sure I had found my way around her town.

We chatted beneath the gigantic Niki de St. Phalle sculpture L'Ange Protecteur (The Angel Protector), who skips her neon jump rope and spreads her golden wings over the main hall of the station like a sexy, celestial vision, a voluptuous patron saint of travel.

I divided a week in Switzerland between Zurich and nearby St. Gallen, home of one of the most famous libraries in the world. Switzerland proved friendly, and the avenue of human contact is often public transportation. Both towns showed me a thing or two about the good life.

Zurich is all you'd expect from the economic center of Switzerland: banks, watch shops, a world-class museum and a population of about a million in the greater metropolitan area. It's routinely listed as one of the most livable cities in the world.

It's hip, friendly and somehow not as fastidious as Switzerland can sometimes be. My first clue was in the Globus department store, where young men mixed up chocolate truffles and sliced them on the counter, serving the delicacies, complete with the requisite sprinkling of dark cocoa, to shoppers who grabbed the samples with their fingers. These truffles were properly molten and buttery, but a messy-fingered treat on the first floor of a department store where tights, silk scarves and pashmina shawls were draped nearby.

Globus has a great cafe, too. Zurich has many fine restaurants, but it's the street food I savored — the sliced steak sandwich or bratwurst from a kiosk along the banks of the Limmat River, where you can watch the swans and admire the old churches and St. Peter's clock tower.

The Viaduct, a covered shopping area, shows the knack the Swiss have for adapting an existing structure in an elegant way. This former railway viaduct links artsy Zurich West to the town center. The 36 arches cover a variety of sports and fashion boutiques, cafes and a gourmet food hall, where you can buy directly from a local farmer. Dine in or grab the goods for a picnic.

Zurich is a great walking city, especially the pedestrian-only Niederdorf, or lower village. Here you'll find cafes, entertainment and the occasional market amid medieval alleys and squares. But wear comfortable shoes, because much of Zurich is hilly. You can also enjoy the flatter terrain on the banks of Lake Zurich.

If you're into serious hiking, consider the nearby Uetliberg, Zurich's closest mountain, at 2,864 feet. You can also take the 20-minute train ride from town. The peak is an easy 10-minute walk from the terminus, with a lookout tower and restaurant offering a fine view of the Alps, Lake Zurich and the town.

Because nature and the city are in such close proximity, Zurich is a great getaway spot for couples or families with differing agendas. The sports folks can get a workout while the urban-inclined shop or see the art and architecture.

Zurich's Kunsthaus is a major art museum with plenty of old masters and impressionists. It's here that Picasso organized the first major retrospective of his work in 1932. Of special note are the collections of 150 sculptures and 20 paintings by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti and the most significant collection of Edvard Munch's work outside of Scandinavia.

Consider purchasing a 24- or 48-hour Zurich Card, which entitles you to admission to the city's museums and transportation on trams, buses, some trains and boats.

The beating heart of Zurich is its train station. There you can enjoy lobster tail in the cafeteria or a drink in the bar, visit the bookstore or admire public art. Tourist information is available, as well as services like showers and lockers.

Outside, the full network of trams and buses servicing the area loops like a spaghetti salad, but all runs smoothly and pedestrians are respected, too. Hundreds of bicycles are parked next to the station, proving the Swiss are fit and smart enough to try to forgo cars. Tourists can ride bikes for free in Zurich, with ID and a small deposit.

Culture and chocolates

Nearby St. Gallen is an hour by train outside of Zurich. As I made my way there I considered again the sensibility of the Swiss, the intelligent design of their communities. Could a secret lie in the history of learning?

St. Gallen is home to the Abbey of St. Gall, a Benedictine monastery from the eighth century until 1805 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the monastery's Baroque 18th century abbey and cathedral complex, which dominates the pedestrian-only old town, there is a library.

The main hall is rococo, with frescoed ceilings and parquet floors inlaid with stars. But lest the display of wealth distract you, note the Latin inscription over the entrance, which translates as "Hospital for Souls." Back then, it seems, a lack of knowledge was considered a disease of the mind.

The town and monastery are named for St. Gall, an Irish missionary who established a hermitage at Lake Constance in the seventh century. One legend has it he shared bread with a hungry bear that then helped him to build his log cabin.

The former abbey, founded on the spot where St. Gall died, contains one of Europe's most historic libraries, with more than 170,000 books, including 2,000 handwritten manuscripts dating from the eighth to 12th centuries.

In an era of e-books and tweets, this collection reminds visitors that once books were reproduced by hand by monks, at the rate of a line every five minutes, on vellum pages bound in cowhide covers. These now-priceless volumes were expensive even in the old days, since it took a whole sheep hide to produce two to three pages. The monks made ink with plants and minerals, often gold.

The library includes a 1394 manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid and numerous illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Only books printed after 1900 are in circulation, but the library is being digitized and you can access it at www.cesg.unifr.ch.

Though this is a working library for scholars, it's mainly a museum for the general public, with selected books on display in glass cases. Admission is 10 Swiss francs (CHF) for adults and CHF 7 for children and includes a visit to the Lapidarium, where stone columns and their crowning capitals from the Roman and Carolingian periods are displayed.

One stone depiction is of St. Wiborada, the first woman canonized by the Catholic Church, who worked as a bookbinder at St. Gall and was a reputed visionary. She prophesied her own martyrdom in 926 at the hands of the Magyars, who were raiding Europe and who did murder her in her abbey cell. But her warnings of the sacking led the monks to hide the books and the wine in caves in the hills.

The plain exterior of the nearby cathedral belies its elaborate interior, with an exquisite chancel and confessionals. It's a filigreed, turquoise and golden cotton-candy hymn to late Baroque.

As you take in the surrounding old town, you'll notice the oriel windows on houses and shops. They're cousins of the dormer window, but intricately carved and painted.

Once you've had your dose of culture, check out the Chocolaterie am Klosterplatz, in the 16th century Blue House with two bay windows and zebra-striped shutters, across from the cathedral. On a pleasant day you can enjoy a coffee or hot cocoa outside. Then shop the endless selection of bonbons, nutty bark and chocolate bars made of cocoa from all over the world, affordable souvenirs for friends and family.

Dining in St. Gallen is very fine, from the bratwurst at the town market to dinner at the 17th century butcher's guild pub Zum Goldenen Schaefli, or the Golden Lamb. Or get a drink or dinner, and perhaps take in an art film or exhibit at the new Lokal, near the train station. It's a sleek renovation of a locomotive shed, all concrete and steel. Restaurant tables slide together along tracks in the floor for large parties.

Another good restaurant, Wildpark Peter and Paul, overlooks a free game park of the same name on the outskirts of town, where the ibex roam. I wanted to walk and was staying in suburban St. Gallen. My innkeeper had said it was not far. On the street I asked two guys in bike-racing attire for precise directions, and they pointed me uphill: "Short walk, half a kilometer past the barn."

Dusk became a moonless dark as I passed million-dollar modern homes, the interiors a sea of white walls and white sofas, all appearing empty. Soon I did see a barn, but no restaurant. I knocked next door at what turned out to be a farmhouse and was directed farther down the road. The occasional Porsche streamed by, but mainly I noted large, dark lumps, which I hoped were cows, in the nearby fields. But, as Robert Frost wrote, "knowing how way leads on to way," I eventually found Peter and Paul and enjoyed my veal cordon bleu, fortified for the 3-mile-plus walk back in the dark.

I found a unique restaurant in town, too, courtesy of Dmitri Kindle, whom I met on the train to St. Gallen. He plays in a pop-rock band, Pegasus, that had backed up Joe Cocker the week before. He asked if I liked fresh, home-style food and directed me to Schwarzer Engel, or Black Angel, a young people's cooperative on Engelgasse.

I arrived there early and nursed a draft, taking in the counterculture. On the bulletin board, fliers protested the right-wing Swiss People's Party and its anti-immigration agenda. Soon a gaggle of tall guys in skinny black jeans started toting in speakers, guitars and a keyboard.

You can dine at the tables in the bar area or take your chances with the volume in the dining/concert room. This cafe offers soups, salads, and vegetarian, fish or meat dishes. I had lake trout in lemon sauce with mashed potatoes and a mixed salad. Plain home cooking, but delicious and a steal in Switzerland for CHF 21.

Folks mingle here, and Alen Boulter, a member of the co-op, said, "We try to be as little as possible a part of the capitalist system." They barter, trade and buy local. Boulter says Schwarzer Engel is "an oasis" and his "living room." It's a nonprofit community that also rents out a few rooms. So in the Switzerland of UBS and Rolex, some folks are working around the system.

Both sedate St. Gallen and hopping Zurich are studies in thoughtful urban design, with everything accessible, thanks to walking districts and seamless public transportation. Something made these folks smart — maybe all those books.

Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa.

If you go

• For general information about travel in Switzerland, including Zurich and St. Gallen, go to myswitzerland.com.

• For travel information about Zurich, or to buy a Zurich Card, which includes museum admissions and mass transit, go to zuerich.com.

• For information about Zurich's hotels, restaurants, history and events, go to inyourpocket.com/data/download/Zurich.pdf.

• For a video about the UNESCO World Heritage Site Convent of St. Gall, go to whc.unesco.org/en/list/268/video.

From culture to couture, Switzerland holds pleasant surprises 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 5:30am]

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