The change is subtle, once you begin to wiggle through the rapidly rising hills. The architecture tells you you’re leaving Northern Italy’s mediterranean influences and entering the small landlocked state known for chocolate, banks, and yodeling. You’re heading to Zurich!
It’s dramatic how quickly the train, less than two hours out of Milano Centrale, slices along silently behind Alpine farms, villas, along glacial lakes, and through foggy moist valleys. Up in the mountains, three and four story log cabins, and a helping of ultra-modern office blocks, tell you you’re somewhere else.
I suppose the snowy landscape and impossibly precise civil engineering of highways, bridges, and tunnels, all without the disruption of animals and ancient outposts doesn’t hurt the image of the country as a delicate and protected ecosystem with a hearty population of industrious and efficient people.
Switzerland is even more like a fairytale than the rest of Western Europe, at least for this native North American. Once you reach Zurich, which takes four hours but will soon be only 2.5 with the completion of a new tunnel, you find a settlement framed by the Alps, two rivers, and Lake Zurich, of which the city sits at the Northern end.
Analogous to the intricate work of fine timepieces, Zurich is compact but not overwhelming or chaotic. Its transit connectivity rivals even the most layered metros, with surface trams, buses, a commuter rail network that is mostly subterranean in the center, and an open market for taxis and Ubers. Thus, movement is simple and rapid. What’s less clear is the urban layout and street network, which winds, curves, and rambles, and hits water at every direction.
My friend Matt’s flat is at lovely attic level (six) of his building, with a small terrace and views of both the city center’s midrises and church steeples, as well as the Sihl River and Google campus beyond to the south.
Unfortunately the winter weather wasn’t the most inviting, so we spent more time inside, eating and drinking, than outside sightseeing. Somehow though, wind and rain (though not as biting as Milan) seemed appropriate for an early January visit. Plenty of hot Turkish coffee, cappuccino, green tea, and strudel warmed us.
Our meals over the ~48 hours were not notable for their culinary excellence. Rather, they were for their unbelievable prices. A breakfast for two of bagel sandwiches, coffee, and water at Babu’s was 65 swiss francs, which is roughly equal to the dollar and slightly higher nominally than the euro (=59€).
Likewise, dinners were routinely 200-250CHF for two people, and a bag of Truffes du Jour (9 pieces) at Sprüngli was 23CHF. (Which by the way, are an excellent way to pass a stroll through town).
Quite flatly, this is because the cost of living, taxes, and domestic compensation rates are much higher than elsewhere on the continent and in most other developed countries. Minimum wages are higher, social security and benefits are far more generous, and standards of living are some of the best in the world, no matter a person’s ability, intellect, or background.
Theoretically I applaud this and marvel at how differently the city feels and operates, across social and economic levels, from a place like the U.S. As a consumer, especially from the perspective of the Euro, it was shocking and somewhat crippling. When your mid-afternoon snack costs ~80€ and mixed drinks at a bar are 25CHF, it becomes hard to “splurge” on anything else.
Overcoming the price shock comes quickly if you let your resident friend earning CHF pay for nearly everything, and you drink LOTS of Piper champagne before leaving the flat each night.
My favorite thing about Zurich was the culture of expatriates, as nearly a fourth of all national residents are not Swiss. That figure is probably even higher in the city, which is home to international corporations and banks that work regularly with every other continent and country. I heard plenty of English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian, and met a handful of Manhattanites and Californians.
Topographically, the city and its environs offer a nearly unbeatable mix of options—water and boating, mountain skiing, hiking, and rapid (half day or less) travel to other centers like Paris, Milan, and Stuttgart. Office workers sunbathe on their lunch breaks and the city is (apparently) filled with street festivals and parades almost weekly during the summer.
This time of year, you see snowboarders on the tram and realize you can reach the white powder in the AM and be back by dinnertime using the precision timetables of Swiss transit.
Of course, there is also the high-end feel of the entire city which I enjoyed. The Swiss love watches, so nearly every brand has an outpost along Bahnhofstrasse (e.g. Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, Audemars), mingled with fashion brands like Chanel and Giorgio Armani. Tom Ford has a gorgeous multi-level boutique nestled in old town that feels like a Parisian flat, with wood paneling, glass and chrome cabinets, and a color palette limited to various grays.
Throughout, Zurich has a fascinating amalgam of architecture, layouts, and aesthetics. You find French, German, and Italian styles, as well as things that look quite Roman and medieval. I appreciate that the Swiss have an affinity for glass facades, which give any skyline a glint that concrete and stone don’t. There is also a retro freshness to many of its spaces (see Aesop above), with “lederhosen and alphorn” charm sprinkled around for uniqueness.
Less tangibly, there is a sense of equilibrium in Zurich. Processes operate reliably. People are (relatively) courteous. Young and old exist in concert, and few seem downtrodden. Maybe this is an outsider’s rosy impression, but I am usually an accurate (however quick) judge of a place.
Another visit when the weather is less likely to necessitate an umbrella is on the agenda, probably in July. With a second trip I can verify these assessments.
My return journey was a little sad, as I had a lot of fun in Zurich (see map for details). The sky darkens much too early with a blustery drizzle, and Alpine towns seem isolated from the excitement of the train’s origin and destination.
Though the carriage itself is comfortable and quiet, and announcements are made in four different languages (chic!), its lack of wifi was a major disappointment, considering the length of the trip.
Otherwise, it was a flawless experience. Train travel in Europe never ceases to provide novelty satisfaction, since air travel has become so uncomfortable and undignified. Though trains take time, the end-to-end commitment is no more than the protracted process of checking in, arriving at, and waiting inside an airport to fly and then collect baggage on the other end.
It’s too bad the U.S. never embraced mass rail travel. The distances are farther between cities than in Europe and we have a strong automotive and oil lobby in our government, which has for many years attacked more efficient, less “independent” modes of travel.
Looking forward to the next weekend by train and the next visit to Züri! Many thanks to Matt for his hospitality and generosity. Alla prossima!