The next time the church bell tolled would be at midnight, and midnight was still a quarter of an hour away. There was no real intention behind our waiting for it, except that we had simply decided to do so at the spur of the moment. The four of us, women travellers from different parts of the world who had bonded over the shared love of travel, history, wine and all things fine, walked around leisurely, arms locked with each other to cosy ourselves against the biting wind. Night has fallen fast; the cobbled streets of the ancient town stood deserted in the glow of antique street lamps. Somewhere in the middle of one of the bridges over the petite Limmat river, we stopped and looked around — in pin-drop silence — at the city of Zurich lying sprawled on either side, its reflection twinkling in the water below.
Inhabited in parts since prehistoric times, the city was formally established by the Romans in 15 BC and has been continually settled ever since. In contrast to the glass and concrete of modern, cosmopolitan Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city and a global centre for banking and finance, is the old-world charm of Altstadt or Old Town.
Our incredible journey back in time begun a day ago, when the four of us checked into the 600-year-old Marktgasse Hotel. Located at one of the main plazas of Old Town, it features uneven floors and carefully preserved heritage elements. Excited to soak in the history of the area, we spent the next two days walking through its cobbled streets. Our first stop, barely 10 steps away from our hotel, was the Cabaret Voltaire — an artistic nightclub where the Dada movement was born. Dadaism, which developed in reaction to World War I, rejected logic and the aestheticism of modern capitalist society in art, opting for the nonsensical and irrational in its anti-bourgeois-protest works. For another dose of history — this time political — we headed to Lenin’s House, Spiegelgasse 14. It was here, during WWI, that Lenin and his wife spent a year in exile. They would frequent libraries, drive up to the Zürichberg Hill, lie on the grass and eat Swiss chocolate.
A steep climb then took us to Lindenhof, a public square perched on a hilltop that gets its name from the 50-odd Linden trees and provides panoramic views of the Old Town, the Limmat river and the University of Zurich on its opposite bank. The largest university in Switzerland, it has so far produced 23 Nobel laureates, including Albert Einstein. Other landmarks we spent hours marveling at included the four magnificent churches — St Peter’s, which has Europe’s largest clockface; the Romanesque-style Grossmünster that was founded by Charles the Great after his horse fell to its knees over the tombs of Zurich’s patron saints; Predigerkirche with the highest Gothic edifice in all of Zurich; and Fraumünster, the most famous of them all, especially for its five large stained glass-windows designed by the early modernist artist Marc Chagall.
Many a time during our explorations, we had stopped for a quick swig of water at one of the 1,224 (and counting) drinking-water fountains sprinkled across the city, which come with their own share of history. The nights though, were dedicated to drinking of a different kind. One of the pitstops for our evening revelries was the Widder Hotel. Built on the site of Roman and Celtic ruins and comprising nine medieval houses decorated with 15th century frescoes, the hotel took 10 years to renovate. The five-star heritage property houses a historic butcher’s guild museum and a “Library of Spirits” with over a 1,000 variety of the world’s finest alcohols, including 300 single malts. We exited gleefully from there, having sampled a few of its offerings, and headed to the Zunfthaus zur Waag.
For the last 700-odd years, the Zunfthaus zur Waag has served as the guild house of the wool and linen weavers and hatters, much like other restaurants in the Old Town that are each run by different guilds. The venue for the first official Dadaist soirée, which boasts of an enticing menu, is actually famous for its wine fountain. It sprouts wine instead of water, following a little ritual — you have to look into the host’s eyes and lovingly stroke the stone limb of the fountain. With the gaze of four animated women fixed on him, the charming gentleman had no choice but to let the wine flow on for a good while till we have had our fill. The Zurich that guards well its history and traditions also ended up showing us how to let our hair down in style.
The article appeared in the print edition with the headline: A Gift that Keeps on Giving