Zurich (Sept 27-30)

After our mountainous excursion around Lake Lucerne, we continued our onwards journey, and headed towards our next city destination of Zurich.  The train journey was beautiful;  not quite as spectacular as the Golden Pass journey, but only by relative comparison.  From Zug it was only a short trip to Zurich, and we ended up on a busy commuter train.  It was a double-decker, and we were very impressed when we saw that one of the upper floors has been converted from normal seating to a children’s playground – complete with mini slide!  Zurich main train station was large and confusing.  We totally failed to find our way out the first time, and ended up by a small shopping mall!  After a quick check of Google Maps we headed the right way, and made it out towards the local platforms.  We caught a local train shortly afterwards for two stops, and headed towards our hotel.  Although it was up a hill someone had helpfully built a lift at just the right place;  fantastic!

The hotel itself, B2 Boutique Hotel, was converted from an old brewery and rather splendid.  Upon entering we found that reception was busy with two other groups checking in.  However the receptionist immediately spotted us waiting, had a word with a colleague, and within about 10 seconds a new receptionist had appeared and came away from the busy desk to great us and collect our details in order to check us in.  Whilst waiting we admired the very impressive lobby which led directly onto the breakfast room which was also a library with books filling the walls from floor to ceiling in a double height room.  Our room was wonderful, and when looking out of the window I found that we overlooked two impressive Google buildings.  Greg remarked that he had tried to get a tour of Google arranged, but unfortunately it hadn’t been possible.  It was late, so after quickly stowing our stuff we headed out for some dinner.  This experience reminded us how expensive Switzerland was, but we found some reasonably priced pasta which we enjoyed before we headed back to a very comfortable bed.

Breakfast the next day was very good.  The library/breakfast room was a spectacular location, where we enjoyed the a modest but very well executed buffet selection as well as some eggs cooked-to-order. For our first day in Zurich we decided to start with a wander around the old town.  Similarly to Geneva there were obviously a great many watch shops.  Unfortunately also similarly to Geneva they were primarily out of my price range.  So we ignored looking at these and instead simply enjoyed the experience of wandering around shops with clearly fabulous ranges, and no top brand left unrepresented.  We also took the opportunity to enjoy some of the city’s history by visiting two key churches.  First was the Fraumünster Church (Women’s Minster), built on the remains of a former abbey for aristocratic women and founded in 853 by Louis the German for his daughter Hildegard.  Today, it belongs to the Swiss Reformed Church and is one of the three main churches of Zürich, the other’s being the Grossmünster and St. Peter’s church.  We really liked the feel of this church, two elements of which really stood out to us.  The first was that in the choir of the abbey there are 5 magnificant large stained glass windows designed by artist Marc Chagall and installed in 1970. Each of the 5 has a dominant color and depicts a Christian story in a visually stunning style.  The second were the former cloisters which are decorated with wonderful frescos, giving fantastic colour to this peaceful space.  By contrast I had to say that I was slightly less impressed by the Grossmünster (“great minster”), a Romanesque-style Protestant church.  It just didn’t have the same feel for me.  I did enjoy being able to go up the tower, as I like being able to get a good panoramic view of the cities we visit for some perspective.  This was nice, but I didn’t feel that Zurich was a particularly pretty city;  though I suspect that the slightly grey day didn’t help.  As it happens it turned out that I missed the most interesting aspect of our visit whilst in the tower.  Greg noticed that a group of school children we had seen at Fraumünster has followed us to Grossmünster.  They were Japanese, and so very well behaved, so we hadn’t paid them much mind previously.  However Greg later relayed to me that their teacher had a quick word with the staff attendant and taken her group of girls to the choir of the church.  There the group had suddenly burst into song, which Greg described as totally angelic and which suddenly brought the place to a stand-still as all the visitors stopped what they were doing and turned, enchanted, to listen.  What we hadn’t then appreciated, but that she clearly knew, was that the church famously had fabulous acoustics.  After a short time the girls finished their mesmerizing performance and their teacher returned to the stunned staff attendant and handed over a generous donation along with thanks for allowing them to briefly perform.  They then left as anonymously as they had entered.

From here we decided it was time for a break, and we headed to a famous Zurich establishment… Sprüngli.  Sprüngli is a luxury chocolatier and we sat in the cafe upstairs to enjoy a hot chocolate and small cake.  Although the cost was somewhat eye watering we both agreed it was worth every penny.  After this we browsed the retail section and picked a few handmade chocolates to sample along with a few “Luxemburgerli” – a sort of macaron invented by a confectioner called Camille Studer from Luxembourg.  His employer was friendly with the Sprüngli family and he had come to Zurich to serve an appprenticeship. Whilst there he invented these tiny macaron, originally called Baiser de Mousse (Foam Kisses) but more commonly referred to by the confectioners nickname “Luxemburger” in the form of Gebäck des Luxemburgers (Luxemburgers confection) later shortened to Luxemburgerli.  Refined for a competition Sprüngli now produce more tan 30 flavours as their flagship product, with according to Wikipedia an international reputation.  Having tasted them all I can say is…. with very good reason!

After a little more shopping we headed back to the hotel fairly early, as we wanted to take advantage of the attached spa, which specialised in a thermal bath treatment routed in traditional spa culture called the Irish-Roman spa ritual.  As hotel guests we were able to get half-price entry, and so we purchased a 24 hour ticket from reception and went up to our room to change.  We already had robes, and so taking the spa towels with us we used the hotel elevator to travel to the 4th floor which was a private entrance to the Spa for hotel guests.  The spa itself had several sections, and we started with the rooftop pool, which proved to be rather spectacular.  As our hotel was on a hilltop the pool afforded a view across Zurich, and the pool design maximized the impact by having no clear edge, so it appeared that you were simply looking across water and into Zurich city.  After enjoying the pool for a while we headed down into the basement and found another large pool, housed in an interconnected set of huge beer fermentation barrels and the thermal bath section.

This proved to be a very interesting and enjoyable sequence of rooms through which you proceded in a specific order.  You started with a warm steam room, to relax the muscles and begin to open your pores.  Second was an invigorating orange scrub treatment, to scour and cleanse your skin.  From there you moved to a second hotter steam room, which stepped up the intensity.  Next was the hot bath – hot even by my standards at about 42 degrees, followed by relaxing on a  stone plinth, before a leisurely swim in a moderately warm pool.  The next step was a shock – as it was into a cold bath!  Finally there was a further lying area with low light scattered with cushions covering a warmed stone base, which proved very restful.  The whole sequence took about 1.5 to 2 hours, by which time we both found ourselves both very clean and very relaxed.  We had a small but tasty dinner at the bistro, before repeating our favourite elements.  The rooftop pool was spectacular in a different way the second time around as it was now dark, and so the view transformed to a twinkling city underneath a dark sky.  The spa closed at 10, at which time we took advantage again of the private link to the hotel to descend a floor and flop into bed.

We woke reasonably early the next day, and decided we’d start the day with a quick visit to the spa instead of simply showering in our room.  This proved to be an interesting choice, as two other couples had the same idea and there were just the six of us in the rooftop pool early that morning.  Suddenly one of the ladies screamed in delight, and we shortly learnt that her boyfriend had just proposed to her!  She was very keen to show off her ring, and he looked a combination of both relieved that it had all gone well (positive answer and didn’t lose the ring in the pool!) and embarassed at the sudden attention they were both getting.

Day two was to be a visit to the zoo, and we were able to catch a tram there from a stop only about 10m minutes walk from the hotel.  The trams were as excellent as we’d expected, and we were particularly impressed by the monitors in them, which not only displayed full information about the route, destination and next stop, but also showed connection information at the major interchanges, together with the live timings of the services available from there.  As the bus climbed the hill to the zoo the weather worsened in that it became really rather foggy.  This made the entrance to the zoo itself somewhat atmospheric, and meant that we started of focusing on more of the inside options and headed to the bigger outdoor enclosures later.

Zurich Zoo had been very well regarded by the gorilla keeper at the Durrell wildlife sanctuary on Jersey, and we were impressed by what we saw.  For a city zoo it’s got a lot of space, and is clearly on a journey from smaller enclosures to much bigger areas for key animals.  For example the new Elephant house looks astounding and totally huge; due for completion next year.  Further expansion is planned too, and we both felt we’d enjoy coming back in some years to see how the plans have panned out.  In the meantime we enjoyed our day and were particularly taken with some of the animals;  for me the spectacled bears, the red pandas, the lemurs and the baboons (in their new large rockery) were standouts.  The most impressive section however was the last one we saw – the Madagascar Masoala rainforest.  This huge biome reminded me of a dome from the Garden of Eden in Cornwall, and is apparently 90m long, 120m wide and 30m tall!  It certainly feels vast when you are in it and we really enjoyed our slow trek round the wending path.  It has an aerial walkway right up in the roof space from which you can gaze out over the vast tropical forest and it’s huge trees.  As time went by we became more adapt at spotting the abundant wildlife that lives here – which included a small lemur, actively leaping around the various parts of the biome,  as well as a huge variety of birds, bats and butterflies.

Dinner that night was a Mexican meal at Desperados, where we chose all-you-can-eat fajitas.  It was an tasty selection of chicken, beef and particularly good prawns (which we reordered twice).  However it was rather expensive and overall not as good value as our excellent local Mexican in Bristol.

On our return journey to our hotel we encountered our first ticket inspector – undercover no less – of our trip so far (contrary to what a friend once told me, European transport isn’t actually free..).  He was a rather good looking young man travelling with a lady, in normal clothes and with a rucksack.  He produced an official ID and asked politely to see our ticket.  I was temporarily tempted to extend the encounter by pretending I had mislaid mine, but opted to produce it which triggered a friendly smile before he moved on to the next passenger.

The next morning was a relatively early start heading back to Zurich main station, but not before stopping by both Sprüngli and Läderach where we topped up with what could be considered to be an excessive quantity of fabulous Swiss chocolate, and of course Luxemburgli.  From Zurich we again caught the train, and headed out of Switzerland and towards… Liechtenstein!

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