30 July Vienna to Zurich
The train journey from Vienna to Zurich was a highlight of our trip so far. The section from Innsbruk to Zurich took us through the Alberg Pass, at a heights of around 1200 to 1800 metres, with marvellous peaks around us to 3000 metres. It was hard to know which side of the train to look out of, such was the changing nature of the vista as the train rounded bends or emerged from tunnels.
It was not only the mountains that made the scenery so appealing, but also the beautiful tiny hamlets dotted along the way, set on rolling meadows of brilliant green grass. The snow on the mountains had long since melted, it largely disappearing by end of May, but it hardly mattered. We kept pointing out tiny settings that looked like a scene from Heidi, complete with goats, a cow and Grandfather sitting out the front. Near Salzburg, we scanned the rolling hills for a glimpse of Maria spiralling down the hillside singing. It was a gorgeous trip.
We had a three person section of the Business Class carriage to ourselves, not quite a compartment, but a walled off area. This came as a bit of a surprise, because we only had 1st Class tickets but we’d been allocated the better seats. The seats were expansive and comfortable, although the recline was a bit tough to manage at times. Railjet promised WiFi Internet on the Western bound Austrian trains but it didn’t seem to materialise, which was a shame because we find that being able to research what we see as we go along a distinct advantage.
The adjoining compartment housed three Swiss guys who were travelling to a town about an hour from Zurich. This meant that of the eight hours we were on the train, we had the pleasure of their loud talk and laughter for seven. We considered asking them to “Shutituppenforawhilen”. The really annoying thing is we found ourselves listening in on their conversation , even though we couldn’t understand any of it.
Zurich Station is huge and very busy. It is a major hub for Central Europe, a fact that surprised me given the mountainous nature of the access routes. It took us quite a bit to actually find our way out of the station, through a heavy crowd of people all going about their business. Once outside, the traffic was also heavy, with the evening knock-off starting. Nothing really seemed to rush however, and cars, trolley buses, trams, bikes and pedestrians seemed to coexist amicably. Crossing busy intersections requires full attention, because it may be that the one green light or crosswalk will cross three different transport systems. At one point, I failed to look and walked in front of a tram. Much to my relief, it simply stopped for me. Later, we found that even trams give way to pedestrians in the central city areas. Amazing!
We had only two streets to cross and a short walk to our hotel, the quirky little Hotel du Theatre. We had a small but comfortable room on the top floor of five, that proved to be a small room in an attic. Although well appointed and modern, we both (even Christine) needed to take care to not hit our head on the low sloping ceilings in places, including the shower. However, it is right in the very best location in Zurich, amongst the nightlife and eateries, not to mention the more colourful females on the streets at night. It seems that street prostitution is legal in Switzerland, leading to a lot of women from poorer parts of Europe coming for the pickings. Currently, Hungarian women make up some 85% of the trade. Although we (I) didn’t have any problems on the streets, the local hotels are starting to get a bit sick of the situation.
The cost of living in Zurich makes Venice look cheap. At least tourist areas in Venice charge an arm and a leg because they can whereas everywhere in Zurich charges impossible prices because they haveto. Looking around the nearby restaurants and cafes quickly made us realise that eating out was off the agenda. So, it was off to the supermarket to see what was on offer. The first thing that struck us was that everything was very expensive here too. Manageable, but dear. A small raw chicken cost $A16, a small pieces of ordinary looking beef was $A40/kg. Most things were priced per 100g. The cheap European wines that we have experienced all over were replaced with lots of $A20 and $A30 bottles, although we could have slummed it with a $9 Jacob’s Creek.
Fortunately, the high cost of cafes meant that the supermarkets catered well for the pre-prepared meal set and we were able to buy some lovely cooked fish, potato gratin and salad to take back to the hotel. The quality of the food was excellent, and we made up a lovely meal with a beer and wine for around $15, about the cost of one cheap entree in an average restaurant.
31 July Zurich
I awoke to find the curse of the sore throat had descended. A day in bed was hardly an option, given that the delights of Zurich awaited, but we still moved slowly.
We had a circuit of the river mapped out, picking up the main sights and taking us to Lake Zurich, where a trip on a river boat was in order. The walk through the streets was absolutely charming, with mostly old buildings but interspersed with a scattering of tastefully built modern structures. There was the usual mix of churches, meeting halls and Government buildings dating back as far as the 9th Century. The flamboyance of Vienna was absent, with many buildings showing the austerity of the Reformation or the pragmatism of the German merchants who were so dominant in this part of the World during the 17th and 18th Centuries.
We came across one supermarket that catered so well for pre-prepared foods that one floor was devoted to take-aways and tables and chairs were provided both inside and out for people to eat. Needless to say, the backpacker brigade was out in force having breakfast, most other offerings on the streets needing $20 as a starting fee.
Having reached Lake Zurich, we bought a ticket on a public transport river boat that would take us on an hour and a half circuit of the closer part of the lake. While we were waiting, we watched a beautiful old paddle steamer leave the dock, puffing steam through old reciprocating engines and pistons. It would have been nice to be on it, but it was bound for the full circuit, taking over four hours and costing $50 a head.
Our boat was less glamourous, but still very comfortable and slid almost silently across the dead calm waters of the lake. Only 390,000 people live in Zurich proper, while another 1.2 million live in the surrounding area. Zurich has the highest rate of public transport use in the World (it hasn’t helped keep the price down) and lake transport plays a part in this. We had a fantastic time, admiring the features along the river as we came in to each stop. If these are the suburbs of Zurich, it is a paradise, and it is little wonder that it was voted the World’s most liveable city four years running from 2002 to 2006. It was like everyone gets to live in Peppermint Grove. Wonderful houses lined the lake, most with private boat houses. Those less blessed could take advantage of the hundreds of small yacht clubs and marinas lining the shores. Swimming beaches or baths drawing on lake water are common, with the fresh water allowing beautiful parkland to extend right up to the water’s edge. The number of people swimming and sunbathing suggested the water was not too cold.
Once back in Zurich, we set off on the other side of the river to wander back to the hotel. This side of the river was mostly retail, and high brow retail at that. There was hardly a store that we’d even think of walking into in shorts and sandals. Christine did stop to window shop in the Prada store and priced an ugly $490 top, with matching ugly $600 skirt and complementing ugly $1025 jacket. Thank goodness her birthday was over. Every now and then we would deviate off the main drag and wander through a tiny back street, each one a beautiful setting in its own right.
The sore throat took its toll and we headed home to rest up. In my case, that meant sinking into a very deep sleep, to emerge later feeling distinctly better. Once again, we used the supermarket to eat. We are living in the colourful part of town so I wasn’t surprised when I saw three or four ladies of the night assembled as we walked back to the hotel. I was surprised, however, when I got a proposition from one while walking with my wife and carrying a pizza. Did she really think I’d forgo a pizza?
We ate dinner in front of the TV, watching more Olympics. We are starting to hanker for some English commentary so we can find out why the Aussies are doing so badly. All we get is lots of blond haired commentators saying “Deshalb ist unser Team wie Scheiße”.
Afterwards, we headed out into the evening to sample the nightlife but it was strictly a “look and don’t touch approach”, which means we watched other people eat terribly expensive food, listened to bands without paying and held hands when we passed women of ill-repute.
1 August Zurich
Our train to Paris was scheduled for 1:30pm, giving us the morning to explore more of Zurich. The hotel offered a free bike hire using a third party hire group, but we failed to locate it, the promised location seeming overly quiet. In fact it dawned on us that everything was extremely quiet for 9am and it soon became obvious that Zurich was having a holiday. Apparently, it was a National Day and everything closes up. We seem to be good at locating the holidays of Europe.
We opted for a walk in a lovely park instead and came across a small group of guys dressed in 19th Century infantry gear and holding bayonet equipped muskets. They were accompanied by a brass band and seemed to be getting ready for some kind of parade for the National Day festivities.
We watched with interest as they went through their drill, loaded the muskets and fired off a couple of very loud volleys. It was all good fun.
The park followed the river for some distance and we watched a couple of guys fishing from a bridge, catching a beautiful silvery fish with red fins. It as immediately despatched and put into the bag so it must have been edible. Here the river is the Limmat, flowing out of Lake Zurich. We came across a large weir, controlling the water levels and ensuring that the Limmen and Lake Zurich maintain optimum water levels for transport and swimming. The water in the river was a very pleasant temperature and several swimming spots are set up within the city itself. Somehow, I’d never imagined bikini clad girls trotting around in the middle of land-locked Switzerland but it seems swimming is a big part of the hot Summer months here.
We wandered back through the deserted streets, sauntered across the deserted roads and spent an hour or so resting up before checking out of the hotel. Zurich has left us both surprised and impressed. It is nothing like we imagined and certainly does not give the appearance of the financial capital of Europe. The place is almost like a giant Lego town, perfect in every detail. No rubbish, no broken pipes, no roads under repair… it just works. But, it all comes at a cost.