In Zurich, More Than Steeple Chasing

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

There I was at Zurich's staid debutante ball, in the middle of a crowd of dolled-up teenagers, when who should bounce onto the dance floor but Tina Turner. Turns out the leggy R&B goddess has lived in the Swiss city for 19 years. Decked out in a glamorous, floor-length beige gown, Turner let a spirited rendition of "We Are Family" carry her into an energetic boogie. And naturally, she kept up a fiery dance pace long after the rest of us started to fade.

Any doubts I had about how high Zurich ranks on the cool meter evaporated in that moment.

Most guidebooks dismiss Switzerland's largest city as an uninspiring warren of church steeples, fondue eateries and pricey boutiques. Although the airport is a popular arrival point for transatlantic travelers, most bypass the city for Lucerne, Zermatt or other more picturesque Swiss locales. Resisting the lure of the Alps, this spring I instead opted to explore the urban life of this pristine European country.

After venturing beyond Bahnhofstrasse -- the well-trodden promenade lined with boutiques and bank headquarters that cuts through the center of town -- I found an alluring mix of attractions ranging from lofty to just plain fun. Among them: a wing of Alberto Giacometti paintings and sculptures at the Kunsthalle Zurich, the city's main modern art gallery; the restaurant Blindekuh, where the wait staff are blind and patrons dine in the dark; and the oddly appealing decor of old-fashioned furniture and grandiose baroque decorations--and an equally motley crowd--at Kaufleuten, a popular bar.

"It's the kind of place where you stop for a day and then stumble across one thing after another," said Joe Ritchie, an American entrepreneur who lives in Geneva and visits Zurich often. "And then you find yourself changing plans to stay for an extra day, and then another. There's no single overwhelming attraction here, but there is an aesthetic that is unique and that draws you in."

Budget travelers have reason to pause at the Swiss border: With the Swiss franc running strong against the dollar, Zurich -- most of Switzerland, in fact -- is tough to manage on tight funds. But prices are comparable to those in other countries on the Continent. A traditional Swiss lunch of liver dumplings and sausages at Bierhalle Kropf, a much-loved restaurant, runs around $45 for two. Tickets to the Zurich opera, ranked among Europe's finest, start at around $25 a seat. A Zurich card, which costs $11.75 a day, includes admission to many museums and unlimited rides on trams and other public transportation.

An afternoon amble through the side streets brought me closer to the rhythm of the city. The attractive old town, bisected by the Limmat River, makes for a pleasant hour-long excursion, and the walkways along the banks offer grand views.

Although Zurich is a true metropolis, the narrow, low-rise, medieval buildings and enclaves of cafes, bistros and wine bars on nearly every corner give it the intimacy of dozens of villages clustered together. I followed a promenade that runs along the banks of Lake Zurich, the soft-blue body of water that stretches for about 16 miles from the southern part of the city. As dusk fell, the 2,857-foot Uetliberg Mountain and other peaks were bathed in hues of blue.

A panorama of natural majesty like this could have been entertainment enough for my first evening. But a Swiss friend had snagged a hard-to-get reservation at Blindekuh. Billed as "an experience in darkness," the restaurant is designed to give the rest of us a chance to see what it feels like to live without sight. Inside the front door, Camilla, a sight-impaired waitress, told us to choose our dinner options from a menu displayed on the foyer wall. She then led us by hand into a room without a single glimmer of light.

Appetites, I learned, are triggered at least in part by vision: Without the option of seeing my plate, I had to feel it to see how much I had eaten. And in this place where no face was visible, my dining companion and I found ourselves focusing more intensely on conversation. With my sense of taste enhanced, my salad seemed fresher, grilled steak more flavorful and mousse more chocolatey. Aside from the awkwardness of toasting in the dark, the evening was as fun as it was instructive. At around $50 a person, it was worth it.

Thank goodness for Peter Ern. A guide with Zurich's tourist board, he was unusually honest, and his focus was as much on the sociology of locals as the monuments. "We are generally a pretty stubborn people who value independent thinking," he said as we walked through the old city center. "It's not for nothing that [Zurich] was the birthplace of Dadaism," the popular protest movement of the early 20th century that stressed total freedom of artistic expression.

Ern seemed to know an anecdote about every structure we passed, no matter how obscure. He took me to the site of Turicum, the ruins of the city's original Roman fortress. This is one of the highest points of the city, and an overlook allows a lovely view of the buildings sprawling for several miles in every direction. A few codgers had gathered to play chess on two giant boards. A poignant fountain commemorates the day in 1292 when, according to legend, a group of local women donned armor and frightened away the invading Habsburgs.

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