Sunday, June 16, 2013

Switzerland: Zurich

I've been back from my Swiss escape for two weeks now. Pardon the delay in posting pictures and stories. This simple thing called pregnancy has me downright tired. Too tired to even want to blog because that means doing actual thinking. And, thinking hasn't been my strong suite as of late. 

Cases in point: I rubbed nail polish remover across my face instead of a facial cleansing astringent; I put the peanut butter in the fridge and the bread in the cupboard by the cereal bowls; I put a load of clothes in the dryer... and never turned it on. The examples could continue, I assure you. 

But, regardless of being drop-dead tired, life hasn't been put on hold and long naps whenever I want aren't are the daily docket. I've sifted through the loads of pictures and have gone online to remember how to spell names of the towns, waterfalls, and places we visited. Side note: German is a dreadful language to attempt when you know nothing of its phonetic and tonal structure. And, based on many overheard conversations on the trains, there is a definite throat-clearing, deep-down gutteral tone to speaking German.

On Sunday, May 26, Grady and I kissed our kids goodbye and began our travels to Switzerland. A short hop from Charlotte to Philadelphia, and then a long eight hour flight to Zurich. As we boarded the plane in Charlotte, Grady asked to see my boarding pass and then promptly handed it back to me. What I didn't catch, however, was that he switched our boarding passes and had me sitting in his first class seat while he walked many rows back to my seat in coach. 

Tears. Lots and lots of tears.

I was immediately overwhelmed with his tender love and thoughtfulness. Because he'd already made the trip to Switzerland before, I had heard many stories about the luxury of first class on an international flight. To know that he readily sacrificed this for me meant a lot. And, knowing that his 6'3" frame was crammed in a non-fully-reclining seat without the constant attention of a flight attendant and the nonstop offer of food and drinks and lemony hot hand towels... well, I felt guilty and sat in my seat crying. The flight attendant was concerned. I just nodded when she asked if I wanted tissues and a drink and a hot towel. 

And so began the trip to Switzerland.

We arrived in Zurich around 8:00 am on Monday morning, which was really 2:00 am for our clocks. But, because of that nagging pregnancy fatigue, I had no trouble falling asleep on the plane and slept for a good five(ish) hours of the flight. Maybe the fully reclining seat helped, too. And the very plush pillow and super soft blanket. However, five hours wasn't enough to cut it for beginning our day of fun at, technically, 2:00 in the morning.

We met each other on the concourse after deboarding, and although we were excited to be in Switzerland, priority number one was getting to the hotel and praying during the cab ride there that we could have an early check in and hop right into bed for a short cat nap. 

I found it interesting that every cab at the airport was a Mercedes, but after a week in Zurich I realized that's normal. In fact, anyone who has a car drives a BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Infinity, or the like. I noticed a Honda Accord one day while walking around and knew instantly that person was a total outsider. No one in Zurich would drive such a humble car.

Rush hour made our cab ride to the hotel longer than necessary, but thankfully our room was ready for us and we were able to check in right away. We went to the Concierge Lounge at the top and ate an embarrassingly fast breakfast, and then went to our room and left suitcases barely inside the door before ripping back the down comforter and going to sleep.

Two hours later Grady's alarm went off and we groggily stretched and decided it was time to get our day started. It was 11:00 am and we had a lot planned to do and see yet that day! 

And, this is where I'll make an intentional break in the flow of stories and pictures of our time in Switzerland. The rest of this post will simply be highlights and facts about Zurich in general.

We had four days to sight see and travel on our own, and four days in Zurich while Grady worked. While he worked, I explored the city, encountering an adventure or two, and relished the chance to stroll a beautiful city on my own time table. In the evenings, he and I would meet for long dinners and walk through shops or sit outside at a park on the city's lakefront.

Because Switzerland borders France, Italy, and Germany, the cuisine options were varied and amazing. Real Italian was my favorite. German fare, like Wienerschnitzel, was also wonderfully good. And the desserts. Oh my hips and thighs, the desserts. Pastry shops and cafes are everywhere. It wouldn't have been right to visit Zurich and not try the breads and croissants and muffins and pies and crepes and other yummy goodness everywhere I turned, so I did. And without shame, because, after all, it was for the baby. 

Sprinkled throughout the city, are fresh water fountains, usually coming from unique sculpture or surrounded by ornate flower beds. We learned that these fountains spray fresh water from the Alps and that it's safe for drinking. So, what seemed like oddly-placed fountains at random places in the city, were really water fountains fit for drinking.

And here's an interesting note on drinking water. While dining out, the option for tap water is rarely offered. Although it may be available, it's not the appropriate thing to ask for. Grady and I would ask for water and the server would come to our table with a half liter glass bottle of water... for a mere $10. For the record, a half liter of water doesn't go far between two people. 

Dining out was always on the pricey side - meaning dinner was usually $100 or more, not including the $10 water bottle, of course. The fun thing about traveling on business, however, is that meals were on the company dollar, which gave us delight in trying new things and exploring unique restaurants. 
Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland and is the country's financial center. Banks are everywhere. It's also a transportation hub for the Swiss-wide train system and the country's biggest airport. While the population of Zurich proper is only 376,000, approximately 500,000 people visit the main train station in Zurich everyday. The train station was, in itself, a sight to see. I don't remember how many platforms and how many levels, combined with how many stores and cafes, but it was a lot. A whole lot.

The city is impeccably clean - including public restrooms. And, it goes without saying that this pregnant lady visited more than one public restroom and they put most of our facilities to shame. The trains and trams were equally as clean - no graffiti or litter or, if you've commuted on NYC or Chicago public transportation, no smells of vomit or urine. 

Zurich has long been ranked as the city with the highest living standard in the world and the sixth most expensive city in the world. (Go ahead and Wikipedia that to be sure.) The endless streets of high-end shops and designer boutiques give proof to that. Bahnhofstrasse was one such street. It's famous for being one of the most exclusive and expensive shopping streets in the world. Niededorf, a part of Old Town Zurich, was a fun cobblestone street for pedestrians only, that was full of trendy shops and places to eat. I wandered in and out of stores rolling my eyes at the sight of price tags on clothes and jewelry.

And speaking of clothes, all the clothes are teeny-tiny. Seriously. Most of what I saw were clothes that stopped at what would be a size 10 in the States, and even then, those were few and far between. Women in Switzerland are thin. Grady even commented that I was on the upper end of average - which, for a husband who thinks I could snap if the wind blows too hard, that was a noteworthy comment.

I decided the women are thin because they walk everywhere and there is a hill everywhere and stairs everywhere. I enjoy walking, I really do. But after a week my calves had a slight burn from the multitude of steps and walking. Or, maybe the women there are so thin because a majority of them smoke. Remember my pregnancy gags? The constant smell of second hand smoke was overwhelming.

True to stereotype Switzerland, storefront after storefront showcased Swiss army knives and Swiss watches.  My boys were crushed when I didn't bring a knife home for them, but something about giving a five and seven year old a knife just doesn't seem right when your name isn't Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. Grady had his moments of oohing over a $45,000 Rolex, but I reminded him he'd probably be at gun point if he wore that watch out in public.

And the chocolate. Lots and lots of Swiss chocolate. Grocery stores have shelves and shelves of it. High end chocolatiers open their doors to let the aromas drift out. I wandered some stores and sampled a variety of flavors. Again, because the baby was hungry. 

Zurich has several old, beautiful churches. Towering cathedrals. Ornate stained glass. Detailed woodwork. Marvelous stone structures. But they're all empty. They are nothing more than a tourist facility, a venue for an occasional organ concert, a place for mass at major holidays, and a location for weddings. While a majority of the people claim to be Christians, the churches are small and many are closing their doors. 
Zurich is situated along a river and on the top of Lake Zurich. With views of the distant Swiss Alps, the parks and promenades along the river and lake are beautiful. Open air dining is plentiful and we took advantage of it on more than one occasion. The lakefront was calming and almost made the busyness of the city see far away, when really the hustle and bustle was all around.

Grady and I noted right away that for being such a big and busy city, Zurich was so quiet. Very few people drive cars and most everyone uses public transportation. I think the absence of honking horns, aggressive cabs, and loud busses has something to do with it. The Swiss people are, in general, polite and keep to themselves. The loud cell phone conversations I overheard were, take a guess, from visiting English speakers.
Zurich has very few tall buildings, and all of the newer high rises are in the west or north parts of the city, away from the historic and charming Old Town and lakefront promenades. The area around Grady's hotel, which is in the west part of the city, has major construction happening everywhere. I counted about a dozen cranes and high rise building projects in the area. I'm sure if we were to return in a couple of years, that area of the city would look much different.

The Old Town area of Zurich is charming. Medieval houses and buildings line narrow lanes. Storefronts and cafes emerge when you least expect them to. The colorful shutters, potted plants, rooftop gardens, and shingled roofs made me feel like I had wandered to a bygone era. 
I was struck by the pots and baskets and displays of fresh flowers everywhere. Zurich has little room for landscaping in terms of grass, bushes, and trees, but the floral arrangements hanging from balconies and the vendors selling fresh flowers in the middle of cobblestone streets was delightful. Simple beauty. And I loved it, though I'm sure if I asked Grady if he noticed the abundance of fresh flowers he would give me a blank stare. Some things don't fly across his radar, and I think this is one of them.
This is Zurich in a nutshell - my personal nutshell. I'll share stories later about the art museum, the history museum, my adventures on the train and tram, conversations I had with some locals, and other interesting specifics.
If you've endured my ramblings thus far, you may as well stick around and check back later for details on some of our other Swiss escapades to neighboring towns and mountains. And I promise the following Swiss-related posts won't be this long - and hopefully I'll have figured out my photo enlargement and arrangement problem...

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