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Zürich: Zürich’s New Zing

by Patrick Adams

Apr 1, 2009
2009 / April 2009

In Zürich, the gold is all underground. That’s where the city’s big banks store their bullion. But fine art is everywhere — accessible, alluring and — as in the stunning reception hall of the Park Hyatt Zürich — almost impossible to miss.

When I arrived at the sleek, city-center 5-star on a gray day last March — snow on the rooftops, swans on the lake, the smell of bratwurst on the evening breeze — I froze in my tracks, struck by the massive mural on the lobby’s far wall. Irregular Wavy Colour Bands, it was called. A multilingual receptionist explained in perfect English that it was, in fact, an “ink wall drawing” by the late American artist Sol LeWitt, master of minimalism, who had rendered the piece on commission.

There was another LeWitt by the door, a case full of Murano glassworks in The Lounge, and a black-and-white Chillida by my sumptuous third-floor suite — just a few of the 91 works on display. While the hotel-as-museum concept is neither new nor unique to Zürich — all 26 Park Hyatt properties feature original works of “classic modern art,” as will the 17 set to open by 2012 — it’s especially fitting for a city of such artistic cool.

After all, the Swiss capital is the birthplace of Dadaism, the anti-rational, anti-establishment art movement founded during World War I, and there can hardly be anything cooler than that. The movement ended in 1924, but you can still summon your inner bohemian at the shabby-chic Cabaret Voltaire, where the nihilistic Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara put on the first Dada shows anyone had ever seen. Tucked away on a cobbled medieval lane in Zürich’s Altstadt (Old Town), the Voltaire is surrounded now by quaint bars and high-end clothing stores, antique shops and art galleries and one of the city’s 19 Starbucks, the anti- Dada if ever there was one.

I had come by train over the Alps, on the Golden Pass Line from Geneva with its panoramic views of the spotless white slopes. And now here I was a day later, still snapping pictures of the peaks on a walking tour of the Old Town. Zürich may be the prettiest city in the land, and not least for the majestic backdrop at every turn — the snowcapped scenery that makes you wonder why you hadn’t visited before and when you might be back again.

One of the best views of the Alps, and the city itself, is from the Lindenhof Hill, a raised terrace above the Limmat River, where in the second century the Romans set up a customs station and where, in the warmer months, chess players gather for games in the dappled shade of plane trees. From there you can easily see the Grossmünster across the way, the twin-towered Gothic church founded by Charlemagne in the 12th century. Three hundred years later, under its warrior pastor Ulrich Zwingli, the Grossmünster became the staging ground of the Reformation of Zürich. It was in 1525 that Zwingli famously dumped the church’s Catholic statues into the river below — but not before stripping them of their jewels and precious stones, which he then handed over to the town council for safekeeping.

Zwingli didn’t know it, but the process he had set in motion — the conversion of Zürich’s Catholics to Protestants and of its religious art to property — would help turn his small town into a banking powerhouse, renowned for its secrecy and stability and open to just about anyone in need of an account. Indeed, for all of its charming folklore and postcard appeal, Zürich is devoted, above all, to the rather serious business of money. And nowhere is that fact more apparent than along the gilded mile of the Bahnhofstrasse, a street full of opulent shops that stretches from the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station, to the Paradeplatz, a former medieval pig market and now home to the two biggest banks in town: UBS and Credit Suisse Group.

On the day I arrived, it was reported that UBS would divulge the names of Americans suspected of using offshore accounts to evade taxes. And with that,  it seemed, a tradition of secret Swiss banking had come to an end. The sun was shining, but it was a dark day in Zürich, and I imagined bankers everywhere opting to stay in bed and eat chocolate rather than face the consequences of this call to action.

Conveniently, UBS shares a block with the headquarters of a heavyweight in the chocolate business, too. Opened in 1859, the Confiserie Sprüngli, at the corner of the Paradeplatz and Bahnhofstrasse, is the oldest and grandest chocolate shop in town, with display cases full of tantalizing treats: Grand Cru truffles and marzipan fruits, boxes of pralines and raspberry carrés, and all kinds of cakes and cookies. You can make a meal out of it, as I did, and feast on sweets in the upstairs café, but be sure to save room for dinner in one of Zürich’s “it” restaurants.

You can find most of them in Zürich West, a former industrial zone between the Limmat and the railroad tracks and now the center of a sort of cultural renaissance that first swept the city around 2003. Since then, the Zürich of banking and hyper-efficiency has made room for something more like Brooklyn or Berlin, something edgy and cool and refreshingly new. Abandoned factories have been converted to hip bars and restaurants and all-night clubs, and the once seedy streets of the old red-light district are now filled with trendy cafés.

Of course, for those who want it, Zürich’s Old-World elegance is still very much present. And perhaps nothing embodies it quite as fully as the Hotel Baur au Lac. Perched just a few short blocks from the Park Hyatt, it’s one of the oldest of the city’s luxury hotels, with a private garden and commanding views — of the lake, the mountains and the marvelous city in between.


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