Verdant public spaces, transport, modern cuisine make Zurich a livable city

A view of Zurich by the lake
It’s interesting how important context is to memory. As I inhale the crisp alpine air while hiking in Zürichberg, a hilly wood above Lake Zürich, there’s a familiar smell I can’t place. I sniff again, sure that this is something I smell almost every day. It’s when my blundering feet crush some thin leaves underfoot that epiphany strikes. There are clumps of wild garlic everywhere! Come spring, and the woods around Switzerland’s biggest city and global financial centre smell sometimes like a hearty Italian kitchen, sometimes like a garlicky Spanish chorizo — quite unlike how one expects the Alps to smell! As we explore the city, we find that restaurants and cafés in the city use the garlic greens in a number of innovative ways — adding a burst of green freshness to everything from bratwurst and burgers, pesto to potato mash.

Walk over, we head to the lakeside farmers’ market for breakfast. Beautiful blooms, fresh cheeses of all types, sausages and fresh farm produce are on display. We get a fresh arugula salad with a couple of sausages, and eat it by the waterfront. Much of Zürich’s communal life, we discover, can be seen along the lake, especially now that summer is approaching and the days are getting warmer. In the afternoons and evenings, children frolic in the fountain as their parents relax by the waterside. Cycles are available rent-free, and every street corner resounds with music. Looking at all this, it’s easy to see why the city has been ranked among the top two places in the world to live in. Which is why it comes a shock to learn that till the early 1990s, things here were rather different.

Tulips at the lakeside farmers’ market

Apparently, before the turn of the millennium, Zürich had one of the biggest drug scenes in Europe. Many dubbed it a “city of zombies” and its Platzspitz Park, the “needle park”. How the city dealt with this problem is a lesson for other cities. Instead of criminalising drug abuse and users, the local administration adopted a pragmatic, inclusive approach. They set up clean injection rooms with medical staff on hand, a methadone prescription protocol and, most interestingly, a heroin prescription programme for heavily dependent users. Users were re-integrated into society through special housing and livelihood programmes. Today, as one sees students read on those very park benches, it seems hard to imagine that such a problem even existed.

Fresh produce at the lakeside farmers’ market

Much of the old city, with its winding lanes and tall church steeples, is intact. We learn that we’ll miss Sechseläuten, Zürich’s spring festival which dates back to the historical era when the city’s guilds decreed that in summer, work would stop an hour later than in the winter months. Today, this is marked by parades, bonfires and, what many say, is the largest barbecue in Switzerland. But barbecues are everywhere even now — whether it’s the vibrant farmers’ market or the many street side kiosks, sausage grilled on the spit is a favourite local snack. At the University of Zürich, we learn that Albert Einstein completed his PhD and taught here. In fact, since Switzerland was neutral during World War I, Zürich gave asylum to intellectuals including James Joyce and Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Joyce died in Zürich, and lies buried in Fluntern Cemetery here.

Getting Around

Swiss and Air India operate non-stop flights from Delhi to Zurich. A Swiss Pass (about Rs 15,000 per person for three days in second class) is the most cost-effective way of exploring Switzerland as it enables unlimited travel on all public transport and entry to many museums

Zürich belies many common Swiss stereotypes, even though it has its fair share of beauteous meadows, wildflowers and snow-capped vistas. So although it’s considered a mecca for chocoholics (with the best chocolatiers in Switzerland, this is the place to visit when you decide to finally give up on that diet) — it is also known for its fresh, modern takes on the somewhat stodgy Swiss staples. And while it has all the luxury watchmakers one can think of, quirky boutiques like Freitag, which has a stylishly quirky range of bags repurposed from seat belts, old tarpaulins and used bicycle inner tubes, stand out. And while string quartets play Mozart and Beethoven compositions at every street corner, Zürich also hosts Europe’s largest outdoor techno party in the summer. So, I leave with memories of its verdant public spaces, efficient public transport and modern cuisine — for these, and not just its history, make Zürich one of the most livable cities in the world today.

A quartet of buskers performs at a street corner

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