In this journal:
- perfectly reflective lakes, many, many of them;
- I fall in love with a cowbell;
- the inevitable march of death.
I flew from Berlin and landed at night, and settled down in my friend Fabienne’s house in the tiny village of Mettmenstetten, about 40 minutes from Zurich central station. If you are an avid reader of my blog, you should have found out that I have no Switzerland journals prior to this one. This is of a good reason. I have visited St. Moritz briefly during a trip in 2015, but that was when I discovered the fact that Switzerland is incomprehensibly expensive. This had become my major gripe with the nation, even though I am well aware of its beauty. However, I shall miss the Swiss Miss no more, as I have decided to bleed out a little bit for a few days in northern Swizterland, given the fact that my great friend Fabienne would be able to provide me with a place of lodging.
In this journal, we will explore the economic center of the nation, Zurich, and the small yet scenic cities of Zug and Luzern. I will also tack on some additional content about my home during these 5 days, the farming village of Mettmenstetten. I hope you are ready, because here begins my first journal on this blog about probably the most pristine nation in the entire world.
Switzerland, here comes.
Despite the fact that Switzerland is spread out far and thin, Zürich remains the first thing that comes to mind when people mention this mountainous country. Yes, despite the fact that it is not the seat of the country leader, or the location of the parliament, Zürich is practially the Swiss city. Biggest in population, the locality is the hub of transportation in the nation, and Zürich Airport is where the national carrier SWISS is based. Most of the economic activities take place in the city, while most immigrants choose this city as their new homes among the Alps.
Zurich had been a city since the Roman times, and it quickly gained status in the region. It was granted the status of a free city in 13th century, and was admitted into the Swiss Confederacy in 14th century. At that time, Swiss Confederacy was simply more of a loose coalition of like-minded independent city-states in the mountains, and had little to do with each other besides the already-established trade and diplomatic relationships. Zurich Canton was admitted as the fifth member, and rose to a prominent role a few centuries later. This is why even until now, many Swiss issues have to be determined base on the canton you live in, as the nation had been a rather inconsistent mix of smaller states since the very beginning, so things such as immigration restrictions and tax rates vary wildly from on city to another, even though a lot of them are within an hour of train ride from each other.
Zürich is built to the north of the large Zürich Lake, and along the river named Limmat flowing to the north. In order to get a better view, I climbed on top of a tiny hill right at the bank of the river, which afforded a great panorama over the hilly downtown. It is also a favorite place for locals to hang out on this sunny afternoon that was practically snoozing and waiting for dinner to be served. Children were playing on the plaza at the peak, while couples canoodle next to each other on the steep ledges, and a lot of old men congregated by the side, playing chess with pieces as large as my dinner portions.
In order to best show you the structure of the city, I have to take you up the steep mountain overlooking the entire lake and Zurich Plateau, Uetliberg. It is easily accessible with a steep gauge city metro rail from the central station, and after a few minutes of steep climb from the terminus, the look-out tower is visible on top of the 870 meter summit. The peak is about 150 meters taller than the surrounding city landscapes, so one can see all the way from the airport to Alps looming in the distance. The look-out tower costs a whopping 5CHF/5USD, which, to a non-Swiss, is practically the same thing as bank robbery, so I decided to simply take a look from the free platform instead.
Back down to the city center, the most prominent church in the city is likely the Fraumünster, literally translated to Women Minster. It was founded in 9th century by an aristocrat’s daughter. Thus, the name stuck, and now it is one of the four major churches in the city center, but I personally believe it is the best in the city for its steep and sharp spire as well as proximity to the lakefront, making it especially scenic. Right in front of it, a large plaza now offers a great venue for wandering, and a modern art installation put down numerous scattered yet fixated chairs, for a rather unusual resource to take a rest.
Right by this square, which incidentally is the largest one in the entire Altstadt, stands an equestrian statue of Hans Waldmann. This entire thing is full of controversies. Firstly, Hans Waldmann was not exactly a saint during his lifetime in 15th century. He raised the taxes on rural villages around Zurich considerably as the mayor of the city, and led to the termination of his life during a peasant revolt. Secondly, this statue, erected right here in 1937, was supposed to clear his name as a political victim, but raised many eyebrows as it was way too modern looking compared to the majority of the old town built around his lifetime. However, I liked it for its artistic stance right by the Münsterbrücke a few hundred meters from the lakefront. Who cares about those stupid history, or legacy, am I right?
This is Polybahn, a strange funicular railway that goes from the riverside to a university campus on the hills, yet is owned by a bank and operated by the municipal transport authority. Its 170-meter track leads all the way up the hills after crossing a large road intersection, before eventually carrying most of the students up to their studious destination overlooking the entire city. This is also the first fully automated funicular I have ever seen, which does not require manpower to operate since it is such a short 2-stop railway.
And this is Cabaret Voltaire, a tiny performance space tucked away in the streets of old town. This is the famed place where Dadaism originated in 1916, when Hugo Ball declared the advent a new kind of art and expression. Thanks to Switzerland’s neutrality in WWI, Zurich was packed to the brim with artists, poets, philosphers and muscians in exile, and quickly this movement caught on with their anti-beourgeoise expressions and condemnations of modern consumerism. It was said that Lenin, during his exile, lived nearby and frequented this place for some R&R and vodka. However, the movement quickly dissipated in the city once the war was over, and the loose coalition of artists from various nations moved on with the avant-garde. Nowadays, it is still a small coffee shop and performance venue, where one can experience the newest of the new in a historical setting.
I continued down the river, tracing it all the way up to the last bridge across it, Quaibrücke. This is where the lake opens up wide, showing off one of the most beautiful city waterfronts I have ever seen. Formiddable Alps were just visible in the afternoon light on the southern side, while small houses dotted the hilly sides, covered in the golden rays, spilling over onto the waves. A young boy was feeding swans with his father by the river, and I sat down to just join them. Swans here were surprisingly docile and amicable, unlike some traumatic childhood memories that still haunt me right before I fall sleep sometimes. Seeing such a harmonious view, I could not believe this was the largest city in the country with more than a million people, as I was convinced it was a national park with Michelin stars.
Finally, I reached the lake side promenade called Quaianlagen. This is a long series of walkways complete with snack stands, benches, warm sunshine and birds, basically checking every single item on my list of happiness. Built in late 19th century, this public space along the entire northern bank of the lake is the defining piece of urban planning that made Zurich the city it currently is. By uniting the few villages scattered not too far from each other, this walkway successfully forged the identity of Zurich and significantly expanded its area of influence. Nowadays, people hang out on the walkway either taking strolls, listening to music, picnicking, or just gazing into the distance, trying not to be harrassed by the multitude of seagulls air-diving for food.
At the end of the walkway 3 kilometers down from the bridge, I saw the Heureka Pointless Machine, a kinetic sculpture created under the influence of Dadaism, which originated here in Zurich as I detailed above. At the bank of the beautiful like, this piece of art, when switched on, creates a hectic scene as if everything is working perfectly towards a goal, either a form of production or locomotion, which turned out to be pure futility. The point of the machine is pointless, because it was created as a satire piece against modern consumerism and hyper-capitalistic societies that focus on doing things, but forgetting why they are doing such things. Sadly, it is nowadays only turned on during summer, so I was unable to witness uselessness in motion.
Now as I explore the tiny village of Mettmenstetten, a place that definitely needs more t’s in its name, I can introduce you to my dear friend Fabienne. We met during my first trip ever, which already has become fuzzy in my memory, and we have been friends since eons ago. She still lives in the small village of Mettmenstetten, where she grew up. The town has basically been a commuter town since its very beginning, because the name literally translates to “in the middle”, yet sadly, the two places that it was the middle of had been lost to history in the past millenium. In more recent times, the village was frequently used as the overnight place when travelling between Zurich and Luzern by carriages, as it was almost right at the middle of this 2-day journey.
Fabienne’s family are one of the very few farmers still left in town, and they own a large barn and plenty of land for the cows to graze on. They produce high quality milk, meats, and dairy products, in addition to the fresh produce from the vegetable patch, giving them almost complete autonomy from the rest of the supply chain, as supermarkets for the family had become a concept as obscure as skyscrapers. Now that is a world I wanna live in! The whole family greeted me when I went to the farm for a visit, and allowed me to become a free range tourist running around their properties. Thanks so much!
The farm’s main output is milk from the 200 cows housed in the barn. Every day, cows were herded onto special machines as you have seen in my Netherland’s journal, and milked out. A huge tank the size of a room then stores the milk in constant low temperature, and they are transported out via a special contractor’s truck a few times a week. I asked if I can take some milk from the tank and try it myself, and Fabienne gladly complied. This unpasturized milk is sweet, fragrant, and definitely fresh, and I, normally someone who does not do much milk-drinking since I am Asian, gobbled the whole bottle up like it was my secret stash of vodka.
And what shocked me was that when I thought the family does not need to go to the supermekt was just an accurate statement, I did not realize the irony: they have their own supermarket! Yes, an actual room in their house is dedicated to those who come visit the farm since it can be used as an event venue, and they can bring local fresh produce and meats straight back from the source! The family has their own name brand cheeses, eggs, sausages, jams, in addition to their neighbors’ freshly hunted meats, and other produce grown in the back. I was dumbfounded. And now my dream is updated: have my own family supermarket in my house, just like this one!
Fabienne’s mother was so nice that she invited me for lunch while Fabienne was busy at work. How can I possibly refuse her after she demonstrated her incredible skills at making all those Christmas cookies that practically single-handedly made me fat? I took a long walk from the village center to her house, crossing large green fields, small streams, a lush forest and a train track, and eventually saw the famous Swiss national food sizzling in front of me: rösti. This is practically a hashbrown but with thicker texture and bigger radius, exactly my dream kind of potato dish. It was served with a sauce with creamed meat slices, called Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, Zurich hunter sauce, and I inhaled all food presented in front of me within minutes, to the great dismay of the three cats roaming around the table. After lunch, Fabienne’s father usuall takes a nap right on the living room floor, despite the fact that a perfectly functional sofa is literally a meter away. But hey, who am I to judge?If I ever married this kind of girl with cooking skills unmatched in the entire continent, I would be happy to fall asleep after lunch wherever!
And in order to maximize the Swiss-ness of my day, I was treated with the other signature dish of the nation: fondue. While it may come as a surprise to you, but I have actually never had an actual fondue in my life! I have known this cuisine for a long time, base on the thinking that it may not be too different from the Chinese hot pot that I had grown up with, because in French, hot pot is virtually translated as “Chinese fondue”. However, when I was served with only bread as my dipping item while Fabienne and her friends were drooling over the cheese pot like three witches crafting a deadly potion that will turn every lover in the world into frogs, I knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. As one of them laughed maniacally while pouring white wine into the cauldron of bubbling cheeses, I realized that misconception could not have been further from the truth.
Where do I begin? The pot is full of a erupting mixture of melted cheese and white wine, so it has a sour-ish sweet taste as well as the milky fragrance, mixing fruity and rich flavors. This just tasted bizarre, as if I was forced to think of a new color, or eating cereal with water. Moreover, the only options to be dipped inside this alien liquid were bread, mushrooms, and pineapples. This may just be the most random combination in any cuisine in the history of mankind, more so than when Bugalubu put rocks into his fox stew in 130000BC. And then comes the time constrait, as one has to keep putting things in and stir the pot, otherwise a layer of “grandma” would come out in the bottom. What is grandma? Well, she is basically overcooked cheese condensed at the bottom if you leave the pot stagnant for too long. Why is it called grandma? Only the mightiest deity may know. Seriously, the entire fondue experience is like a satire dish made up in a fictional world where everything is randomly generated by a supercomputer, and is told to rationalize the food as much as possible. You can bet it goes onto my list of strange foods.
For another beautiful day, I decided to go south, towards the center part of the nation, for a quick day trip into the heart of Switzerland. Just 15 minutes by train ride from Mettmenstetten, Zug is the capital of the next canton of the same name, with an old quarter sitting in front of a gorgeous lake. In fact, upon seeing even such a small place claiming a large, perfectly reflective lake as its own front yard, made me believe that the Swiss live on a different level of existence than the rest of the world. There is the life quality level of France or Canada, and there is the life quality level of Norway and Sweden, and then, somewhere out there, is the life quality level of Switzerland. The country has been out of conflict for so long that these people do not even want to compare their lives with those squabbling normal human beings outside Alps: it is indeed pointless.
Despite its tiny size as a regional capital of barely 50000 people, the modern city center has some of the largest corporations in the nation. It hosts quite a few headquarters for multinational conglomerates, mostly because the canton holds the lowest tax rate in Switzerland, so if one needs to set up shop in one of the best places in the world, the choice of Zug is rather advantageous. I took a short walk out of the two blocks where large glass buildings dominated the scenes, and proceeded directly to the lake front. The old city quarter sits right by the tranquil surfaces, which are only seldomly disturbed by a swan wafting by. My gawd is this a place where people live? Now I understand how some children in Africa feel when they see a shopping mall on TV!
However, it should come as no surprise when you see Zug with a god’s jewel in the form of a lake. The name Zug comes from an ancient word that means to “pull up” fishing nets, and that was in turn derived from the right to catch fish in this region freely. The old town mostly survived from the Middel Ages, and boasts a fantastic scenery, as well as a tower that has a unique painting scheme.
And the clocktower, Zyttrum, is an especially beautiful piece of work. It has been kept running since 1557, and the two large clock faces indicate the precise time at the current moment. The top one is a clock, which is easy enough, and the bottom one indicates the following: the sun hand indicates zodiac signs, moon hand for the lunar phase, the arrow hand for the weekdays, and the S shaped hand for leap years. The leap year hand is pointed exactly downwards at the beginning of a leap year, and it completes a cycle once every 4 years.
Meanwhile, I spent some time exploring the hills next to the old town. A large church called St. Michael’s sits on the slopes, facing the lake that was a bit too blue for the human eyes to get accustomed to . From here, one can take a look into the old town from a vantage point, and the crowded center could easily be discerned. Of the old city wall, only a small portion remained, while 4 guard towers managed to survive the years. There is also a tiny castle nearby, which looks just like a normal house, except it was raised up by a few floors, appearing ridiculous like those monstertrucks that have been jacked up a few feet.
There is also an aviary next to the shores, which is managed by a local zoo. A surprisingly large variety of birds can be seen inside this cage about the size of a small house. It includes a few pairs of Chinese ducks, fishcatchers, herons, and some large red birds that I could not identify. However, for me, the biggest surprise is a pair of snow owls, in their perfectly white feathers, trying so hard to take a nap while I stared intently at their cute fluffy faces. And you bet I tried to make some puns with them! Yes, the answer is me when you are asking about who was mentally unstable enough to talk to birds. No? Don’t like this one? Fine, owl show myself out.
Another half an hour from Zug is the center of the center, Luzern. I am going to use its German name because that is the one I am more comfortable with, even though in English it is generally spelled as Lucerne, which copies the French name of the town. Even though this is the largest city in the entire central Switzerland area, Luzern is mostly known as the best city in Switzerland for a tourist to hunker down and enjoy the insane beauty afforded by the, you guessed it, Lake Lucerne. It is almost as if the Swiss refuse to build a city if it does not have a large lake with water so clear that fish do not want to swim in it.
From the city center, the famous mountains in the Alps were up to you to pick and choose. Both Pilatus and Rigi are within close range, and one can not only admire the sceneries from a bustling cafe by the water surface, advancing directly to the mountains can also be easily accomplished as a day trip, as Luzern is the economic and transport hub of the entire region. So it may not be a surprise when I tell you that it belongs to its own canton, as they are pretty small in a country the size of Swizerland. However, the tourist crowds coupled with ease of access also means that Luzern is incredibly expensive, even more so than the rest of the country. A takeaway dish in the city normally goes by 20CHF/20USD, and even the simplest fondue meal by the promenade would set you back a minimum of 50CHF/50USD. Now that is what I call zeroth world prices!
Yet nothing is more famous in town than the Kapellbrücke, literally translated as “Chapel Bridge”. This is Europe’s oldest wooden bridge, dating all the way back to 13th century, as one of the bridges that connected the numerous mills that used to stand in the middle of the river. Nowadays, most of the turbines installed in recent years are hidden from view in the river. What makes the bridge a unique product in the world is that it is the only wooden cover bridge that has paintings on each block. These date back to the 16th century, and depict numerous topics surrounding the founding, flourishing and living situations of the city at that time, ranging from normal market scenes to bishops’ Sunday mass as well as military conquests. Kapellbrücke was sadly destroyed in a fire in 1993, with a bit less than a half of it suriving, so it was rebuilt back to its original style after a few years of painstaking work.
Just a few blocks from the previous one, sits its sister bridge, Spreuerbrücke. This one was born a bit later, in 16th century, but features a much more interesting series of paintings on its pediments. Instead of a boring history lessons, the Spreuerbrücke paintings display a totentanz, a form of danse macabre. This is a theme that involves dancing skeletons and grim reapers, which is supposed to remind every one that no matter if you are rich or poor, old or young, death is coming for us all. The numerous panels depict horrendous death beds, diseases, famines, wars, and a few panels of a grim reaper ringing a bell, and a long line of priests, monks, little boys, young girls, and monarchs following his toll on the way to afterlife. Nowhere else can you see these nightmare-inducing images floating above quiet waters!
Needless to say, the city was full of tourists, even though it was probably the lowest season in the year. Thankfully, it was not completely packed, but I still had to try a bit harder to avoid all the watch stores and army knife stores that came with complimentary Chinese sales clerks. Seriously, the purchase power of Chinese had gotten so out of control that it was almost mandatory to have a Chinese-speaking salesperson in every store because now only we would buy such items, even though I have personally broken a few Swiss watches and knives myself. However, most of these middle-class folks simply care about price tags instead of functionality, so now prices of these semi-useful utilities had soared through the roof.
Luzern also has a clocktower built along the large city walls, and is only accessible in summer. Sadly in the winter even the tower base itself was closed, so I had to take a look of the solar dial clock from the outside. The wall goes along a small mountain ridge to the north of the rivers and bridges I just showed you, and is the only part that had been preserved. Naturally, the view was just incredible, as I could look directly into the nearby Pilatus, so tall that it blocked the sinking sun way before I expected.
Another tourist favorite of the city is the above Löwendenkmal. A large lion statue etched into a sheer cliff that used to be a sandstone quarry, this monument was built as a tribute to those royal Swiss guards who defended the Tuileries Palace against the mobbing peasants during the French Revolution in 1791. A dying lion rests upon the surface with a spear right through its chest, drawing last breaths from this mortal world. Underneath it carved the words “HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI/To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss”, and it was so moving that Mark Twain commented that this is “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world” when he visited Löwendenkmal during his travels.
The First Fraction
This was the experience of my 5 days in Swizterland, full of laughters, sunshine, questionable food, unbearable prices, and lakes, definitely enough lakes to go around for the rest of the year. So far, I have been to France 5 times, Spain 8 times, Germany 11 times, but I somehow only managed to explore Switzerland for a little bit of depth this time. Yet, I am so glad that I finally made it before I turn 30.
Switzerland is like a supermodel, extremely beautiful, impeccably spotless, drop-dead gorgeous, irresistably charming, but at the same time prohibitively difficult to approach. Switzerland is like the ultimate reward for birthright lottery, as can you imagine my jealousy when I saw pictures of Swiss prisons decked out with private gyms at the age of 8, while living in a tiny Chinese apartment with 7 other people? Swizterland, now, to me, feels like the Planck Epoch, the first fraction of the second of universe’s existence, when no physical laws apply, when everything was one, even the fundamental forces, yet at the same time full of beauty. Fabienne and her family farm, the train rides up and down the mountains, swans in the lakes, old city clocktowers, and the friendly Swiss people, all told a story hard to comprehend if one has never been in this country living in a different era. Normal logic, rules, laws and regulations do not work here in Switzerland, because it is in a different magnitude, wavelength, and universal constant.
Switzerland is not out of this world.
It is merely another one.