We’ve already established that, on the whole, Switzerland is not an exciting place. If you were to list the countries in Europe from most exciting to least exciting, Switzerland would be a few pages down. Therefore, it is a definite shot in the arm if while in Switzerland you stumble across an interesting street. There are one or two in Bern, and Lugano can have its moments, but in my book, the least boring street in Switzerland is in Zurich.
The old part of Zurich looks a lot like you’ve probably imagined German cities if your impression of German cities was formed by the Brothers Grimm. In Zurich’s winding little pedestrian streets, cobblestoned and often damp, you almost expect to see Hansel and Gretel skipping along in grubby lederhosen, with cream and jam smeared on their chubby faces. The streets are lined with pleasant old houses, many of which have a kind of little bay built onto one of the windows one or two stories up, generally housing a plant. Tall blocky church towers sport large clocks that chime the hour. All that’s missing are lots of rats and a pied piper.
You pretty much have to go to Switzerland to find German cities like this, since just about every German city in what is actually Germany was blasted into oblivion by allied bombers during the Second World War. Some of them, like Nuremberg, were rebuilt, but you can tell. It’s like Warsaw (blasted apart by not only the Allies but really by just about everyone during the war); the quaint old center of Warsaw was rebuilt, but all they had to go on were photographs taken a few years previously, and you get the impression that some of those pictures might have been a little blurry.
Anyway, given the uncanny ability of the Swiss to avoid getting their country overrun, the last time any major violence was inflicted on Zurich it was probably done with warriors wielding mammoth bones. (That’s not strictly true; there were even a couple of “Battles of Zurich” during the Napoleonic Wars, but it was really the French and the Russians going at it, with the local Swiss running around trying to keep them from littering between cavalry charges.)
So Zurich, or more specifically the old part of Zurich, is resolutely charming, and right through the charming bit runs a street that starts out as the Niederdorfstrasse and then becomes the Munstergasse before it stops being interesting again and turns more typically Swiss. This is the least boring street of any appreciable size in Switzerland.
The whole length of the Niederdorf/Munster street is pedestrian. No cars. That’s always nice, now isn’t it? But the interesting thing about this street is that it’s full of people, generally young people, who are talking and laughing and stopping in to the restaurants and the nightclubs and the cabarets that line it and are having a pretty good old time in general. This generates a buzz of the kind that is all too rare in Switzerland.
The other thing about the Niederdorf/Munster street is that on it you can find some very interesting shops and stuff. There are those typically European shops carrying trendy expensive stuff, such as my until-recently-pregnant blond Danish friend so appreciates. (Please note, for those of you who read the dispatch about Copenhagen, that my blond Danish friend is no longer pregnant; she gave birth to my new and very short blond Danish friend, who is even now learning to shop despite her tender age.) It is not these shops that so entice me, however. There are three other shops that are definitely worth a visit.
The first is Schwarzenbach’s Colonial Goods and Coffee Roasting Shop (Kolonialwaren Kaffeerösterei). This is a simply wonderful place, at number 19 Munstergasse. The relatively small shop has been there for nearly 100 years and has never been redecorated. (Fear not; it is cleaned just about every day. This is Switzerland, all the same.) Schwarzenbach’s is a must and I make a point of going there every time I’m in Zurich. It is filled with treasure, a gastronomic Ali Baba’s cave.
Schwarzenbach’s roasts its own coffee, importing beans from just about everywhere. All these roasted beans are then put in jars and stacked on shelves, where they look just fine. But Schwarzenbach’s also has teas, all kinds of teas, including the elusive smoked teas I love so much. They also have all kinds of dried fruit. I like to get little 100-gram bags of a variety of different kinds: Iranian wild figs, cranberries from Oregon, Thai papaya, pears, Malaysian coconut, and many, many more, including, of course, your more typical dates, oranges, apricots, raisins, and prunes from all over the world.
Schwarzenbach’s also sells spices—dried and ground on the premises—and honey, nuts, exotic rices, you name it.
Needless to say, the place smells absolutely wonderful. Really—fly to Switzerland and go to Zurich if only to smell Schwarzenbach’s. Do not expect, however, to find anyone who can translate what any of the more exotic fruits are into any language but German. Just guess, point, and take your chances. It will be fine. Trust me.
The next shop along is Barclay’s tobacco shop. This is a tiny place with a kind old gentleman behind the counter. He has run it for 33 years. While a surprising number of German-speaking Swiss speak only German, when asked, in German, whether he spoke any language I speak, he responded, in German, that he could speak any language at all. I was not able to test him on all languages, but he certainly spoke the ones I can manage. We settled on French, which is, after all, an official Swiss language.
Barclay’s has all kinds of tobacco, including, yes, nargile tobacco! Not the very best, elusive nargile tobaccos but perfectly acceptable ones all the same. Barclay’s also has pigeons. While I was chatting with the ancient proprietor, one pigeon came waddling in behind me and began looking at the old man with puppy-dog eyes. That’s not true, actually—pigeons have these beady little dots for eyes—but you could tell that this pigeon would have really wanted to make puppy-dog eyes if only God had been more kind to him and had graced him with irises. “He’s hungry,” said the old man, who then reached behind the counter and got a bag of seeds or crumbs or something and tossed a little outside the door. At this point it became apparent that this pigeon had been elected by his pigeon friends to go in and hit up the old man for a snack while his friends hid behind the statue of the green-armored knight with the black codpiece just outside—they all came flapping out the moment the crumbs hit the cobblestones. When I was a kid and would visit my family in Sicily, my cousins would do the same, sending me to hit up my grandfather for some coins so we could play foosball (calcetto) at the café on our tiny town’s main square … which undoubtedly makes this the only time that Swiss pigeons have been compared to Sicilian boys.
Anyway, fresh from my childhood reminiscences, I continued down the Munstergasse to the Eos bookstore. This is a truly great bookstore. It contains only antique books. The books in it vary according to what the owner manages to dig up in auctions and attics and such. When I was there last, it was full of old medical texts. Really old medical texts, some dating from the 16th century. The windows displayed not only the old books themselves but also a collection of human bones, including a skull that had a big bandage around it. The bandage was kind of a moot point by now, but gruesomely amusing all the same.
This store, too, has a fantastic smell. It immediately reminded me of the library at my university so many years ago (not the one they have now, which is all modern and tidy, but the former one, which had been housed in an old converted church and was full of little passages and wrought-iron ladders). For me, that musty old-book smell denotes knowledge; it’s heavy with the weight of human understanding. The smell is the only thing musty about Eos, though—it’s a lighthearted place, despite the bones. It even has one tiny room that is partly devoted to old children’s books, including a pop-up version of Grimm’s fairy tales from the 1930s, in which a cardboard prince leans forever over Sleeping Beauty, about to bestow his wake-up kiss.
Zurich has a pretty good density of bookstores. I must admit that bookstore density is one of the criteria by which I judge a city, and Zurich comes out well by this standard. (Brussels is still tops, though.) It also has both a river and a lake, two other criteria on the “pleasant-city checklist,” as well as streetcars and a number of decent jazz clubs. The only unfortunate thing about Zurich is that it happens to be situated in Switzerland. But if you stay in the vicinity of the Niederdorf/Munster street, you won’t get too bored.
Just remember not to litter.