Forget the Cuckoo Clock

I blame Orson Welles. Him and Graham Greene. That monologue from The Third Man lodged in my mind:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

I had been all over Italy, and I had been to Vienna and ridden the Wiener Riesenrad, the 1897 Ferris wheel beside which Welles’s character made his speech. But Switzerland had never appealed enough when I had to shoehorn my travelling into a corporate holiday allowance. I imagined it as a dull, pursed-lipped, fur-coated place full of banks and insurance companies.

But this trip was more about the journey than the destinations and Switzerland was on the way home.

I was not expecting to like Zurich much. I envisaged bloated, smirk-faced men who do something important in banks snarling around town in Ferraris; and haughty women striding between luxury shops. They were there, all right. But so they are in London. There is a lot more to Zurich too.

Narrow lanes, cobbles and city walls; buildings painted in faded pastels, dazzling sgraffito, wooden shutters, ornate carriage lamps; a tinkling fountain in every square; shiny black shop signs with the names picked out in gold leaf; a charming deli, a bierhaus, a coffee shop. Sonorous bells, clanking trams, the 6.2 burble of an SLS AMG. A river cutting through the middle of the Aldstadt, emptying into a lake, bordered by a park, reaching out to snow-dusted mountains.

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It is far more relaxed than I thought it would be. Bearded hipsters everywhere, funky bars, abstract art, a bedroom DJ mixing EDM above a fusty old whisky shop. There was a man in white tie and tails playing something tragic on a violin in front of a Henry Moore; and another parading outside an optician’s dressed as Charlie Chaplin, for reasons of his own. There was Cabaret Voltaire, where Dadaism started in 1916. “Can’t see the sense in it,” said the elites of Europe; and then sent another million to be killed in a trench war whose aims they had long ago forgotten

I sat at an outside table by the river, where the cheesy smell of tourist fondues hung in the air, idly watching as the trams rattled past. I had a fleeting image of passengers facing each other across tables, as at a restaurant, sipping glasses of wine. Surely not? I paid more attention to the next dozen trams and, in each, the passengers were sitting as they would in any other tram anywhere else in the world, and I began to wonder if I was hallucinating, and why. But I saw it again at the stop in the morning. The Fondue Tram, they call it. They serve up cured meats, fondue and wine as the tramcar circuits the city.

I liked Zurich a lot but I was running short of time and had to move on so I took the train to Lucerne; and that was lovely as well. Another river and lake, more distant mountains, cobbled streets and ancient walls. Half-timbered shops, Belle Epoque hotels, the sharp spires of the Hofkirche, a covered wooden bridge from 1333 with its octagonal pitched-roof tower. And, in a country reckoned to be ultra-conservative, a couple in their forties snogging like teenagers in a square in the middle of town.

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There are chocolates, Swatches and Swiss Army knives in every third shop; but not so many cuckoo clocks, because they are actually a German tradition. Switzerland, too, was a belligerent, expansive power at the time of the Borgias, and not at all democratic until late in the nineteenth century. Orson Welles was wrong.

I asked in the station about trains to Berne. “On the hour, every hour, takes an hour,” the lady said. At least one of the popular ideas about Switzerland seemed to hold up.

© Richard Senior 2015

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