In early June in Zurich, spring has arrived -- and the tourists haven't. Rhododendrons and golden-chain trees are in full bloom, giving a surprisingly lush and vibrant feeling to this ancient, gray city. Sailboats and wind surfers already dot the Zurich See. And on perfectly clear days, when the fine haze has lifted, one can see the snowcapped Alps far in the distance.
We could fly into Geneva instead, my husband and I remind ourselves. Why not arrive at a different spot this time? But we know we prefer not to. It is simply a matter of choice. We like Zurich better.
The best part of Zurich is the Old Town -- probably not more than a mile square, but every inch worth attention. This ancient section, whose roots stretch back well over a thousand years, grew up at the juncture where the River Limmat flows out of the tip of Lake Zurich, or the Zurich See. The churches, guildhalls, and tall lovely houses of Old Zurich spread up the hills on either side of the river, connected in a charmingly disorganized fashion by narrow streets that wind and curve into each other and then pitch and tumble back down to the water's edge.
The Old Town begins gracefully at the south, where the Zurich See empties into the Limmat. The river runs almost directly south to north at this point, on its way from the Alps to the Rhine, dividing the old section of the city into two almost equal parts. The northernmost boundary of the Old Town is the Bahnhof , or railroad station. The eastern boundary is the university; the western is the Bahnhofstrasse, a street lined with some of the most elegant and expensive shops in the world.
Zurich, located in north-central Switzerland, has long been a city of burghers and bankers, but its folk origins include legends of Charlemagne and religious superstition, and its written annals include the heroic exploits of Zwingli, a leader of the Protestant Reformation who led troops into battle to defend his faith and died in combat. There are other non-bankers in Zurich's past as well. Einstein once lived in Zurich. So did Lenin. And while the future leader of the proletariat wrote his diatribes against capitalism, the good bankers of Zurich continued to pile up their gold in the vaults beneath the Bahnhofstrasse. Zurich's wealth goes deep, both literally and figuratively. But Zurich has never been a mere collection of banks and bankers.
If you stand on the Bahnhof bridge, looking upriver, you begin to get a feeling for the richness of Zurich's past. Ahead, you will see the rounded twin spires of the Grossmunster, the church that legend attributes to Charlemagne. A heroic statue of the old warrior stands guard near the top (the statue's primitive and startlingly powerful original is to be found in the church crypt and is well worth seeking out). Across the river from the Grossmunster is the more graceful and less massive Fraumunster, or Lady Church, and St. Peter's with its enormous clockface.
Take a walk toward the lake down the Limmatquai, the street that borders the river's eastern side. You will pass ancient guildhalls (one is now the site of a fine restaurant), narrow streets that are hardly more than passageways, and medieval arcades. At the Rathaus, the historic town hall of Old Zurich, turn right onto the Rathaus bridge. This is a wide expanse, closed to all but pedestrian traffic and used during the daytime as a marketplace. Stop for a quick Wurstbrot or a pastry at one of the booths -- that is, unless you have already stocked up on a loaf of hearty bread and a wedge of cheese from one of the many bakeries and cheese shops just off Limmatquai.
June is strawberry and asparagus season in Switzerland, and the fresh produce at the Rathaus market is always superb. Large, fat stalks of white asparagus lie perfectly aligned in neat little baskets, while huge, glossy strawberries compete for attention with their tiny cousins, the Alpine berries. If you're based in a hotel and have no access to a kitchen, then pass by the asparagus -- but be sure to look for it on your dinner menu. Most Swiss restaurants feature fresh spargel this time of year, and although asparagus is expensive, it's well worth the splurge.
At the far side of the Rathaus bridge, take the steps to the right that lead downward to an ancient-looking, enclosed walkway along the river. The water laps against the wall high above the protected stone floor, and through open windows you can see little black ducks bobbing along the river's edge. This walkway will take you to a tiny, tree-shaded courtyard -- a perfectly peaceful spot with pots of hydrangeas and an unobstructed river view.
Linger for a while, if you like, in this little courtyard and watch the touring launches pass. The air will probably be heavy and moist, and the smells will be of old stone and growing things. If the day is perfect, which it should be, sunlight will sparkle on the water and the sky will be clear and blue. Plants and flowers and flowing water will mix their freshness and their fragrance, and you can occupy yourself by watching the sparrows peck and fight for crumbs about the benches. But you can't stay forever. There's so much more to see.
From here, it's but a short walk to the Uraniastrasse bridge and a decision. You can turn left and head toward the Bahnhofstrasse. Sometimes we do this, ambling past some of our favorite shops, then cutting back toward the river and the square around St. Peter's, directly above the Rathaus bridge. Or you may choose to turn right across the Uraniastrasse bridge, then right again, continuing your saunter along the Limmatquai. Whichever you decide, don't forget that immediately to the east of Limmatquai, and roughly paralleling it, is yet another street that you eventually want to explore -- Niederdorfstrasse, Zurich's small equivalent to Paris's Left Bank.
The first time my husband and I were in Zurich, we stayed at a small hotel on Limmatquai that backed onto Niederdorfstrasse. The hotel proprietor -- very reserved, very polite, and very Swiss -- seemed dismayed that we weren't interested in staying in his better rooms that fronted on the river. But no, $10 a person including breakfast sounded about right to us, and we didn't need anything fancy.
That first stay in Zurich also introduced us to one of the best inexpensive eating places in town. We stumbled onto the Cafe Select one evening as we meandered down Limmatquai in search of a reasonably priced meal. These are few and far between in Zurich, and if price plays some consideration in your travel plans, then hunt for food and lodgings on the university side of the river. Conversely, if expense is no concern, then head toward the Bahnhofstrasse or to the luxury hotels along the lake and enjoy. But in either case, whatever you pay , you will receive good value.
The Select is what the Swiss call a temperance establishment - which was, for us, a distinct plus. Since it served no alcohol, we felt free to order any beverage on the menu and discover exactly what was what. Traubensaft turned out to be grape juice (either red or white), while Passuger is Zurich's favorite brand of mineral water, usually abbreviated in friendly fashion to ''Passugg.'' Rivella is an unusual soft drink containing (so the label says) both fruit juices and milk.
Both Limmatquai and Bahnhofstrasse lead to the lake, where your Swiss Holiday Card (purchased before you come to Switzerland) entitles you to free rides on the lake steamers. There's something especially festive about a boat ride, but if you prefer to remain on land, you might enjoy a walk along the quay beside the lake. Just continue on down from Limmatquai and cross the Bellevueplatz by the Quai bridge (watching out for the baby-blue trolleys as they stream past). The quay stretches well beyond the Opera House, accommodating scores of Swiss, especially those with small children.
The first time we strolled along the quay we stopped at a small carnival, ducking under the carousel's overhang to avoid a sudden rainstorm. About 10 feet away we saw a girl wearing a Kansas State University sweatshirt. Hailing from Iowa State University ourselves and recognizing a Big Eight neighbor when we saw one, we cheerily halloed her. She at first looked blank, then smiled dubiously. It turned out she spoke only German and had never been to the States, let alone Kansas. This was our first brush with great American university sweatshirt craze sweeping Europe -- our most treasured example coming several days later when we spied a young man wearing one from the ''University of Harvard.''
We'd love to know where he bought it. We'd like one, too.