December 17, 2016. When Matthew and I made plans to move overseas, we promised each other that we’d take the opportunity to experience Christmas in as many countries as possible. Why such a weird goal? It’s probably due to one too many viewings of Rick Steves’ European Christmas (we even have the music on CD.) Not to mention that I spent several years working with cultural groups to create the Christmas Around the World exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. And all that surrogate spectating had us hankering to see the real thing for ourselves.
Since Christmas as we know it — with ornamented trees, Advent wreaths, mistletoe, and Silent Night — is mostly a Germanic invention, we’ve so far focused our seasonal sightseeing on the mother countries of our holiday traditions, including Germany and Austria. Continuing along that trend, this year we selected Switzerland — specifically, Zürich and Luzern, plus a day-trip to the Alps — in the hopes of catching some snow. (It looks like Oslo will dodge a white Christmas yet again this year.)
With only three days to “see it all,” we hit just the holiday highlights at each location. So keep that in mind as I bombard you with photos and give you my take on can’t-miss Christmas moments in Zürich.
Zürich’s Christmas Markets
From the minute we stepped off the train, we knew we’d come to the right place to wallow in Christmas. The Great Hall in Zürich’s Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) is home to a huge Christkindli Markt (Christ-child market), complete with Swarovski-bedazzled tree, little huts featuring hand-made crafts, and the cinnamon scent of mulled wine wafting through the air. (Glühwein is a requisite fixture at any proper Christmas market, because, hey — it just ain’t X-mas if you don’t wake up with a wine headache every Sunday before advent.)
Speaking of glühwein, the nearby Neiderdorf Christmas market introduced us to a new drinking game, called Hammerschlagen (literally “hammer hitting,” A.K.A. the “stump game” for the German impaired.) It’s played like this: contestants gather around a tree stump with nails tacked into it. Each competitor takes a turn trying to hammer in their nail up to the head. Miss, and you take a drink. The last person to sink his/her nail pays for another round of drinks. And as we learned from observation, it’s a game best attempted early in the evening — before lots of liquor has impaired your aim — or you risk losing some digits … and possibly some friends.
Should you need something to soak up all that alcohol, be sure to stop by one of the many raclette huts. We’re talking Swiss cheese here, and lots of it, piled atop your choice of potatoes or bread, and garnished with paprika, pepper, gherkins, and pickled onions. Think of raclette as a poor man’s potato gratin, or a rich man’s grilled-cheese sammie (it’s fancy Swiss cheese, after all.) A yummy, gooey heart attack on a plate that’s guaranteed to help you keep warm in the brisk Swiss air.
By the way, Zürich hosts several Weinachtsmarkts (Christmas markets), all staged in different parts of the city. I think our favorite was the Neiderdorf in the Old Town — it gives you a chance to explore winding medieval streets while drinking and shopping (always a nice combo). But we also found ourselves repeatedly stopping by the Werdmühleplatz market, which boasts the “Singing Christmas Tree” — the spot to catch local choirs belting out Christmas carols from atop a greenery-bedecked stage. (Click through the gallery below for more fun facts and holiday market photos.)
Most of Zurich’s quaint Christmas markets open up late in the afternoon but remain pretty quiet until supper time.
Things don’t really get rockin’ until nightfall, when locals line up for warm booze and a heaping hot plate of raclette.
Sausage is king at Germany’s Christkindlemarkts, but here in Switzerland, raclette takes the spotlight. Yes, those are two huge bricks of Swiss cheese she’s melting under a heatlamp. Incidentally, tradition says that it’s best to have raclette with an alcoholic beverage, as water curdles the cheese in your stomach.
At Zürich’s Christmas markets, you’ll find lots of paper stars for your windows, glass ornaments for your tree, and small gifties for your stockings. Some markets focus more on hand-made artisan pieces, while others offer your usual run-of-the-mill holiday décor.
The “Singing Christmas Tree” choir has lullabied to sleep this boy’s festively dressed puppy.
Zürich’s Street Scene
Although it’s Switzerland’s biggest, busiest city, Zürich has a historic core studded with many Bavarian-esque buildings that take the edges off its urban hardscape. Practically every other townhouse sports timbered walls, wooden shutters, and little eyebrow dormer windows that peep out of cedar-shingled roofs. Sprinkled in between these Medieval maidens are grand Neo-Renaissance dames rubbing shoulders with Beaux-Arts beauties — enough styles to feed every architectural addiction.
Zürich rose to power during the Middle Ages, when it won the equivalent of independent statehood within the Holy Roman Empire. By the 19th century, it had become the center of the Swiss banking industry, and it’s still a financial and economic powerhouse today. To preserve Zürich’s Medieval character, zoning regulations restrict high rises to areas outside the city center.
Check out the gorgeous timbered building behind the fashion plate.
While it might look a bit quaint and provincial in this photo of its historic center, Zürich is Switzerland’s largest city, with about 1.4 million people living in the metropolitan area. As its Bavarian appearance implies, Zürich is a predominantly Swiss German-speaking city. However the nation has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (many signs sport all four languages.)
Zürich’s neo-Renaissance Hauptbahnhof is one of the largest and busiest train stations in Europe. The triumphal arch, built in 1871, helped proclaim Zürich as Switzerland’s industrial capital. On the top of the arch, you see the central figure of Helvetia. She’s named after the Celtic Helvetii tribe, the original inhabitants of Switzerland, who were conquered by the Romans. Incidentally, the official title of Switzerland is Confoederatio Helvetica. That’s why the license plates say CH, not SW. (Using the Latin title helps avoid having to string together all the different names for the country in each of the four official languages.)
Pictured is the Urania Sternwarte, a public astronomical observatory built in 1907 in the sleek Art Nouveau style (called “Jugendstil” in Switzerland.) It’s close to the world-renowned ETH, a technical college that has turned out 21 Nobel prize winners, including Albert Einstein and William Röntgen. Incidentally, when you go to have a broken bone checked out in Norway, it’s called “having a Röntgen” not “getting an x-ray.”
Matthew and I followed Rick Steves’ walking tour while ping-ponging back and forth across the languid Limmat River, which ends at Lake Zürich itself. Along the way, we checked off all the recommended sights and sensory experiences: the mammoth Medieval clock face that towers above St. Peter’s Church; the commanding city view that can be had from the Lindenhof neighborhood’s square; and the smell of dried herbs, spices, and fruits that draws a serious crowd at Schwarzenbach grocers….
St. Peter is Zürich’s oldest church, having been founded in the 7th century. At 28 feet in diameter, its clock face is one of Europe’s biggest. The town watchman once lived above the clock. If he spotted a fire, he’d ring the bell and hang a flag out whichever clock window faced the blaze.
More than 1,200 fancy Parisian-style fountains pepper Zürich’s sidewalks. The water is potable and locals claim it’s as pure as the bottled stuff.
The Lindenhof neighborhood sits atop a pile of glacial debris that overlooks the Limmat River and the city’s historic center. From here, you can get a great view of the more modern areas of Zürich, and on sunny days, you can supposedly see the Alps.
Lindenhof’s hilltop park was once home to a Medieval fort that controlled the city during the days of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Today, the square is surrounded by Linden trees (hence the name) and hosts lots of giant chess matches.
Schwarzenbach is a 100-year-old grocery store specializing in dried teas, fruits, herbs, etc. Everything’s sold by weight in loose bags — a trend that seems to be coming back into fashion as folks look for less processed foods with less packaging.
I just had to sneak in a night view from Lake Zürich up the Limmat River, so that you can see the holiday lights.
But what we loved best was cataloging how Christmas had spilled out over the city. A clump of mistletoe dangled over every doorway. Red-coated brass bands stood on most street corners. Bakeries boasted breads shaped like Santa. The little Swiss figures on the Kurz Glockenspiel danced to Christmas carols. And the adorable holiday Fondue Train clacked merrily along the tracks behind silent electric trams ferrying shoppers to and fro.
We typically associate mistletoe with Christmas and kissing customs. But in Germanic countries, a branch of mistletoe hung over the door is an old pagan tradition. It’s said to ward off evil spirits and keep witches from entering your home during the long, dark nights preceding the solstice.
The glockenspiel above Kurz Jewelers was a gift from the original owner to the city of Zürich. The figures represent folk costumes from different regions of Switzerland, and each was hand-carved by woodworkers from Brienz. Every day at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., the clock strikes, folk tunes chime out, and the figures promenade. Some dance, herd sheep, play an instrument, and even churn butter or clink drinking mugs.
Lots of Swiss folks seem to go all out au naturale with their Christmas decorations, piling huge bundles of fresh greens beneath their windows.
I was so bummed we didn’t have time to take the two-hour dinner trip aboard the festive little Fondue Train. It runs every year from the beginning of November until the end of February. (Fondue is another traditional Swiss cuisine, which we indulged in later during our trip.)
These are Grittibänzen, commonly called “Bread Men,” which make an appearance at Christmas time. I think these are supposed to represent Schmutzli, the Swiss Santa’s sinister sidekick, who carries a bundle of twigs that he uses to beat bad children. (Schmutzli is another pagan holdover that represents an evil demon who stole children and was driven out by noise and light during the solstice. Not so different from the Norwegian Lussi traditions I wrote about in my post “Santa Lucia Day.”)
Zürich has some of the best holiday displays we’ve seen. Strands of lights hung vertically over the street looked like falling stars.
Zürich’s Churches While we’re on the topic of Christmas, I can’t neglect the obvious places to find symbols of the season — Zürich’s Medieval churches. You’d expect glorious Gothic details both without and within, but homeboy zealot Huldrych Zwingli scrubbed out all signs of ornate catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. What’s left behind are spare, sober interiors unexpectedly illuminated by some of the most imaginative, modernist stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.
Inside Grossmünster church, you can gawk at the work of Augusto Giacometti, whose three choir windows illustrate the birth of baby Jesus and the visit of the Magi in blazingly bright and blocky glory. But the windows of Sigmar Polke, scattered throughout the sanctuary, almost steal the show with their surrealist silhouettes, geodes, and Neo-Medieval imagery.
Matthew stands in front of Grossmünster’s twin steeples, which have become the city symbol. The Neo-Gothic domes are replacements for the originals, which were damaged in a fire in 1781.
Fantastic modern additions to Grossmünster’s Gothic exterior include ornate bronze doors created by Otto Münch, which were added to the north and south portals in 1935 and 1950.
Looks like Zwingli missed a few Catholic icons in the church, including these figures of Mary and baby Jesus (although their faces have been obliterated.)
In 1933, Gustav Giacometti, nephew of the more famous Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, created these almost cubist representations of a blue-robed Mary with baby Jesus at her feet, flanked on either side by visiting wise men.
Between 2006 and 2009, German painter and photographer Sigmund Polke produced several eye-catching, modernist stained glass windows for Grossmünster.
You can see how his photographic techniques of combining negatives with positive prints influenced his designs. This window reminds me of those old brain teasers where you had to say whether you saw a vase, or two people talking.
Polke made a series of translucent stone windows by slicing agates into thin slivers and joining them via the leading process.
Other scene stealers at Grossmünster include a brooding Romanesque statue of Charlemagne, who squats in his creepy crypt looking like Neptune in his grotto. And don’t miss the 12th-century cloister ringed with wildly inappropriate carvings that, as near as I can tell, depict punishments or acts of the damned. (I’d put a PG warning on this, as some of the visuals might require a bit of ‘splainin’ for the kiddies.)
The crypt of Felix and Regulus rest beneath Grossmünster. Let me back up for a second and explain that the name Zürich comes from Turicum, the name the Romans gave it when they established a city here in 15 B.C. The two aforementioned Roman saints walked to this spot holding their freshly decapitated heads in their hands — after first being boiled in oil and then forced to drink molten lead for refusing to renounce their faith. Several hundred years later, Frankish king and eventual Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne was out hunting when his horse suddenly dropped to its knees, having located the burial place of these two saints. BTW, the word Grossmünster means “Big Monastic Cathedral.”
And here’s the creepy 12th-century Romanesque statue of Charlemagne, which once sat outside the church. (A copy claims the original location now.)
At first glance, the 12th-century Romanesque cloister looks like tranquility itself … until you look closely at the carvings. This one’s a bit less traumatic, showing a dog chomping on what looks a lot like an aardvark. But other show violent scenes of men and animals devouring one another.
Here’s a tough one to explain to the children. How ’bout: “Hey kids, it looks like griffins and snakes are playing tug-o-war with the headless guy. And maybe that lady’s simply giving her friend a haircut?”
Who knew ass-kissing was one of the seven deadly sins? Or maybe this is something a bit more x-rated?
A self-portrait by the sculptor looks like he’s having second thoughts about his subject matter.
Visiting the nearby Fraumünster church will grant you a closeup view of artist Marc Chagall’s most unexpected works: a collection of stained glass windows that he created when he was 80 years old. They display his characteristic dreamy, angelic abstraction in fiery colors that somehow still feel serene, despite their vibrancy. Sadly, no photos are allowed, so the one I’ve included here was taken from the church brochure.
Zürich’s Chocolate I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t confess that chocolate was a prime motivator for our trip. But not for the obvious reasons. Many Christmases ago, while on a business trip to Switzerland, my father sent me a huge box filled with the most beautifully wrapped chocolates I’d ever seen. Regal purple ribbons tied little silvered paper boxes full of truffles to a huge wreath made of braided tinsel. And five fist-sized angels clutched tin harps, trumpets, and violins in heavenly tribute, all while smuggling bonbons beneath their purple-tissue robes.
That box of foreign beauties fueled my visions of Switzerland and a European Christmas for more than 30 years. And although I ate the chocolates, I kept the wreath and angels for a decade, displaying them at Christmastime … until the year my cat decided they made great chew toys. Since then, I’ve been determined that one day I’ll find the shop that handcrafted such great memories for me.
Sadly, as the years passed, I no longer recalled the name of the maker. This mean that, during our visit, we had to stop in every chocolatier in the city to sample their wares — not really a hardship, right? Confiserie Sprüngli, Zürich’s oldest and most beloved confectioner, proved delicious but didn’t have quite the right wrappings. Max Chocolatier also offered decadent treats, all incredible works of art in their own right, but they still didn’t match my memory.
Finally we stumbled into Teuscher … and I heard the angels sing. Here were the Christmas fantasies that I’d found when I opened that big box thirty years ago. No kid could have been happier than I was, bouncing around that shop picking out gifts for everyone I know. (Gotta pay the magic forward.) Maybe, if I’m lucky, someone will be as inspired as I was by such artful treats, and perhaps they’ll make their own holiday pilgrimage to Teuscher someday.