Zurich: Churches and gardens

Inside the palm houses

It was our final day in Zurich and raining again. But we filled it by exploring chilly churches and tropical palm houses.

I slept late so we dispensed with breakfast and got ready to check out of the Hotel Europe – a lovely place with charming hosts but somewhat lacking in very necessary double glazing.

A short walk away, the Grossmunster was our first stop. With its two towers, it dominates the skyline of the old town in much the same way that St Paul’s Cathedral’s dome graces London’s. Legend has it that King Charlemagne ordered its construction after discovering the tombs of Zurich’s patron saints on the site.

Zurich from the towers of the Grossmunster
Zurich from the towers of the Grossmunster

Truth or myth? Who can really tell so many centuries later but a modern statue of the old warrior sits in a niche in one of the towers. The original, looking a little worse for wear thanks to years of erosion, is on show in the old Roman crypt.

I’m not in the slightest bit religious; it’s the craftsmanship evident in these glorious old buildings that’s my chief interest. And on top of the ancient architecture, the Grossmunster has some modern touches. The stylish bronze doors are mid-20th century and the stained glass windows by artist Sigmar Polke, installed a few years back, are particularly striking. The most startling pieces are the windows composed of beautifully coloured agate stone slices.

Looking towards the Fraumunster
Looking towards the Fraumunster

We paid to climb up one of the towers. It was hard work navigating the cramped spiral steps, and the more open wooden staircases, but we were rewarded with some good views of the city and the lake. Fortunately the rain had stopped briefly and the cloud had lifted to reveal that snow had dusted the Uetliberg overnight.

Crossing the river, we went into the Fraumunster, a church founded in the 9th century and used for a time as a convent. Its elegant, slender steeple is one of the most striking features of the Zurich cityscape. The star attraction, though, is on the inside – the stained glass of 20th century French/Russian artist Marc Chagall. A set of five windows dominate the choir, dating from 1970. The colours are extraordinary – rich reds, vivid blues, lively greens – and the style is unmistakably 60s. They’d look pretty good in our mid-century house back home…

Inside the Fraumunster, looking towards Chagall's windows
Inside the Fraumunster, looking towards Chagall’s windows

Again, the religious stories featured in the windows left me unmoved but the creativity on show was outstanding and we sat and appreciated the windows for a while. Chagall also created a rose window for the church but it’s just a sideshow really.

Monday in Zurich, as in many a European city, is not a good day for tourists. So many attractions are closed that we had limited options to fill our afternoon. We opted for the university’s Botanical Gardens – a weird choice on a wet January day I know. It was pouring with rain when we arrived fresh from a trip on tram route 11 but it was free and had a cafe where we could refuel and take shelter.

The palm houses
The palm houses

The gardens looked grey and bedraggled, crushed by the winter rains. A hideous brown office building dominated the site, an architectural disaster that the University of Zurich should be truly ashamed of.

Fortunately we hadn’t visited to tour the grounds or admire the offices, but to visit the palm houses. They were modest compared to their giant counterparts at Kew or the Eden Project but they provided a reasonable enough diversion for an hour as well as different climates to explore. There was the sultry heat of the rain forest in one, and the aridity that allowed cacti and succulents to thrive in another. Even in winter there were splashes of colour amid the lush greenery.

The Grossmunster
The Grossmunster

The sun was out by the time we left and we walked back into town in the dry, stopping for a drink and to buy some chocolates on the way.

Our time in Zurich was over, and we climbed aboard the train ready to take us to the airport and our evening flight back to London City.

In truth, new year is not the best time to visit Zurich. Half of it was closed, the weather was dodgy and it was very quiet. And apart from dozens of museums – some of them very specialist – there wasn’t a huge amount of things to see. But it has a pretty old town, some fun bars and, for a few days, had enough to keep us occupied…

And it means we can now say we’ve holidayed in Switzerland!