The Swiss rise early and work hard. One day each summer, however, Zurich’s residents take the afternoon off to swim across the lake around which their city is built. Far from the shore, the clear, sun-dappled water is choppy — and the view dramatic. The Alps rise majestically to the south, the city’s spires to the north.
The Swiss experience goes deeper, though. Mid-lake you are aware of the freedom of self-reliance — the floor is perhaps 100 metres below your feet — yet you feel safe. Although there was a fatality last year, the route of the annual Seeüberquerung (“lake crossing”) is marked with inflatables and there are lifeguards in abundance.
Zurich is not top of everyone’s most desirable foreign postings. It is no global power centre, more a city of grey financiers — the “gnomes of Zurich” as British prime minister Harold Wilson described them in the 1960s. Thanks to the strong Swiss franc, it is also fantastically expensive. Early in our posting, my wife was so shocked at the prices she returned home from the supermarket with just a single courgette for supper.
Yet, like the sunlight glimmering on the lake, Zurich offers moments of brilliance when it comes to quality of life.
Skiing proficiency was not a job requirement for the FT’s Switzerland correspondent but the affluent Alpine country is a nation of skiers and a playground for hikers, bikers and water sports enthusiasts. As with their economy, the Swiss take a free-market approach to such activities. On previous postings in Germany — first Bonn, then Berlin and later Frankfurt during the eurozone debt crisis — I wrote about Ordnungspolitik, an ordo-liberal system in which rules are respected, but otherwise markets left to operate freely. Switzerland has a similar mentality. Yes, you are expected to conform with regulations and social norms — for example, I try to tie our waste paper into neat bundles before collection. But where no restrictions are set, the responsibility is yours.
In the UK, I took a mandatory hour-long health and safety lesson before being allowed to swim in a lake in the south-east. Here, you swim outside at your own risk. In Zurich, there are beautifully maintained designated bathing areas — the FT office, which is also our home, is conveniently near the open-air Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen. Out-of-hours, or if you want to avoid the entrance fee or crowds, you can jump in anywhere — and people do.
My wife was so shocked at the prices she returned from the supermarket with just a single courgette.
Arriving ahead of schedule is not a problem, however. Zurich starts early. The local church bells wake us and our neighbours at 6.15am. Companies must make stock market announcements before 7.30am — often they prefer to have news released before 7am. In Germany, press conferences and meetings started punctually. In Switzerland, they sometimes begin a few minutes early.
The efficiency of an understated city allows time to appreciate old-fashioned experiences: drinking coffee in a sleepy café with a copy of the conservative German-language Neue Zürcher Zeitung; the happiness of children walking to school on their own; the neat wood piles stacked in backyards; the cleanliness of streets.
Perhaps the country is a little too clinical. Earlier in my FT career a reader complained when I wrote that Bermuda was too squeaky clean, and that after a few days on the tiny Atlantic island you yearned for a bit of grit. I have a similar yearning here. A favourite game is to spot an overflowing litter bin or some illicit graffiti, just to prove Zurich is not quite perfect. The city has a splattering of urban grunge, and converted industrial space along the rail tracks leading out of town, but it is clean and well-planned grunge. Switzerland’s anarchists prefer demonstrating in Bern.
Then there are those snowy mountain vistas rising above Switzerland’s lakes. The tram that takes me to meetings with bankers in Zurich’s city centre rattles past the end of the lake before turning into Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s most expensive retail streets, lined with luxury Swiss watch and jewellery shops.
At the height of summer, the view across the lake is sometimes too bright and hazy to see far. On grey, wintry days it can be obscured in clouds, and even the tourist cruise ships are surrounded by mist. But then the sun breaks through and the mountains reappear, their sharp white edges clearly defined against the blue sky. Below, the lake glitters invitingly — and you remember that day when you were out there in the middle.
• The summer beer garden at Fischstube. Lakeside setting for an after-swim beer — or for watching others. Great chips and fried fish.
• Confiserie Sprüngli on Paradeplatz. On the tourist trail but good coffee and chocolates in an old-fashioned café setting. Try the many different Luxemburgerli — the Swiss version of macaroons.
• Vollenweider Chocolatier Confiseur, Theaterstrasse, for some of the best luxury chocolates and pralines. For a soothing hot chocolate — dark or light — try Vollenweider Café in Winterthur, a 20-minute train ride away.
• Switzerland’s “Lex Koller” imposes tough restrictions on house purchases by foreigners not living in the country. The main exception is for holiday homes in some cantons — not including Zurich. Foreigners with residency permits can buy a main residence
• Notary, land register and title transfer fees vary between cantons, but typically are less than 1 per cent of the sale price
What you can buy for . . .
SFr1m ($1m) Modern two or three-bedroom flat, with balcony, in high-rise block on Zurich city outskirts
SFr2.5m Three-bedroom roof-top flat with large terrace in lakeside village
SFr5m Five-bedroom house with panoramic mountain views in fashionable lakeside suburb
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