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Sampling the lights and delights of Zurich

The Christmas market at Werdmühleplatz is a blaze of lights

(swissinfo.ch)

The normally calm banking centre of Zurich becomes a blaze of light and colour in December as its residents prepare to celebrate Christmas.

swissinfo took a festive stroll through the city, finding out more about its Yuletide customs and why it was not always so enthusiastic about the holiday season.

Our tour begins at the main station, which during Advent is transformed into Europe's largest indoor Christmas market with 160 stalls.

Delicious smells waft from the stands – spicy mulled wine, melted Swiss Raclette cheese, sugary cinnamon waffles...

Towering over the market is the Swarovski tree, glittering with thousands of crystals. "The tree is 15 metres high, has 7,000 crystals, and took three days to decorate," says Elisabeth Meier, our Zurich Tourism guide, of the highly popular attraction.

Once out of the station we proceed along the famous shopping mile, the luxurious Bahnhofstrasse. But here the lights tell a different story.

Three years ago the street's commercial association decided to install modern Christmas lighting, costing SFr2.4 million ($2.1 million), replacing the more traditional display which had adorned the street for more than 30 years.

A chain of 275 seven-metre-long tubular bulbs, designed by two Zurich architects, stretches down the middle of the street. The tubes flicker, sending a ripple of light along the length of the installation.

Unpopular lights

Spectacular it may be, but you'll be hard pressed to find anyone from Zurich who actually likes it. In fact, there has been such an outcry that the Bahnhofstrasse Association is due to meet next year to decide what to do about it.

Many residents now consider Rennweg, a cobbled street just off the Bahnhofstrasse, to have the most attractive light display in the city.

On our way towards the Limmatquai, near the river, we see the red Jelmoli Märlitram (fairytale tram), a Zurich institution.

Meier explains that children can enjoy a tram ride, chauffeured by Santa Claus himself, aided by two angels who entertain youngsters with stories and treats.

After visiting the Christmas markets in the old town, we turn back towards the Bahnhofstrasse to Werdmühleplatz.

Singing tree

Here we encounter the singing Christmas tree, a wooden tree-shaped structure used by local choirs for festive concerts, much to the delight of passers-by.

Since its beginnings nine years ago it has become highly popular, especially among schools.

"Some classes start practising in the summer and there is great competition for a place in the tree," the project's founder, André Kofmehl, told swissinfo.

As we enjoy the music, we also have the chance to try a Zurich Christmas speciality, "Tirggel".

Meier explains that there is a special trick to eating the biscuit. "It is very hard, so you have to break a bit off, put it in your mouth and leave it there for a while for it to soften," she said. "Then the flavours, cinnamon and honey, develop."

Late starter

With all these festive delights, the visitor may well believe that Zurich has a long Christmas tradition.

But lights only became popular about 30 years ago and the first festive market appeared in 1980.

Meier says that Zurich's background as a centre of Protestantism – it was home to legendary but dour reformer Ulrich Zwingli – was at the root of the city's late conversion to the Yuletide spirit.

"All these customs were forbidden after the Reformation... and Zwingli was against practically anything that had to do with luxury," she said.

"Then, a few decades ago, people remembered all these beautiful old Christmas customs, and they are very much coming back now."

Although Meier has many international guests on her Christmas tour, she often welcomes Zurich residents too.

"They say they have lived here [unawares] for decades and would now like to know what they've been missing," she said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

In brief

The oldest Christmas markets are at Hirschenplatz, Niederdorfstrasse and Rosenhof in the old town. Other markets are to be found at the main station, the city centre and at the Werdmühleplatz.

The Märlitram is for children aged 4-10. Tickets need to be bought in advance from the Jelmoli department store.

The singing Christmas tree gives performances at 1730 and 1830 every weekday until December 23. There are normally more performances at the weekend.

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Culinary highlights

Typical wintertime delights to be found at Christmas markets include Glühwein, always made with red wine in Zurich, and punch. Raclette cheese, melted on bread or potatoes, or sausages are also popular. For those with a sweet tooth there is Tirggel, the Zurich festive biscuit, as well as a huge range of Christmas biscuits.

In the old town, visitors may want to try the Café Conditerei Schober, in the Napfgasse, which is said to have Zurich's best hot chocolate. But you'll have to hurry, it is due to close next spring.

Also in the old town is the Öpfelchammer, in the Rindermarkt, Zurich's oldest and most authentically preserved tavern, which serves Swiss specialties and regional wine. You'll need to book in advance.

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