The Swiss circuit, from Zürich around to Lugano and Basel and back

We started in Zürich because Mac’s winning ticket from Swiss International (airlines) flew us there on 15-16 May 2007. My normal spring busyness was not the time I would have picked but Mac (Robert McDonald, retired from the library at NYU Medical) invited me to join him for his prize: round-trip airfare, four nights hotel, and eight days of train. If the system migration at work hadn’t been suspended in March, it would have been impossible. Even though I might not have picked Switzerland as my destination, the circuit from Zürich to Sankt Gallen to Chur to Lugano to Basel and back to Zürich was delightful for a variety of reasons. The highlights were mostly architectural but that’s not a surprise.

Our room at a central Best Western was not ready when we got there, after walking over from the Hauptbahnhof. We meandered a bit, visited the Grossmünster, had some lunch at the Coop, and got into the room at the Glockenhof. I probably shouldn’t do the Grossmünster on my first day’s meander in jetlagginess. I think I’ve done it every time I’ve been to Zürich and it’s always a surprise. Or maybe that’s what I should do. The altar area is up a staircase, over the crypt, so the space is somewhat unusual. Memories of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice which also has a raised altar area but is as decorated Catholic as the Grossmünster is Swiss Reformed.

Mac resigned to jetlag and I went out for a walk to the lakefront. There are some wonderful Shavian Queen Anne villas and hotels near the Kongresshaus. The next day I discovered at a show at the Museum für Gestaltung that the Kongresshaus expansion by Haefeli Moser Steiger was what I probably should have been looking at. The exhibition was great with fine models of a number of their “Neues Bauen” buildings. The dinnerware from the Kongresshaus had a great calligraphic Z design, like my doodled banners. I had meandered by or near a number of the buildings included in the exhibition. The Museum itself is a Bauhaus-style building, now nicely graced by a small park and mature trees.

Upstairs was a wonderful display of the best Swiss books of 2006. Each was on a chair, the chairs arranged in three rows. One could rhythmically move down each row or hop-skip-jump through the titles. Among the books were the recent catalog of works by Tom Burr (a favored artist) and the Atlas of shrinking cities which I should have bought at that show at Pratt and which John Maier did buy at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. Detroit’s slow population loss is as big (percent-wise) as New Orleans’s calamitous loss after Hurricane Katrina.

Further out Limmatstrasse are several contemporary art venues: the Migros Museum which had a Rachel Harrison show and works by Christian Marclay, Tom Burr, and Mika Taanila (the sound was a symphony for dot-matrix printer); the Kunsthalle with a Nicole Eisenman retrospective and a nice reading room with thousands of contemporary art catalogs.

While I was doing that art stuff, Mac was at the Historisches Museum. The streets were rather empty and many stores were closed. Independently, we learned that it was Ascension Day, a holiday in Switzerland. Now Mac should have known that since he goes to the Church of the Ascension in New York.

The stores were open on Friday and our bodies were mostly on Swiss time. We figured out a schedule for the next few days and got reservations for the Bernina Express over the Alps on Tuesday. The afternoon was spent at the Kunsthaus with an Erik van Lieshout exhibition and time in the permanent collection (an early El Greco portrait, great stairhall with Hodler murals, show of Berchem drawings of Italian scenes, more Giacometti than one needs but interesting). I had seen the listing for the Shedhalle show but didn’t make it out there (just a reason to come back to Zürich).

About this time I was starting The coroner’s lunch by Colin Cotterill which had been given me by Ilaria Papini. As I started reading it, it seemed familiar and I realized I had read it. It made far more impression this time as I had just finished Finding George Orwell in Burma the last time and the spirit of that non-fiction title had overwhelmed the Cotterill. This was already my third book for the trip: I finished Lincoln’s melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk as we flew over the Atlantic and The back passage by James Lear (a rather trashy mystery) just flew by.

Late Saturday morning we took a train to Sankt Gallen. For a medievalist, just being in Sankt Gallen is heaven. Our hotel room on the Bahnhofplatz overlooked the train station as well as a hillside of eclectic villas. After we got settled in the room, we went to the abbey to visit the church and library, both high Baroque. The reading room is splendid and you get to wear booties to protect the floor (they’re pictured on the abbey library’s homepage). The booties are rather like what might happen if Joseph Beuys was assigned to the design task. A painting of one of my favorite saints -- Santa Cecilia -- was above the far end of the reading room. I really enjoyed figuring out the “classification” scheme. The books are arranged in alphabetical cases: A - B - C - D going across the room rather than down one side and then the other, double letters on the mezzanine, Mitte and Rechts and Links for the three sides of the cases, numbered shelves and books. The number for a book would be, for example, M links IV 3 for the 3rd book on the IVth shelf on the left side of the M case.

While visiting the church, we noted that there was to be an organ concert that evening. Oh, joy! The sounds of the high organ in the nave were thrilling, especially as the light changed as the sun went down.

The Bahnhofplatz was noisy with Saturday-night craziness but I got up early on Sunday for a sunlit walk over to the abbey grounds. After breakfast, we took the train to Buchs and then the bus into Vaduz. Haven’t you always wanted to get a Liechtenstein stamp in your passport? A lovely Sunday visit which included the Kunstmuseum (new building in serene modern), lighting a candle for co-worker Kathy Waldron at the princely church, and a walk up to the castle. On the way to and from, we passed the Säntis, a mountain range that had been depicted in various regional landscapes and was part of a topographical model in the history museum.

Liechtenstein is small: you can see Buchs from the castle in Vaduz and it doesn’t look like much of a walk. We took the bus South to Sargans on the way home, to see a bit more of Liechtenstein and Switzerland. On the bus, we were cruising along and I was marveling at the unnatural scenery. The mountains looked too splendid to be real, this observation from a person who finds skylines and NYC sidewalks pretty natural.

My Monday morning walk was up the hill of villas across from the hotel -- mostly various revivalist styles but one that was a riff on Mario Botta’s brickwork. Back to the hotel for breakfast and then to the train to Chur. In my 2000 trip to Switzerland with Daniel Starr, we had stayed in Zürich and done day trips to Sankt Gallen and Chur. While changing hotels every day or two or three can eat up a lot of time, I miss the early morning or evening strolls that give you such a sense of the place.

We were up in the attic of our hotel in Chur -- the Freieck -- and had a view of several church steeples, the castle, and the mountains. I really loved the attic window. You could hear the faint tinkle of the cowbells from the fields beyond the city. The Freieck is in the Minotel chain and the clerk kindly called the Lugano hotel to make a reservation, and they in turn called the Basel hotel. The Minotels are not cheap but they’re reasonable (somewhat or significantly less than $100 per person).

Chur is a starting point for the Bernina Express which we boarded after another hotel breakfast of bread and meat, yogurt, and hardboiled egg. At the Zürich hotel, the eggs were just white but at other hotels they were richly decorated: glittery in Sankt Gallen and marbled in Chur.

The coffee-cart guy on the Bernina Express was a Peruvian -- Alfredo López Hilario -- so Mac got to practice his Spanish. The train goes up over the Bernina Pass and made me think a lot of my dad who so loves the Rockies. The train goes through forests and meadows, around bends and through tunnels, but the railbed is mostly very light on the landscape. You come down out of the high mountains into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and then into Tirano, Italy. Along with another couple of anglophones with suitcases, we were the only ones that had our passports checked at the Swiss-Italian border. After a nice lunch of veal cutlets for me and seafood for Mac, we boarded the postbus for Lugano. The bus follows a river so the path is fairly flat but the Dolomites loom above the valley. We got to the northern end of Lake Como and then went over the mountains through heavy commuter traffic to Lugano.

Our hotel -- the Federale -- turned out to be the hotel that Bob and I stayed in in 1985. Another moment of déjà vu. We had originally booked for two days but very quickly decided to stretch our Lugano time to three nights. The couple who had come over on the Bernina Express were also at the spaghetti restaurant on the lakefront. Lugano’s setting is magnificent: the main part of the town overlooks the lake and the mountains rise out of the water. On the distant hill is the Castello, so-called on the tourist map. It looks like a Gino Coppedè building but I haven’t been able to confirm that yet. I did walk up closeby one day but the thick hedges make distant views more compelling.

Wednesday was our first full day in Lugano. I went to the Georg Baselitz show at the Museo d’arte moderna. Good stuff. I have not always liked Baselitz and he seems a bit like a one-trick pony but there were some really fine things in the show. Meandering after the show took me up to the Castello in the Paradiso neighborhood and past a nice Mario Botta commercial building. He really does great brickwork. I met Mac and we went up the funicolare on Monte Bré, with a lovely Campari and soda in the garden of the snack shop. The day was hazy and hot but the view over the lake was splendid and the breeze on the mountaintop was refreshing.

On Thursday, Mac and I took different trips: Mac to Bellinzona, the home of one of his neighborhood waiters; me to Como to see the Casa del Fascio. From Lugano, you take a regional train to Chiasso; there, you go through customs and take another regional train to Como. I’d finished The coroner’s lunch by this point and put the other Cotterill book from Ilaria in my bag. Both Coroner and Thirty-three teeth are good reads but mystery is not my favorite category. Of the books I’ve read recently, Lincoln’s melancholy certainly is the most compelling.

The Casa is incredible and deserves its place as a monument of inspiration for 1980s architects. The pattern of windows is magnificent. The building is now used for government offices and you can only step into the foyer. The surfaces are wonderful, including a soft steel ceiling in the foyer area, rather like polished Serra. I’ve seen many pictures of the Casa but wanted to see it in context. It is across the street and tracks from the Duomo (a romanesque pile that was magnificently expanded by Juvara). The expansion doomed part of the adjoining early medieval townhall. The Duomo is reflected in the windows of the Casa. Wonderful conjunction of medieval and modern.

By the way, the Casa is called “Palazzo Terragni (ex Casa del Fascio)” on the map from the tourist office. Giuseppe Terragni was the architect of the 1936 building and it’s been the home of the regional office of the Guardia di Finanza since 1955.

A few more strolls around Lugano, a nice supper near the lakefront, and we’re off to Basel. It’s back through the high Swiss Alps but this time through Saint Gotthard pass. Lots of tunnels and half-tunnels (covered but open on one side), twists and turns, above and below the nearby highway.

The lady from the Steinenschanze had said to take the 30 bus from the train station but we thought it would be easier to walk. Well, the area around the station has been rather mangled by attempts to move traffic and it’s not very pedestrian-friendly. Annette forgave us and the staff there was very nice. The room was not real interesting with a view of the busy street but the garden was lovely.

Saturday we took a day trip to La Chaux-de-Fonds where Le Corbusier grew up and did his first buildings. The announcements on the train went from German to French to German and back to French. The Jura mountains are less high than the Alps but the countryside is wonderful, rather like the contrast of Rockies and Alleghenies.

There wasn’t a travel office in the Chaux train station but a billboard in the plaza included a somewhat tattered poster for the Le Corbusier walk. The day was overcast and occasionally there’d be light rain, not so great for walking tours but we found the Maison Blanche that Le Corbusier designed for his parents in 1912. It’s open to the public and the guide was nicely available for questions without spieling the whole time. Here, you get to add the blue plastic booties to your footwear. I slipped off my Birks and put on the booties. Let me tell you: those things don’t breathe, my feet were swampy when I took them off. We were the only touring guests though another couple was talking to the male half of the guide-couple as we looked at the house with the female half. Wow. The house is great: a suburban villa on a hillside in the woods, but open and light. There are several other sights on the tour, including that great early house with the blank panelled walls. We had a bit of time before the train back to Basel and I walked over to the Musée des beaux-arts which has an exterior rather like Tessenow and an interior stairwell brilliant with mosaics.

Sunday was museum day in Basel for me. I went to the Antikenmuseum (great special show of Thracian gold from ancient Bulgaria along with great permanent collection including lots of vases). Loved the caption for one of the vases: “Mann mit Schreibtafel, nackter Knabe und Futteral für ein Blasinstrument (Aulos). Scheinbar eine Schulszene, doch scheinen erotische Undertöne mitzuschwingen” (Inv. BS 465)

Off to the Architekturmuseum where I found a wonderful show of projects for underused spaces, one of which was in Sankt Gallen not far from the train station (and our hotel). Good catalog too.

Mac and I met for lunch and then went to the Schaulager. It’s a new exhibition space, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Fabulous. The main exhibition was a Robert Gober retrospective. The show was good and interesting, the building is magnificent.

Monday was Pentecost Monday (Pfingstmontag) and again a national holiday (yes, same day as Memorial Day here in U.S.). Luckily the Beyeler is open on Mondays, including this one. My main goal was getting to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, a Basel suburb in Germany. The city buses were on holiday schedule so I went to the Beyeler before going to the Vitra. The Beyeler is now 10 years old. Daniel and I had visited in 2000 and the building still thrilled. Really good building, good collection (special show of Edvard Munch with lots of works on paper). The bus that went to Vitra was only running every few hours but I made it.

The Vitra Design Museum is a smallish 1989 building by Frank Gehry, from his period of transition from shapes to titanium fins. The building is magnificent and the collection is imaginatively installed. There was a special show of housing exhibitions from Mathildenhöhe to now. They waved the bus past the Swiss-German border and the only hassle was the bus schedule and paying for it. On the way back, the bus driver didn’t take my Basel bus pass (well, duh, it wasn’t Basel, Switzerland). He did however take Swiss francs and give me a bit of change in Euros.

The first night in Basel, we had very good Mexican food. The hostess was from L.A. and her husband was from Basel. This night, we had great Swiss comfort food: sour marinated beef called suure mogge with mashed potatoes and string beans.

On Tuesday morning, we put our stuff together and checked out of the hotel. The Hotel Steinenschanze is owned by Compagna according to cards in the room. Compagna works with travelers, binational and intercultural couples and families, and women in the sex business. We told the clerk we were glad to see that and she said it made the clerks feel good too.

Before we left town, we went over to the Kunstmuseum: a fine building, lots of good stuff in the permanent collection, and a show of Brice Marden works on paper. There’s a wonderful Holbein Venus, an early work, which displays almost as much sfumato as Leonardo. I stayed at the museum longer than Mac and got a sandwich to eat on the train back to Zürich.

Mac arranged for the fourth hotel night at the Best Western near the airport which eased the trip home. There were a few food options in the neighborhood (Mexican, Chinese, Turkish, coffeeshop) but we ate at the Swiss-Japanese restaurant in the hotel.

When we got to the airport for our noonish departure, we discovered that our seats had become standby. The 10 a.m. flight was cancelled and that was crowding the later flight. After some anxious waiting, a Swiss employee took us to the transfer desk. We had to fly back via Boston but, sigh, we had to go in the first class cabin. I don’t know if you’ve ever flown first class across the Atlantic or other long trip. It’s tough: only two staff members for the dozen of us, Campari sorbet between the salad and entrée, real silverware and tableware, ottomans that move by button, seats that recline fully, unlimited wine in a glass served from a full-size bottle (sure, I’ll have the Swiss pinot noir). By this time, I had finished reading Thirty three teeth and was reading The violent bear it away by Flannery O’Connor. It seemed quite incongruous to be reading a novella about poor southerners in first class.

We still got back to New York City before dark and Mac insisted on taking a cab into Manhattan. I walked down from his place and returned to a stack of mail, a couple thousand emails, and real life ... but continue to picture the Casa and other monuments in spare moments.

... go to Sherman’s miscellany...