The Swiss are stereotypically a reserved bunch. Of course that's a sweeping generalisation, and we've already met some colourful characters in the short time we've been here. Plus, some of the traits that have earned the Swiss this label don't seem as uptight now I'm here and experiencing them first hand. No noisy activities on a Sunday makes for a nice, peaceful day of rest, and is particularly valued if you've had a few too many bottles of Appenzeller beer the night before (though church bell ringers are exempt from this rule and as we live between two churches total silence is never really achieved).
Contrary to popular belief, the natives here love to let their hair down. And when they do, they do it big time. Whether it's pyrotechnics at the football or dancing until the early hours, it seems the seriousness of their day-to-day working lives often gets well and truly forgotten. I go for more post-work socialising here than I did in London. I'm also hard-pushed to think of another city that would open up its main streets, including the financial district, for the biggest techno-rave party in Europe. We enjoyed the 'Street Parade' very much, as did hundreds of thousands of other revellers. And this came only a few weeks after the "Züri Fest". Taking place every three years, it again saw the city opened up to drunken tomfoolery. In an English city it would be violent chaos. In Switzerland it was a great party.
But even when having fun, Swiss efficiency isn't far away. Apps and maps detail all the public facilities for each big event. And somehow the cleaning up begins before the party is even started. Whilst the party goers are catching up on their sleep the cleaning force is wide awake, removing any trace of the previous night's hijinx. If you head into town for a hangover-beating bite to eat you find life carrying on as if the party never happened. And through bleary eyes you wonder if it actually did.
From walking in the air to the sound of a young Aled Jones, or starring in last year's festive John Lewis advert, the UK cherishes the humble snowman as a symbol of the fun that can be had in Winter despite low tempeatures. In Zurich it's a bit different. Here, the snowman gets executed.
Instead of being allowed to gently dissolve to form a slushy puddle when the mercury in the thermometer starts to rise, he is perched upon a pyre to burn until his head, stuffed full of fireworks, explodes.
This is Sechseläuten (pronounced 'Zeks-uh-loy-ten) or, in Swiss German: 'Sächsilüüte' (zeks-uh-loot-e) and is the traditional Zurich festival for saying goodbye to the winter and welcoming spring. Celebrated on the 3rd Monday in April since the early twentieth century, it's a national holiday in the Canton of Zurich (but not elsewhere in Switzerland). Last weekend for 2013's celebrations saw glorious weather here and we were fortunate to have had my parents with us to witness this fascinating cultural event as well.
The day begins with a parade through the city by the members of the 'Zuenfte' - the old city Guilds, each with their own marching band and floats. My favourite was the 'Zunft zum Kaembel' or 'Camel Guild'. Derived from an organisation of fruit and vegetable sellers from way back when, they were dressed in arab clothing and their procession included actual camels (see pic in slide show below). I've tried to find the reason for this link with the middle east but even on their website in doesn't seem to be explained - presumably they were wheeling and dealing with tradesfolk from that part of the world to stack their own veritable Aladdin's caves here in Zurich.
The origins of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls across the city. Back then, the powers that be strictly regulated the length of the working day and during the winter period the workday in the various workshops lasted as long as there was daylight. During the summer months, however, the law stated that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o'clock. Sechseläuten is Swiss-German for "The six o'clock ringing of the bells". Changing to summer working hours traditionally was a joyous occasion because it marked the beginning of the season, though the parade and snowman execution didn't begin until 1902.
The procession of guild members heads to a dedicated square next to the lake where the snowman or 'Böögg' as he is known (a bit like a bogey man - very different to Raymond Briggs' interpretation!) is perched ready to meet an explosive end.
At 6pm we, and a staggering 5000 other specatators, gathered around as the bonfire was lit. The legend has it that the quicker the fire reaches the poor fellow to blow off his head, the better the summer will be. The quickest execution on record was in 1974 when his carrot nose was sent into orbit after just over 5 minutes, indicating a scorcher of a summer on the way. The longest burning at the stake on record was 26:23 in 2001. That is, until this year.
Despite a hot sunny day, it took 35 minutes and 11 seconds for the final giant pop to indicate our bogeyman had gone to snowman heaven. This of course doesn't bode well for our first summer in der Schweiz. In fact, since the Böögg met his violent end the clear skies have been replaced by clouds. Even the UK has had better weather than us.
I'm beginning to wonder whether sacrificing Mr Snowman was such a good idea...
P.S. Just in case the spirit of winter is here to haunt us for a while I've included a few pics below from the trip we took with my folks to Luzern before the weather changed. And thanks to Dad for providing most of the below photos.
P.P.S - this YouYube video will give you a good feel for - the festivities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQBEMWfVAuE - skip to the end for the snowman's final moments.
Hopefully you've all had a very happy Easter, or a 'Frohe Ostern' as they say auf Deutsch.
There are of course certainly worse places to be during a time of year celebrated with chocolate than in Switzerland and as they go for chocolate rabbits rather than eggs over here we've had a bit of a confectionary bunny massacre on our hands - it's been a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate factory meets Watership Down.
Religion is important to the Swiss also, and so the christian nature of the festival is very much celebrated. The Swiss churches love to toll their bells for any religious occasion (it was hard to get to sleep when the new Pope was chosen) and so the regular chimes for the frequent services have served as a nice reminder of the true meaning of Easter.
Eggs are still very much a symbol of Easter time in this part of the world, though more traditionally it's the hard boiled variety which are worth hunting for. You can buy them pre-painted in bright colours from the supermarket. The Swiss sprinkle them with 'aromat' which is like bouillion powder (the stock cube is a Swiss invention) before devoruing them.
We've had a relaxing long weekend despite the weather being pretty dire, popping into Zurich on Saturday to do a bit of shopping. The Swiss continue to find new ways to impress me with their efficiency and Saturday was no exception, with the major department stores providing machines that 'bag' wet umbrellas to stop them dripping on the shop floor.
We took shelter for lunch at 'Hiltl' - the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world having opened in 1898. Now, both Zoe and I are far from veggies, and I was a bit apprehensive about a meat free meal. I am, however, a fan of the 'pile it on your plate buffet', so I got stuck in.
It's a bit like vegetable pick-and-mix as you pay depending on the weight of the plate. Lots of the options are indian style in spicy sauces and the samosas and paneer cheese were real highlights. It was all delicious and the exotic flavours provided a moment of sunshine on a very grey Zurich day.
On Easter Sunday the weather wasn't much better but as the rain held off we headed off for a walk in Zurich's academic district. Using a fancy app which offers a number of routes around the city, we strolled among the buildings of the famous Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zurich (ETH for short) which is one of Europe's top science and technology institutions. It's buildings nestle among those of the University of Zurich and the University Hospital. This district of brainpower nestles on the hill just above the city centre, offering great views of Zurich's impressive church spires.
At one point during the walk we came across the original ETH observatory. Now surrounded by tall buildings it is hard to imagine that when it was built in 1861 it was nestled among vineyards and pastures. It seems the astronomers spent so much time gazing up at the stars that they missed the city of Zurich sprawling towards them. The observatory was closed in 1980 as light pollution from the surrounding buildings made planet spotting impossible.
It was a lovely stroll and the perfect way to work up an appetite and I didn't need to consult the stars to know that our roast lamb dinner was going to be delicious.
After already exploring Zurich's old quarter during our first full weekend in der Schweiz we were keen to see and do something even more “touristy”. We both felt with only two weeks under our belt in the lovely Switzerland we had an excuse to dive into the local culture and explore.
Zurich Carnival 2013 was our chance to do just that. We did a bit of research and knew that the parade started on Sunday at precisely 2.31pm (another example of fantastic Swiss precision) where it made its way along the main shopping street in Zurich – Bahnhofstrasse. We thought we would head down and check it out and I was secretly hoping for some typical Swiss fare, namely cheese and chocolate!
The food did not disappoint! Before the parade had even begun Mike and I tried raclette on bread (basically a pretty satisfying cheese toastie), bratwurst mit Senf (one of the best sausages I have ever had), and Gluhwein (not my favourite thing in the world…)! All that sustenance soon warmed me up for the minus 5 not-really-parade-watching weather.
The town centre was buzzing which was quite a change from our previous Sunday´s exploring where all shops were shut (standard on a Sunday in Switzerland) and the only activity that could be seen was inside cosy cafes and restaurants with the locals maximizing Sundays for what God intended – good old R&R and socializing with friends.
Carnival day was quite a contrast and not just because people were out on the actual street but also because everyone as far as the eye could see was dressed up in crazy, elaborate and extremely well executed fancy dress costumes (see piccies in slideshow at bottom of post).
We had a wander around a few town squares where various bands were playing and got ourselves in position on Bahnhofstrasse for the parade to begin. There were a huge variety of people watching the parade – families, older couples, teenagers, as well as Swiss locals and tourists – it was a real community atmosphere which as the parade went on got rowdier and rowdier.
Thankfully Mike and I were stood far enough back to avoid tonnes of confetti being thrown EVERYWHERE. I was also thankful for not being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time as we saw a poor girl with gorgeous long hair being picked up by a guy in a scary witch costume, put into a wheelbarrow and completely covered in hay… he then proceeded to then cart her off in her new mode of transport and when we next saw her reunited with her family she looked like she was related to a scarecrow… thankfully as it was carnival she took it all in good spirits! With my curls I'm not sure I´d have been too pleased!
It was a great parade with some completely bizarre, and at times freaky, costumes. The atmosphere was fantastic and as a way to spend a Sunday afternoon I felt it gave me a peek into the real traditions and community of Zurich.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.