Mike MacEacheran | Zurich: upside down Switzerland, Lonely Planet
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Zurich: upside down Switzerland, Lonely Planet

Cuckoo clocks, tick-tocking watches and chocolate-box churches: all out of date clichés that have been written about Switzerland for decades.

Yet the reality couldn’t be more different. Zurich, the country’s modern metropolis and pulsating financial hub, has more in common with Europe’s more off-beat, avant-garde cities, like Berlin or Barcelona, than many first think.

For beneath the veneer of its squeaky-clean streets, super-efficient tram systems, rigorous banking principles and holier-than-thou Alpine churches, lies a somewhat stranger, off-beat city that is ready to surprise at every turn. As a case in point, Swiss farmers outside the city centre now encourage brave tourists to saddle up and ride their famous brown dairy cows for cow trekking.

Keep things simple to begin with and make the most of the city’s beautiful location by taking a boat trip with a twist on Lake Zurich. In summer, boat operator ZSG specialises in salsa tours, German hit music cruises, gay get-togethers and all-you-can-eat schnitzel trips, but come winter, the country’s legendary earthenware pots come out in force for cheese fondue cruises – yes, really. Just remember the Swiss rule: if you drop you’re bread into the cheese when the boat rocks, it’s your round at the bar. A great one to try is Kronenhalle, famous for its gallery of Chagall and Miro paintings.

While Zurich is home to more than 50 museums and 100 art galleries, for a crash course in the stranger side of the city spend an afternoon at the Moulage Museum, part of University Hospital Zurich. With a collection that dates back to 1917, this small but off-kilter museum exhibits lifelike, 3-D wax replicas of skin diseases and body parts. A feat of modern science, the museum’s moulds enjoy a worldwide reputation but the strange rooms of preserved faces and limbs feel like something created by Swiss surrealist H R Giger – more commonly known as the man who created the apocalyptic, stomach-churning visuals for Alien, Poltergeist and, more recently, Prometheus.  Should you be travelling outside Zurich, his industrial themed Giger Bar, opened in the artist’s hometown of Chur (100km to the south), is well worth a visit.

Yet Zurich and its surrounding cantons have a history for this kind of strange behaviour. Founding place of the Dadaist art movement, which rejected reason and logic and championed cultural chaos, Zurich became the centre of the art world in the early 1920s. Its mandate was to make up the rules as it went along and this ethos still lives on at its original base, Cabaret Voltaire on Spiegelgasse in the heart of the Niederdorf, Zurich’s medieval old town,. Today, it is one of Switzerland’s most vibrant contemporary art spaces and home to an unconventional boutique. Over the years it has stocked everything from luxurious band aids through to designer swine-flu masks. It’s in the same part of the old medieval city that professional magician Dan Dent prowls along at night on his regular ghost walks.

The Swiss are so achingly hip these days that they can even turn recycled junk into must-have fashion items. Cue Freitag, one of the hippest bag and accessory companies in Europe. Inspired by the traffic that hummed through the intersection outside their Zurich flat, the Freitag brothers designed a messenger bag made of old truck tarpaulins, used bicycle inner tubes and car seat belts. Don’t miss the brand’s flagship store, a 26-metre high conceptual structure on Geroldstrasse made out of reclaimed industrial refuse and refurbished shipping containers. Next door is Hive, a subversive underground nightclub-cum-art collective where you are as likely to purchase an eco-design lamp from its onsite shop as you are to dance until dawn. Nearby, Im Viadukt has installed the same DIY aesthetic into a series of retro-fitted railway arches that house the city’s most in-demand new designers.

It’s not just the shops and museums that defy categorisation. For something completely different, either walk or stumble into Blinde Kuh, the world’s first restaurant in the dark. Often copied but never bettered, Blinde Kuh is much more than a restaurant and is as much an assault on the senses as the palate. Set up to offer employment to the blind and partially-sighted, the restaurant has gone far beyond its initial philanthropic premise and is now a gourmet destination in its own right: expect locally-sourced dishes like fried salmon fillet with lemon-walnut pesto and asparagus penne with sun dried tomato cream.

For a sweeter treat, no visit to Zürich would be complete without an indulgent breather at Sprungli, the city’s premier chocolatier, on the shopping mile Bahnhofstrasse. Though not particularly strange, when it’s this good you don’t really need an excuse. But for argument’s sake, satisfy yourself with this: despite being the country’s most mouth-watering chocolate shop, the locals’ secret is the luminous Luxemburgerli, a squidgy rainbow-coloured macaroon. The cafe may be a tourist trap, but if you leave with just a token bar of chocolate, the Swiss are still likely to frown. Strange days indeed.