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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Zürich

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As I expected Cleo and Ian were completely unarousable in the early morning. After I showered and dressed I nudged them a few times without any response and then gave up until about nine when I couldn't stand sitting in the house any longer. This time I flipped on the TV and badgered them a little more aggressively until they grudgingly got up from bed and had a snack. I felt a little guilty but I knew they'd have time to nap a little later on the train.

Our first objective was getting ourselves breakfast at the twice-weekly market at Helvetiaplatz, close to the city center. Parking was a bit of a project as the area was busy and I wasn't accustomed to the signage, meaning that a couple of times I thought I had found a place only to discover it wasn't legal. Switzerland utilizes a system in which white lines indicate paid parking, blue lines indicate residential parking, and yellow lines indicate private parking. Parking in blue spaces is permitted for non-residents for an hour using a cardboard clock left on the dashboard, but since one is allowed to use a start time of the upcoming half hour it can be stretched to as much as ninety minutes. The hours where payment in white spaces is required varies widely between locations and cities so it is necessary to examine the fine print on the meters closely or use a parking app where the requirements are clearly explained. We had a lot of difficulty using parking apps because we chose to use an eSIM for mobile service which was convenient but also meant we didn't have a number for calling and texting. As soon as I realized parking wouldn't be simple I let Mei Ling and the kids off at the market and eventually found a spot a few blocks away. Our SUV was very long for a European vehicle but this disadvantage was countermanded by the cameras and sensors that facilitated parking in spots that were just a few inches longer than the car.

Helvetiaplatz had a medium-sized market with a focus on locally-farmed produce as well as vendors of cheese, breads, sausages, and other staples. One thing there wasn't very much of was ready-to-eat food so I had to purchase ingredients like bread, cheese, and fruit individually and construct meals for myself and the kids that we ate seated around a wooden crate. I noticed that fruit seemed to be a particularly prevalent item, from cherries to plums to currants. It was a good reintroduction to European markets even if it didn't have the size and flair of a French or Italian morning extravaganza.

We drove back to the center and parked in the Jelmoli garage for the day's main event, the hike from Uetliberg to Felsenegg. Zürich is rather far from the Alps but it does have its own small range of low mountains called the Albis, of which the closest peak to the city is Uetliberg. We would be skipping the renowned Alpine section of Switzerland almost entirely on this itinerary and I didn't want to completely forgo the legendary mountain hikes and views that the country is best known for. The plan was to take the train from the Hauptbahnhof to Uetliberg and walk along the Planetenweg hiking trail to Felsenegg before descending to the suburb of Adliswil by cable car. From Adliswil we would be able to take a train back to the center. Driving the car wouldn't be practical since there was no public road to Uetliberg and the hike would take us to a different point from where we had started.

I'd read a couple of descriptions that suggested buying a special train ticket called the Albis Netzkarte which would cover all legs of the trip. The Hauptbahnhof was a short walk from Jelmoli but first I wanted to visit the nearby Platzspitz, a small park where one can view the confluence of the Limmat and the Sihl rivers. The Limmat originates in the Zürichsee and courses through the medieval center, separating the Altstadt from Niederdorf. It continues northwest from Zürich until it converges with the Aare which in turn drains into the Rhine. The Sihl originates in the Alps and passes through the heart of Zürich to the west of the Altstadt before draining into the Limmat. A long moat called Schanzengraben was dug in medieval times as part of the fortifications of the walled city and connects the Sihl with Zürichsee, rendering the Altstadt an island.

From the pedestrian bridge we could see the muddy waters of the Sihl traveling alongside the clear Limmat before they eventually merged. Platzspitz was a pleasant little park although the confluence of the two small rivers was somewhat underwhelming. A few large fish swam underneath the balcony at the tip of the park, perhaps hoping for a handout. On the way into the train station we passed by the enormous chateau-style Swiss National Museum.

Inside the train station we were able to buy the Albis tickets, although they were more expensive than I had read. Perhaps I hadn't navigated the selections correctly and bought a more costly ticket. Afterwards we couldn't figure out what line the train to Uetliberg departed from and couldn't find any information desk so we started asking random people and were eventually directed to a track where a red train labeled Uetliberg was waiting. We leapt aboard and settled in, only to be called off by an agent on the platform who examined our tickets and declared that we were not eligible for that train. He sent us to the surface where we had to board a tram to Triemli and subsequently a bus to the summit of Uetliberg. This didn't match up with my research at all and I suppose I'll never know if we were unfairly ordered off the correct train or if there was some alteration in the route from when the information I had read was published. The kids catnapped a little on the tram and occupied the rest of their time with word games and meditation.

At the summit there was an open area with a hotel at one end and a viewpoint over Zürich and Zürichsee on the other. There was also a lookout tower with seemingly endless flights of stairs leading to an observation tower. We decided that the views we already had were good enough and gave the tower a pass. I saw a brightly-colored curved object in the sky and realized it was a parachute with a rider suspended underneath. I pointed it out to the kids who spotted another and then another. We couldn't see where the paragliders were launching from but clearly it wasn't far as the sky was filled with them. The kids got their first of what would be a great many ice creams at a stand close to the viewpoint and then we located the rather poorly-marked staircase that connected the viewpoint with the Planetenweg hiking trail.

The idea of the trail is that there is a model and a plaque representing the sun at the beginning of the trail and then the nine planets (including Pluto) are spaced along the six kilometer trail from Uetliberg to Buchenegg proportionately to their true distances from the sun. We actually missed the sun and the first four planets because they are clustered close to the Uetliberg train station that we bypassed due to arriving by bus. It was no great loss since I didn't understand the point of the planet theme anyway. The trail was mostly paved and quite easy with occasional views over the lake and some pleasant fields and farmhouses on the other side.

As we drew nearer to Felsenegg we came across the launching point for the paragliders and we stopped for a while to watch them spread out their chutes and launch themselves from a precipice into the sky. It was quite nervewracking to see them all expose themselves to the mercy of the winds even though they seemed experienced and confident. I've done tandem hang-gliding before which was a great experience but I'd hate to have to overcome a learning curve where the slightest mistake could mean a gruesome death. Hopefully the kids will find less hazardous hobbies once they get a little older.

After about an hour and a half we arrived at Felsenegg where there was a small restaurant and more views over the lake below. We had a light lunch and the kids spent some time in a small playground behind the restaurant. We had been fortunate to have perfect cool and sunny weather for our long walk in the Albis.

We took the cable car down to Adliswil where with some difficulty we located the train station. As I followed the progress of our train back towards the center on Google Maps I noticed an odd little island in the Limmat just after it took off from the lake. I zoomed in and realized it was a beer garden that I'd missed in my research. The reviews weren't that great but heck, it was a beer garden and I'd thought there wasn't a single one in all of Zürich. We piled out of the train at the closest stop to the Limmat and walked over to Bürkliplatz, a busy square at the base of the old town adjacent to Zürichsee. There were several piers for sightseeing boats and ferries and a cobblestone boat ramp that was a gathering place for ducks and swans.

The beer garden could not have had a more atmospheric location. The pentagonal artificial island of Bauschänzli is a remnant of the fortifications that once protected Zürich from naval attack and retains an imposing military character even though the only occupant has been a restaurant for more than a hundred years. As the online reviews had warned the food was mediocre but it was an interesting and scenic spot to enjoy some refreshments.

We had only passed through the Altstadt the previous night on our way to Niederdorf so we made sure to explore the old town well before returning to the car. This was a warmer evening and the outdoor tables of the numerous restaurants were packed with diners. To whatever extent I had pictured Zürich before this trip, I had imagined a rather sterile modern city with a lot of watch stores. I was pleasantly surprised by the center's medieval character and high energy.

At one of Altstadt's numerous fountains we took advantage of the fact that in Switzerland the water emitted from fountains is mandated to meet the same standards as that coming from a tap. After our first visit to a supermarket we never bought bottled water as long as we were in Switzerland. Back at Jemoli I was surprised by an eye-watering parking bill. I looked up the rates later and saw that after three hours the hourly rate ballooned dramatically and there was apparently no daily maximum. I realized that in Switzerland it would be necessary to research parking more carefully so that I knew exactly what I would be paying in advance. I also learned that many parking garages allow reservations through apps and their own websites at rates far below those that are posted. It probably wouldn't be worth the trouble for short stays but I resolved to investigate those deals in cities like Amsterdam that were renowned for high parking rates.

The older kids' jetlag hadn't improved at all so we let them sleep in until nine the next morning. Once again we started the day with a market breakfast, this time in the busy residential quarter of Oerlikon. Oerlikon was once a city in its own right before being absorbed by Zürich a century ago. The morning market takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in a large central square close to the train station. Although it was similar in size and composition to the Helvetiaplatz market there was a little more variety and we were able to put together a more interesting breakfast than we had the previous day.

On the other side of the train station is an unusual site called MFO Park. A disused factory called Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon has been replaced by a lattice of steel girders containing several staircases and platforms and the entire apparatus is covered by a variety of vines that form transparent living walls. The stairs ascend all the way to the roof of the structure where a large wooden deck provides views over the rooftops of Oerlikon. It's a beautiful and interesting edifice but aside from being an event space it doesn't seem to provide much for the local residents. A number of empty beer bottles lying around on the upper platforms suggested it might be a common gathering place for late-night partiers.

Since we'd begun our sightseeing right off the plane we had already worked through my list of unmissable sights in Zürich. Since the clouds had almost completely lifted and the temperature had risen substantially since our arrival it was a perfect time to engage in another famous local activity, swimming in Zürichsee. The only location I was aware of was a lido on the western edge of the lake called Strandbad Mythenquai that was mentioned in my guidebook, but I misread the road signs and ended up in a parking lot further south. When we emerged we found ourselves in a beautiful public park at the edge of the lake with lots of locals sunbathing and picnicking. Many of them were cooking sausages on small portable grills. A short bridge led to a tiny island in the lake which was also filled with sunbathers and swimmers. I didn't realize it at the time but I was actually at a public park called Landiwiese and not at Mythenquai, which had an entry fee and was fenced off from the park. The island is Saffa-Insel, which was built from excavated material as part of an exposition about women's labor in 1958. The kids played on the swings for a while and then I took them over to the island where we jumped into the chilly, clear water of the lake. This was probably the activity they'd enjoyed the most since our arrival and it reminded me that I needed to be sure to schedule fun things for the kids among all the markets and city walks that Mei Ling and I loved.

We moved the car to the Jelmoli garage one final time secure in the knowledge that we'd be back within four hours. Our goal was to complete our exploration of Niederdorf in clear, sunny weather but first we stopped at the flagship store of Confiserie Sprüngli, a luxury confectioner that open its doors in 1859 and now has over a dozen outlets around Switzerland. Sprüngli's main specialty is the macaron and there were thousands of the high-priced cookies arranged in rows and stacks when we visited. Fortunately none of the kids are huge macaron fans these days and we were able to escape the crowds of tourists inside having only bought a few small containers of ice cream.

Niederdorf was much more lively and colorful on a warm and sunny Saturday evening that it had been on our first visit. This time we made sure to investigate all those narrow cobblestone alleys that ascended the hill until we reached the wide thoroughfare that signaled the end of the historic district. The small neighborhood was home to countless hidden courtyards and romantic fountains, one of which was being used as a setting for engagement photos as we passed. As we walked we kept our eye out for a good setting for a surprise birthday dinner for Cleo, who had turned ten that day. She had already had her party a week before we left but since all the kids have birthdays over the summer we have a little tradition of celebrating in the native language of whatever country we happen to be in. We've had Happy Birthday sung in Czech and Icelandic to Ian, and in Chinese to Spenser. This would be the first time we had been out of the United States on Cleo's birthday. It was difficult to find a restaurant at prime time on Saturday evening that could take us but eventually we found what appeared to be the perfect place. It was a Swiss restaurant at the base of a triangular courtyard with a large fountain and lots of outdoor tables and it seemed to have great reviews. The only problem was that that the food turned out to be absolutely terrible with no redeeming features whatsoever. We didn't let that dampen our spirits excessively and I was able to corral our waiter privately to request Cleo's birthday song, which was ultimately executed in German to the accompaniment of a sparkling dessert. The awful food and the jaw-dropping bill that followed were made more than worthwhile by Cleo's delight. It was a great way to celebrate Cleo's milestone and also our triumphant return to continental Europe after four long years. Zürich had proven to be an auspicious beginning for our lengthy road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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