Zürich, Switzerland – the quientessential boutique city, An Introduction

A few trips to Westerm Europe (mainly Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Oslo) confirmed what I had really guessed – that western Europe was expensive. So I set my eyes on taking short trips to southern, central and eastern Europe to explore this continent but not overly lighten my wallet – I like a heavy wallet 😉

And so I made my next trip to Vilnius in Lithuania. But it wasn’t long before a trip to central/western Europe came beckoning again – this time around for work in Switzerland.

Switzerland is located in what is typically considered central Europe, together with Germany, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic and a few others, and it is perhaps the most deceptive of the European regions. While a blanket description of other regions in Europe tends to suffice, central Europe differs so much in the cost of living that you can go from some of the most expensive cities in the world to some of the most value for money cities in the region (e.g. Warsaw & Gdansk)

My trip brought me to the opposite spectrum of Central Europe, the very expensive part – Switzerland.

Everyone knows Switzerland (granted most people get Sweden and Switzerland mixed up), even if not the facts of the country then at least the reputation of being one of the places with the highest quality of life in the world, the place where the Pope’s contingent of guards (Pontifical Swiss Guards) are drawn from and the place where many world governments have their head offices – FIFA in Zurich as well as the World Health Organisation, Medicins Sans Frontieres and World Trade Organisation all in Geneva. Countries have even used Switzerland as a standard and benchmark to inspire their people to dream of where their own countries could be in the future.

A landlocked country surrounded by major European powers – Italy, France and Germany, Switzerland has managed to escape the last few centuries relatively unscathed by the major conflicts in Europe. For a country with three different cultural regions (French, German, Italian and Romansh-speaking) to be able to succeed to this extent is also a minor miracle. Switzerland traces its earliest formation to the Old Swiss Confederacy in the 1300s, where a number of small states came together to form a Confederation under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire. It gained its independence from the Holy Roman Empire during the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended two major religious wars (between the Catholics and Protestants) – the thirty years war and the eighty years war. (I really like this comedy sketch of the treaty).

Since its independence (even going back to the Reformation), Switzerland has employed a policy of armed neutrality – it is politically neutral but has a military to protect itself from any form of aggression. It has not been at war since 1815 (a year after the Swedes), and managed to prevent ward off the prying eyes of both the Allies and Axis powers during World War II. Because of its political neutrality and active soverign foreign policy, Switzerland became a great place to found international institutions including the Red Cross.

If Switzerland is unique as a centre for world government and finance, then Zurich is a vital node in global finance, with Fortune 500 trading and financial firms such as Credit Suisse, UBS, Swiss Re and the Zurich Insurance Group headquartered there. There are also some of the most exclusive private banks in the world such as the Julius Baer Group.

There’s a popular local Swiss joke about the city of Zurich, Zurich zu reich, zu ruhig, meaning Zurich is too rich and too quiet. This is, after all, the leading city in Switzerland, the one city that bears the brunt of jokes about snobby and rich city dwellers in the country (much like Stockholm in Sweden). This jibing no doubt has much to do with the fact that Zurich is home to so many working in global finance. The difference between this financial city and many others (think New York, London and Hong Kong) is that Zurich feels a lot more relaxed and laid back, it’s almost strange that a small town has become a global financial metropolis.

Zurich has been around for a long time. In fact almost two millenia. The city was first created by the Romans in 12 BC as a fortification against Barbarians from the north, its main site was on the hill of Lindenhof. That role faded as the Holy Roman Empire emerged and the once barbarious north became part of the empire. The faded fortress and the surrounding land had not immediate future, until divine intervention sparked a change.

It began with the King Louis II, who wanted to give his daughter a present. While most people would have asked for a palace, his pious and religious daughter Hildergard asked for a convent. He obliged by building her a convent, today known as the

But Hildergard was no simple convent sister, not was she a boring abbess, she was the defacto head of a city that grew around the convent. The Mayors of the town served at here leave and pleasure, taxes were paid to her and not the mayor, this state of affairs continued for more than a century. If Zurich was already unique for being run by an abbess, it was only going to be even more unique, for it was here where the Swiss Reformation (of their version of Christianity) was begun by Huldrych Zwingli at the church next door the Grossmünster.

The Swiss Reformation spread and created a divided country with some cantons becoming Protestant and others becoming Catholic leading to two civil wars (called the Wars of Kappel).

Now, while the city is a global financial centre, it is also more than that. The Swiss are masters of reinvention and have been masters in machines. Some of the most popular Swiss brands show this sense of creation and reinvention – Nestle, Nescafe, Rolex and Lindt. Coffee, Chocolate and watches are not indigenous raw materials to the Swiss, what they did was take something from elsewhere and made it special. Zurich is the home to some of the world’s top universities including the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, where a certain Albert Einstein was trained and taught respectively.

There is another part to Zurich, the part that is lively and fun. The part that tends to get ignored on day trips because its further away from the tourist old town at the western edge of the city. Like many other cities, Zurich has transformed its industrial area into a lifestyle district – incorporating industrial elements into their art.

The difference is that there are parts of the district that actually still remains industrial (not much).

In a way Zurich is a boutique city, which is described by architect Joel Kotkin as follows, “like a high-end specialty merchandiser [boutique cities], have little use for the general run of the working and middle class, whose needs are assigned to the domain of Target, Wal-Mart and other suburban merchandisers.” There are poor people and the like, but the city as a whole is so expensive that the middle and lower middle class are mostly priced out of the market. When high tech industries and banking are the main sectors driving the city, should that come as any surprise?

In fact many of the middle and lower middle class (according to Swiss standards anyway) live outside of Zurich, in what are now satellite cities (such as Winterthur) and commute into the city to work. Then again the whole of Switzerland can be crossed in 4 hours and trains depart every 30 minutes so it doesn’t always matter that one doesn’t live in the city itself.

This is a boutique city, but perhaps precisely because it is a boutique city, its past and history is very well preserved. Let’s go check it out!

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