Zürich Altstadt, the time travelling Old Town

Having been around more than a few old towns in Europe (Riga, Vilnius, Gdansk, Stockholm, Warsaw and Amsterdam) you think there’d be a saturation point where enough is enough, where the bored tourist raise their hands and exclaims in exasperation, I’ve seen it all!

But that saturation point hasn’t arrived yet and it probably won’t for this tourist. Why should it when the history, style, vibe and architecture of all these old towns are so vastly different from each other. When the stories, sights and smells of these old towns are rich and unique. Instead of growing sick of old towns, old towns grow on you.

Now, to be sure, the old towns I speak about have been cleaned up and spruced up to the former glory as part of modern municipal attempts to reimagine how a place would look like, or at least give a sampling of it; these old towns probably never looked like they do today. And this reimagination is a romanticisation, a fantasy of a bygone era. The amenities and quality of life today of a poor person (not poverty, poor) in a developed country are far better than that of the upper class of a former era. But there is a charm to old towns, an unabashed distinction and individualism of those towns from the spanking skyscrappers of today, and the charm of Zurich Altstadt is definitely clear.

Small, alleyways lined with cobblestones and pastel coloured houses on each side greet you with every turn, each path leads not to a dead end but to a new world…

The opening is sometimes a small square with a fountain, and medieval looking flags lined on the walls, the only semblance of modernity apart from your presence, being the bicycles parked and chained at the sidewalks.

Situated on hilly terrain and built around two sides of a clear freshwater lake (the Romans chose the then town exactly for this reason) the Altstadt retains a very idyllic medieval look all the while managing to be home to some 5000 (around 1.5% of the city’s population) residents and a few million tourist annually.

As with all old cities in Europe, the whole apparatus of a functioning society can be found in this small piece of land and most of it accessible by foot. The reason simply because people had to walk around to get to work and live prior to the modern day where public and private transport has become a mass service. Zurich’s Altstadt follows the same contours of the city as it was in 1881 and is today divided into four quarters, the hill quarter (Lindenhof), the town hall quarter (Rathaus), university quarter (Hochschulen) and the City quarter. The city quarter occupies the top most part of the replica below, followed by Lindenhof, and across the river the Rathaus and the Hochschulen district up on the hill.

The start of Zurich is however the Lindenhof hill, where the Romans founded the fort Turicum. The fort was the house of the royals but the real power behind the city, at least to for the first millennium of its founding was was the Abbess of the Fraumunster monastery located on the same side as Lindenhof Hill.

It was at the square just outside the moonastery that the real business of running the town was conducted in its early days (until 1336).

Today, people sit at the square with makeshift-permanent benches (I know it doesn’t make sense, but its true) and sip their coffee. Others meet their friends behind the fountain and have a coffee out of the many cafes dotted around the area.

This state of affairs only changed when an individual called Rudolf Brun established power as Mayor of Zurich not from the Abbess of the church but from the many guilds all around the city in 1336 – the event was called the Guild Revolution. It was from that day onwards that the power of the city (money) flowed from hands that prayed to hands that worked. I equate the power of the city with money because that was the case, even though the Catholic abbess of Fraumunster controlled the city, her clearest sign of control was that taxes and fees when doing business and living in the city were paid to her.

Just as the people crossed control of the abbess to the guilds, I crossed the Vegetable Bridge, where vegetables are sold from make shift stands from Lindenhof to the next oldest part of town -Rathaus.

Rathaus quarter is today ones of the larger quarters that goes up and down Lake Zurich, before the whole district was given the name Altstadt, the historical name of this part of the town was the mehrere stadt (the greater town). While the Lindenhof side of town and the Fraumunster was older and the streets smaller the short walk to Rathaus broughts a more modern, post-medieval feel tot he city. Here the streets were wider, modern cars could find their way around and the streets were filled with people.

The cobble-stoned path now shared the walkway with large smooth sidewalks, with enough space to lay tables for alfresco dining, the sheer number of people making the place ideal for people watching though perhaps not for shooting the breeze in quiet.

Getting away from the people was not difficult though, since the hill formed a natural barrier from the Rathaus quarter and the Hochschulen quarter. Here in the Hochschulen district was quiet, it was a weekend, most students would get out and as far away from their school as they could. The district is home today to the administrative offices of two world class Universities – ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. Both universities are relatively older and did not exist during the medieval era. Well not in this form at least.

ETH Zurich

While ETH Zurich was formed in 1855 under the auspices of Federal Control (the sister institution being the EPF Laussane) as a techical school focusing in STEM subjects, the University of Zurich was formed in 1833 when the Cantonal government merged various the theology, law, medicine and philosophy schools into one institution. Becoming the first government formed university in Europe (instead of one formed by religous or royal charter).

Univeristy of Zurich

Both Universities can count on a distinguished list of faculty including 35 Nobel Laureates from ETH Zurich and 12 from the University of Zurich (some of these winners overlap, including a certain Albert Einstein, but more on him in a subsequent post).

I had travelled through time in barely anytime at all, thanks to a very orderly city arrangement in this time travelling old town. But there are many aspects of this old town that can barely be touched upon in this post.

Time to go deeper into these stories.


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