Thursday, 6 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 15 - Switzerland


Switzerland, 6th December, 2012.

The sleeper train switches across the endless overlaid tracks outside Zurich Hauptbahnhoff with clicks and squeaks, then slides into one of the many platforms, on time at precisely 7:26 in the morning. I hope I don't look as tired and ruffled as the others in my compartment extracting themselves from their bunks, but I'm not optimistic. After some on-bunk contortions to get my jumper on that would make a yoga master proud I clamber off my bunk and get off the train.

Derek meets me on the platform and we wander through the small underground shopping area to get to the tram stop. I smile in greeting when I see the familiar H&M underwear poster that's been a repeating background since Sofia; but then the model moves, turns and she looks right at me. For a second I'm scared that I'm hallucinating, or still dreaming somehow, I rub my sleep filled eyes, and look again. She does it again, the exact same movement. Confused I squint at the poster and realise it's a video poster. It's the same advert photo as before, except she moves into the final pose before being frozen and a price appearing, it's very disconcerting.

We eat breakfast in Derek's apartment and I watch his floor sweeping robot with fascination as it works its way across the room in careful rows, collecting dust on the removable cloth it holds. Around the edge of the sofa and table legs it bumps forwards and backwards rapidly and wiggles around trying to reach obstructed spots, which is hard not to anthroporomophise as a frustrated extra effort to remove a stubborn stain.

This is the real future; robot servants doing the cleaning, not some lazy Hollywood science fiction of moving posters. Even if domestic robots are very limited and expensive at the moment it still feels like a glimpse into a future I want, a future without having to tidy up. I know you get semi-autonomous drones hunting terrorists and driverless trains carrying millions of people a year, but a cleaning robot seems a bigger step towards getting a personal flying car because it's something you can have in your home, not on a battlefield. A Predator with hellfire missiles is all very clever, but it's not going to hang up the laundry for me.

I wonder how it knows where it's going, and Derek explains some of the different ways that robots can navigate, and their different merits, depending on what the robot is trying to achieve. I'm pulled away from his explanation as, having finished, the robot returns to its start spot and makes a happy series of bleeps, convincing me instantly that it has a soul as well as an endless desire to clean.

To get out of Zurich we decide to take the train to the city of Aarau, on the banks of the River Aar. The old town is small and charming with its tall mediaeval houses packed closely together inside the footprint of the old city walls. On some of the tall townhouses the roof hangs a long way over the front of the building, the underside of which is colourfully painted. The old part of the city, with small cobbled streets, shuttered windows and a light sprinkling of snow matches almost exactly what you'd imagine from a small Swiss city.

The small church is equally charming, with deeply coloured stained-glass windows glowing red and blue with the light of the winter sun behind them. This is the first non-catholic or eastern church I've seen on my trip and it's a refreshing minimal affair, no darkness and oppressive opulence to be found anywhere inside. I don't have any preference for the form of Christianity practiced, but I know who's interior design I prefer.

Aarau was also an early possession of the Hapsburg dynasty, being bought by Rudolph I von Hapsburg in 1273, who also acquired in his reign the duchy of Austria and established the Hapsburgs as one of the major imperial dynasties that ruled feudal Europe. The Hapsburgs later lost Aarau to the Swiss confederacy and for three months Aarau was even the first capital of the Helvetic Republic, the first unified form of Switzerland. Now Aarau is a bit quieter, most of the mediaeval defences have been removed over hundreds of years, leaving only an impressive clock tower and tightly woven core of old houses and streets behind.

To warm from the cold up we decide to head back towards Zurich and get out at Baden, named after the hot mineral springs that rise out of the ground there, which Derek and I hope to try out. Our plan is thwarted by heavy construction works as the baths are being renovated. Looking through the wire mesh fence into the hole where the baths were we see nothing but diggers, mud and a jumble of plastic pipes. It might be warm mud, not that it looks like it, but we give it a miss. Instead we walk along the River Limmat, then climb up to the town centre and onwards through tiny staircase side streets to the ruin of Stein Castle. From the remains, which still fly the flag of Baden, we can see down onto the jumble of houses and the churches with their multi coloured tiled roofs.


Derek tells me that in Michael Portillo's TV series about European railway journeys the former Conservative MP and minister made a visit to Baden to buy a recently revived type of pastry called a Spanisch Broetli. These were so prized that servants from Zurich were made to travel to Baden in the night to bring fresh ones to their masters in the morning. Given this sales pitch we naturally had to try some.

The Spanisch Broetli turn out to be similar to Danish pastries, but filled with a sweet carrot and nut paste. While happily munching my Broetli I became worried that this is how the Tory party wins you over. First it's sweet baked goods and travel recommendations from a smiling, if slightly patronising, ex-minister, but before you know it you start blaming foreigners for all the country's ills and gleefully cutting welfare spending.

In the evening Derek and I head to the Cafe Odeon in the Bellevue area of Zurich. The interior is mostly gold, mirrors and marble, almost like some of the churches I've seen, but with massive crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling throwing out masses of scattered twinkling light. Space is tight, but we find a marble table near a window and relax on the red leather benches. The crowd seems an interesting mix of middle aged theatre goers and tourists, most busy around the central bar, chatting and making exaggerated hand movements.  Outside trams rattle by, going to and from the busy interchange on Bellevue place.



The Cafe Odeon was focal point for the interwar De Stilj art movement, which reacted against the horrors of conflict by revering child-like spontaneity and play in its works. It was also one of Lenin's favourite hang-outs while he was exiled in Switzerland before returning to Russia.

Sadly the cafe is smaller than it was, half the space has since become a pharmacy and, irritatingly, it has screens showing football while playing light dance music. I don't know Lenin's attitudes to these things, but it's hard to imagine him approving, especially at eight Francs a beer. Perhaps it's these changes that drove Lenin from the Odeon back to Russia, but even with my newly found taste for Tory approved pastries I don't think it's going to push me over the edge to start a revolution, instead Derek and I register our protest more quietly by heading for another bar.

We find a bar (and furniture shop) called My Place filled with students and a deliberately ramshackle collection of designer tables, chairs and lamps, all of which, apart from the students, can be bought. Here we get more comfortable and worry about important things like the frustratingly long time it takes us to write e-mails that are to our satisfaction and if it's better to host you own mail server or rely on a cloud service.