Christmas in the Alps

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The famous Bahnhofstrasse Decorated for the Holidays. Photo by Sony Stark.
The famous Bahnhofstrasse Decorated for the Holidays. Photo by Sony Stark.

Holiday Getaways in Austria and Switzerland

By Sonja Stark

Christmas in Europe is special, it’s the time that most cities set up Christmas markets to provide local hand made goods and foods for sale during the holidays.

Traveling by Train from Innsbruck to Zurich

A Bahnhofstrasse tennebaum dripping in Swarovski Crystal
A Bahnhofstrasse tennebaum dripping in Swarovski Crystal

Rather than buying several tickets for each country you visit, (Eurail 888.382-7245) offers one easy pass with four options for traveling by rail through 24 European countries: the Global Pass, Select Pass, Regional Pass and One Country Pass.

I picked the 5-time use Eurail Select Pass, good in three bordering countries, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, for two months. Youths under the age of 26 and groups of two or more can travel for a lot less.

It may sound expensive, but when you factor in renting a car, fuel and pit stops, traveling first class by rail makes sense. Rail rides are exceptionally smooth and loaded with amenities.

I covered more 185 miles from Innsbruck to Zurich in three hours and 39 minutes. With traffic being what it is in Europe, that same ride would have taken just as long in a car but with the possibility of getting lost and stopping for chow along the way.

By rail I was connected to the internet, sipped some wine and caught up on my sleep regimen.

If all you need is a single journey from Innsbruck to Zurich then the price falls as low as 44.90 Euro ($65 US) for 2nd class seating.

December Shopping in Zürich, Switzerland

120 Christmas stalls inside the Banhofstrasse train station
120 Christmas stalls inside the Banhofstrasse train station

I had only one day to ‘shop till I drop’ in a city that’s been recognized seven times for having the highest quality of life in the world. That’s a lofty goal for any city to achieve, let alone seven times. By noon, we arrived in the notoriously wealthy city of Zürich Switzerland, where Euros are still welcome but locals prefer the legal tender, Swiss francs.

Our train pulled into the busy Zürich Train Station – this is a destination for holiday shopping in between conductor announcements and whistle calls.

I squeezed past a gigantic 50-foot tree dressed head-to-toe in 6,000 twinkling Swarovski crystals. Shoppers were everywhere and it was frustrating weaving between them while dragging a heavy suitcase.

Of the four most memorable Christmas markets in Zürich, the Zürcher Christkindlimarkt inside the train station is the biggest in Switzerland, as well as the largest indoor Christmas market in Europe.

Finally after passing 120 stalls of ornaments and doodads, I was standing on, arguably, the most famous “Station Road” in the world – the Bahnhofstrasse: a shopping mile that shapes Zürich’s reputation as the most fashionable and decadent.

The bountiful buffet at the Hiltl Vegetarian Restaurant in Zurich, Switzerland
The bountiful buffet at the Hiltl Vegetarian Restaurant in Zurich, Switzerland

A convenient all-English bookstore (the largest in Europe) called the Orell Füssli is directly across from the station – it’s the perfect place to grab a map and ask for advice.

With limited time, the sales lady convinced me to combine my love of old architecture and culture and hit the cobbled streets of 12th-century Old Town.

Old Town runs on each side of River Limmat inspiring shoppers to comb flower and flea markets in the summer and artisan vendors in the winter. It’s December and the chilly lake air makes me bundle up tight.

Amid a labyrinth of charming alleys and bridges lies the Protestant Grossmünster Church, the most famous landmark in the city. I rush the tower for views. A crypt and Romanesque cloister is worth a closer visit.

Other highlights in Old Town include the Fraumünster Abbey, well-known for the Marc Chagall stained glass windows, the Kunsthaus Art Museum – the finest art museum in Switzerland and St. Peters Church, built in 1534, the oldest church in Zürich. It also has the largest clock face in Europe.

The River Lammat winds through the center of Old Town in Zurich, Switzerland.
The River Lammat winds through the center of Old Town in Zurich, Switzerland.

The colorful window displays and night markets of Niederdof and Oberdorf squares are hypnotizing. The smell of hot mulled cider hangs in the air over an oasis of quaint shops, trendy boutiques and ornate bay windows. Rare and antique book stores with out-of-print and signed classics remind me of New York’s legendary Book Row.

On Spiegelgasse is the Cabaret Voltaire, the world famous “Dada House” where an anti-war art movement emerged during WWI (1914-18) to challenge the traditional beliefs of a pro-war society.

I take a special interest in reading up on exhibitions of absurdist art that deliberately scandalized and shocked the public, creating an uproar among authorities.

Grocery chain stores like Globus, Manor and Migros are where you’ll find more affordable alternatives to fancier confectionery and conditerei shops.

Green Gastronomic Highlights

Frozen grapes still on the vine in Rapperswil with Lake Zurich in the distance
Frozen grapes still on the vine in Rapperswil with Lake Zurich in the distance

From anti-war cafes to anti-meat restaurants, it’s time to drop another popular superlative, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe: Hiltl.

“It was in 1901 when my great grandfather Ambrosius Hiltl, was diagnosed with gout and told to stop eating meat. He did and was cured and lived to the be 93 years old.”Since 1898, Hiltl has been a trend-setting restaurant managed by four generations of Hiltls. Great grandson Rolf Hiltl recounts the 111-year old family history while he gives me a tour of the kitchen, cooking school and bar.

Ambrosius promptly altered the menu to legumes and rice. The vegetarian panacea lead to a new direction in medicinal diets for hundreds of people fighting debilitating arthritis caused by eating rich food.

Today a hearty helping of coconut chutney, curry basmati rice, smoked tofu, beans, peas and lentils will cure you of any desires you have for meat. The buffet carries twice as much Indian cuisine as other items, which makes sense since Vegetarianism began in India.

Public Transportation around Lake Zürich

The Infinity Pool at the Dolder Hotel
The Infinity Pool at the Dolder Hotel

Approximately 1500 hungry guests eat here daily and then burn off whatever calories are consumed at the adjoining Hiltl dance and music club.

Sticking with public transportation, the ZVV S-Bahn System (city trams, aerial cableway, buses, boats, mountain railways) is far more economical and reliable than renting a car.

The ZurichCARD is only $35 and good for 72 hours with free admission to 39 museums and a complementary drink at 17 restaurants.

Being the largest city in Switzerland, Zürich is broken down into five zones so it pays to take use a ZürichCARD to see everything. The day pass can accommodate transportation to dozens of smaller medieval towns worth exploring around the lake, like Rapperswil.

Picturesque Old Town of Rapperswil

Rapperswil, the Riviera of upper Lake Zürich, is often referred to as the ‘City of Roses’ in the summer but in December the gardens turn to frost and a biting harbor wind violently shakes wooden shutters and windowpanes.

Rapperswill has a history that dates back to the 12th century preserving old architecture while complementing new construction. In 2001 a newly built wooden footbridge across the lake replaced unsafe loose planks with footings that dated back to 1650 B.C.

The author enjoys a day of R&R at the Dolder Hotel.
The author enjoys a day of R&R at the Dolder Hotel.

Our tour guide walks us around the peninsula pointing out stone and timber homes with cannons still lodged in the exterior walls from religious wars between the Catholics and the Old Swiss Confederation.

We climb up a hillside blanketed with sleeping vineyards and linger over small chimneys puffing smoke out from slanted rooftops. It’s magical, just like a storybook.
Depending on the weather, an optional one-hour ferry ride returns to Zurich in the evening.The castle tower offers wonderful views of the lake and town. There’s also a circus museum and new Art Center Gallery to attend.

Lunch is served in a Mediterranean eatery along the bay owned by a singing Sicilian who likes to carry a melody while he cooks. At La Scala, my dish of creamy, piping-hot risotto tames the gurgling shrew in my belly.

Maximum Pampering

My friend Donna, who is traveling with me, takes credit for finding this rare gem. She and I find our way to an empty Dolderbahn funicular that whisks up to the Dolder Grand Hotel, a Disney-like castle done up for the holidays.

For four years this five-star hotel was closed for renovations but in April 2008, the Swiss owners cut the red ribbon to show off the million-dollar transformation. It’s been booked solid every since.

A smorgasbord of Raclette Cheese on top of Uetliberg Mountain
A smorgasbord of raclette cheese on top of Uetliberg Mountain

This hotel ranks as a “Leading Hotel in the World” and Donna and I liken the spa treatments to being in an art installation by Georgia O’Keefe: rich technicolors of simple organic beauty.

Against a wall-to-wall window, overlooking a mantle of snow-covered tree branches, drifts a cloud of steam from the surface of the charcoal-colored infinity pool through to the heated pebble loungers.

That’s where Donna is dozing and I’m about to unwrap my bathrobe for the soak of a lifetime in the outside whirlpool.

I test the water with my big toe. It’s absolutely perfect. I submerge myself whole, conforming my body to the underwater barcalounger until only my nose feels the falling snow.

A sensation of surreal peacefulness comes over me, like I’m frozen inside a still-life painting, an optical distortion that only O’Keefe could paint.

The abstract aura extends into the meditation room, the solarium, the kotatsu footpath and cold-water basin. Japanese tea from clay pots and ginger candy is served on the round oak table in the wellness spa.

Our visit extends until our day pass ends, a day of luxuries for roughly $300 each. If I had another wallet or two, I would have stayed in one of the 173 magical hotel room suites.

Cheese Cuisine Atop Uetliberg Mountain

The last time I need my ZurichCARD comes as I ascend part way up Mount Uetliberg overlooking a blinking sea of Zurich lights.

The hiking trail to the summit is converted into sled runs and evergreen trees are decorated with reindeer statues. At the top, dozens of party dwellers huddle around campfires roasting bread on a stick.

Fondue, raclette and bratwurst are mainstays of a Swiss diet and tonight we dine on all three at Uto Kulm.

Electric Suisse Raclette sets are fancy grills that cook veggies on olive-oil-brushed surfaces while the cheese melts underneath in small pans known as coupelles. The goodness of the semi-firm, salted cheese is enjoyed in an open room with 300 others.