As my gleaming black Mercedes glides its way along oh-so-chic Bahnhofstrasse, the snow starts to fall. It’s a Sunday morning in February and I’m sitting in the back of an immaculate taxi, heading to Fluntern, the cemetery that sits on a hillside above the city of Zurich.
he last thing I’d wanted to do was take a taxi, for Zurich apparently tops the worldwide price list, but, forced to jettison my tram option because the one I needed wasn’t running, there was nothing else for it. There was simply no way I was heading to the airport that afternoon without visiting the grave of James Joyce.
So while he’s parked outside the Savoy Hotel, I approach the elderly taxi driver – named Graziano, courtesy of his Italian mother, he later tells me – and we strike a deal. And yes, he says, he will wait for me and drive me back to the city centre. His mother and father are also buried in Fluntern so he’ll take the opportunity to visit them while I visit ‘Mr Joyce’. It’s not the first time in my weekend visit that I hear James Joyce referenced in such a respectful manner.
Zurich is nothing like I’m expecting. Perhaps because of its banking vibe, my preconceived notions are more skyscraper, more clinical, much more lacking in character than the reality.
In truth, Zurich is a beautiful city, relatively small and accessible. Old Town, with its many medieval treasures, spans both sides of the river, with an overall atmosphere of elegance and culture that gives it an extremely engaging appeal. The magnificent lake is an ever-present attraction, and even during my winter visit, there are boat trips aplenty.
This is also a city with a strong tradition of café society. On my first afternoon, just after I arrive, I stroll across the river to Bahnhofstrasse, not to seek out one of its jaw-droppingly expensive designer shops but, rather, to visit the historic Sprungli café with its gorgeous cake and confectionery shop at ground level and elegant café on the floor above.
Expensive? With an espresso priced at just under €5 and the famous Sprungli hot chocolate at €7, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth the splurge for the quality, the service and the overall experience.
Whether James Joyce ever sampled the coffee here I’m not sure, but he definitely enjoyed the city’s café society when he lived here, initially during World War I years, and then again when he returned shortly before his unexpected death there on January 13, 1941 – 80 years ago this month. He certainly left his mark on the present-day inhabitants of this city.
“Are you from Ireland?” the breakfast waitress in my hotel asks me on my first morning.
I am, I tell her.
“Well, she says, “you must visit Café Odeon, or maybe the Kronenhalle restaurant, because your Mr Joyce used to meet his friends in those places.”
I’ve booked the Kronenhalle for Sunday lunch the following day, I inform her.
“You will love it,” she says.
First things first, however; time to get my bearings. I’ve booked a walking tour and my guide Elizabeth arrives at my hotel straight after breakfast.
We head off towards the Old Town, the part on the side of the river that houses the Grossmünster church, and Elizabeth regales me with historic tales of her home city as we walk.
The architecture here is fairytale charming and the steep, cobbled streets add to the atmosphere as we stroll along. It’s here too that we pass the building that houses the James Joyce Foundation and although it’s closed at weekends, it’s great to see the prominence that Joyce still enjoys right here in the city centre.
Across the river, we visit what I later decide is my favourite church in Zurich – the Fraumünster. Although more parish church than cathedral, with its distinctive green steeple, this is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city. The Marc Chagall windows are simply beautiful, and all the more striking because of the Fraumünster’s somewhat austere interior.
Sunday morning brings my encounter with Graziano and our subsequent drive to Fluntern. As we walk into the snow-covered graveyard together, he tells me exactly where to find Joyce’s grave, and soon I am standing there alone, staring at the flat-to-the-ground tombstone under which lie James, his wife Nora, their son Giorgio and Giorgio’s second wife, Asta.
The famous sculpture of the man himself sits beside the grave – walking cane beside him, legs crossed, book in hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers. How appropriate, I can’t help but think, that he lies in this beautiful spot in a city that took him to its heart and which reveres him still, rather than at home in Ireland where he was rejected and forced into exile.
A few hours later, back in the city centre and having said goodbye to the kindly Graziano, I am staring at another image of Joyce; this time it’s a portrait that hangs on the wall beside ‘his’ table in the Kronenhalle. This is a beautiful restaurant – all white tablecloths, fresh flowers and polished brass and with a plethora of Picasso and Chagall original paintings decorating the walls.
I experience one of those tingle-down-the-spine moments as I sit at my table and realise that at that table over there, just a few feet away, James Joyce actually wrote part of Ulysses. It was here too that he often dined with Nora, or with friends, generally for free because of the generosity of the owner Hulda Zumsteg, restaurateur and patron of the arts all rolled into one.
I had booked well ahead for lunch here, explaining over the phone that I was Irish, and, after a lovely meal (calf’s liver and traditional Swiss rösti), I am getting ready to leave when over to my table comes the manager.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “that I couldn’t give you Mr Joyce’s table. The gentleman and his wife that you see there are regular diners and always ask for that table. We love Mr Joyce in Zurich.”
I feel a flush of pride that I don’t quite understand. And a sense of gratitude too; that the inhabitants of this lovely city, with all its modern-day elegance and historic treasures, should still take such pleasure in keeping the name of James Joyce so alive, even now, 80 years after he was laid to rest in beautiful Fluntern, high on a hillside overlooking his adopted home.
From mid-February, Aer Lingus flies daily Dublin to Zurich. From €100 return; aerlingus.com
It’s an easy train trip from the airport to city centre. A Zurich Card is a must for public transport and operates across buses and trains; zuerich.com/en
Hotel Opera is very central, a two-minute walk from the lake, five minutes from Bahnhofstrasse. Doubles from CHF150 (€140); operahotel.ch
The 25Hours Hotel in the trendy, former industrial area of Zurich-West has a different vibe and cheaper room rate: 25hours-hotels.com
Kronenhalle is gorgeous with good brasserie-style food and terrific service. Expensive; kronenhalle.ch
For fondue, try the restaurant in Hotel Adler. Reasonably priced; hotel-adler.ch