“FIRST, TELL ME WHY YOU are here and where you have been in Switzerland,” Nico says, scoewling at a poor toss by one of the petanque players. “What have you seen?”
I begin with our arrival from the United States into Zurich, which often tops the Mercer human resource consulting group’s annual list of best cities in the world in terms of quality of life (it’s No. 2 this year, just a shade behind Vienna). Nico smiles as our beer arrives, but then he actually laughs when I tell him I’m exploring Switzerland with my wife and children in tow.
“Next time,” he says with a sly grin, “ just bring your girlfriend. It’s a lot more fun that way!”
Although his mind is slightly dirty, everything else about Nico is rather impeccable. He appears to be in his late 50s, or maybe he’s one of those maddening Europeans who look at least a full decade younger than they really are: trim, lively and nattily dressed. Nico has saltand- pepper hair that’s mostly covered up with a jaunty cap, and the majority of the wrinkles on his face seem to be laugh lines. He has excellent manners and speaks flawless English. When I ask him if he’s a professor, he says people guess that all the time — and he never reveals whether that’s a good guess.
I can take a hint, so I circle back to Zurich and admit that before I arrived, I was very curious about what makes one city so special that it wins a worldwide popularity contest nearly every year. Is it the Altstadt (Old Town), with its cobblestone streets and the darling shops (my wife’s words) and the very essence of charming? The awesome majesty of Zurich’s two centuries-old cathedrals, Grossmünster and Fraumünster, the latter of which has stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall? Could it be the sparkling allure of the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive retail thoroughfares, where banks and chocolatiers share sidewalks with the likes of Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co. and Chanel? Or possibly the nearby snow-capped mountains that appear as if they were imported directly from a Ricola commercial?
When you get right down to it, Zurich is a city that looks like it was designed by a team of Disney Imagineers, tucked near the northern edge of a country that is so clean and spectacularly beautiful that you wonder if it might be the very reason picture postcards were invented. Even the city’s massive train station is both a model of public transportation and a destination unto itself: Nobody pushes or cuts in line, everything is clearly labeled, and there’s an underground complex featuring more than 200 shops and restaurants. And as if to cap off the family-friendliness of Zurich, there’s something quaintly comforting about a major international city that shuts down almost completely on Sundays.