Friday, January 29, 2010

Zurich Indie Shopping

The neighborhood Kreis 4 east of the Sihl River and south of the train tracks in Zurich is supposedly the Red Light district, though we saw no signs of it in the January cold—instead, it looked like a great neighborhood to go on a shopping wander. There was an impressive density of small, indie-designer boutiques, little cafes and yoga centers, and no big-box, big-brand commercialism. I loved it.

Badenerstrasse 123a,
Mid-century modern furniture and lighting.

GrĂ¼ngasse 19
Mid-century modern furniture, cool objects such as vintage children's cars.

Lazer Zone

Backerstrasse 20
Film-buff heaven DVD shop, lots of obscure German stuff, organization by director.

Lyn May
Schrinerstrasse 42
Lingerie: the local equivalent of Kiki De Montparnasse.

Making Things

Grungasse 20
Local fashion designers, crafty accessories.

Ankerstrasse 20
Swiss art-book publisher, lots of cool stuff such as photo book curated by Kim Gordon.

Ooops, I've lost the contact on this one, but if you see it, it has cute clothes, knitwear.

15 Backerstrasse
Import sneakers.

14 Ankerstrasse
Swiss desingers for housewares & hip, modern design.

Secondbag & Stelline
Freyastrasse 21
Girls clothing and local fashion designers.

Street Files Mini Mart
Badenerstrasse 129
Urban stuff, t-shirts.

Grungasse 10
Local fashion design.

Zwei 25
Zweierstrasse 25, +44 241 02 34
My favorite of the women's fashion labels. Colorful, comfy, chic skirts and dresses.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where to Ski in Austria, Lech-Zug am Arlberg, Zurs, Stuben, St. Anton

As usual, the price of all this free content is limited resources.... I can only tell you about what I did/ saw. I don't have a team of reporters out scouring the country, so the expertise of this entry concerns the Arlberg cluster of Austrian resorts near the Swiss border.

We started with the plan of skiing in Austria because British high-end tour operator Scott Dunn (we love Scott Dunn) has chalets there. Our friends stayed at his place in Zermatt when we were there a few years ago, and we were quite jealous of their accommodation, especially the private spa-floor in the chalet, and the cool private chef who cooked breakfast and dinner every evening. Our much-less-nice hotel wasn't much cheaper. Our friends were sharing the chalet with strangers, who turned out to be some rich, young, childless Brits of around the same age as we were. If I remember correctly, I was not the only person at the table to have written and published a novel—interesting dinner companions. Anyway, our friends have also stayed at a Scott Dunn property in St. Anton. We considered it for this trip but it didn't work out $$$-wise for our dates. And that turned out to be very much for the best.

St. Anton is the biggest, most party-oriented, most English-touristy of the cluster of resorts in the Arlberg area. It has the jock-reputation because of a face—I could look up the name, but hey, this is a blog, Valluga, maybe?—that's very extreme, must be skiied with a guide, etc. Awesome, if you are the kind of extreme skiier who can appreciate the terrain, but probably not necessary for most of us. We didn't ski there, but we went into the town one evening, and felt like we were descending from village to big city after mellow Lech and tiny Zug. It was much busier, more English-speaking, the crowds seemed younger.....

It's so difficult when you're wading through ski guides to understand which of a million resorts to choose from, what the terrain is really like, etc. In terms of Arlberg, the resorts of St. Anton and St. Christoph are connected by lifts, forming basically one area; a separate area is the resorts of Lech, Zug, Zurs and Oberlech. It's possible to ski with a guide from the St. Anton area all the way to the Lech area, and might be a fun day-long venture. As seems to be usual with these European mountains, most of the on-piste terrain in the Lech-etc. lift group is pretty easy blue (beginner) runs, with a few pockets of red (advanced) and one or two blacks (extreme). There are a lot of flats, making it difficult for snowboarding. The joy of the Lech area is skiing what's known as a "ronde,"—a round—of the "White Ring." You can pick up a map of "der Wise Ring" at the bottom of the Stubenbach gondola. The idea is that you traverse the terrain in an enormous circle, peak after peak, spectacular view after spectacular view. This, as we discovered, is a great way to spend the day, providing that sort of relaxtion-with-a-purpose that the modern workaholic really needs on vacation. It's like a bar crawl or any other party where certain "goals" have been set. And speaking of bar crawling.... plenty of stops for champagne or schnapps around Der Wise Ring. Oh yes.

Now, would you choose to stay in Zurs, Lech, on the mountain at Oberlech, or Zug? Lech is small and very pretty, but still the only "town" of the cluster, with a main street with lots of open-air apres ski action at night. We would have been perfectly happy staying there. (See hotel recs.) Oberlech is a stop on the mountain known for having all the various venues connected by underground tunnel; Zurs supposedly has the highest-end accomodation but our local friend described it as "a truck stop on the way to Lech." Didn't look that bad to me. Also, the way the lifts are set up, you can only go in one direction around the ring, and, in my opinion, the best terrain was closest to the Zurs lifts. So really, nothing wrong with Zurs either.

And then there was our darling little Zug, which was basically a cluster of hotels with restaurants and one charming cafe. This was a magical Alpine experience, totally quiet, surrounded by gorgous peaks, only one lift going up and one run coming down, the rest of it untrammled mountains, a mountain stream, a walking path through the forest for the 2km trek down to Lech, a cross-country skiing loop. For us, who did our partying with our ski-boots still on and then were home for dinner and an early bedtime, the lack of nightlife here was no problem. Also, there are free buses that run every 20 min, so even if you do want leave Zug, it's easy to get around. Getting back down to Zug at the end of the day was a bit of a pain—the return runs are either expert off-piste or a long, switchbacked riverbed-run with a lot of flats and a 300 meter hoof at the end. However, starting the day from Zug is awesome, since the Zug lift leads to the best restaurant on the mountain, the Balmalp, where we stopped in first thing for a shot of the Rote Williams.....

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hotel Helvetia, Zurich: Cheap boutique, great location

The category of "no-frills boutique hotel" tempts me to digress on the topic of style verses substance. But then sometimes I'm not sure that "no-frills luxury" is a bad thing. Maybe providing chic rooms to design lovers at a comparatively low price point is a mitzvah. People on a budget want to enjoy Moooi lights and stripey, graphic wallpaper, too. And, the young don't really care if there's room service or a bellhop or the lightbulbs are burned out. So, that was the Hotel Helvetia. It's nice-looking, even better than the website suggests, and the rooms have comfortable beds with the fresh, white duvets instead of comforters—the modern boutique signifier ne plus ultra. But there's not even properly a lobby, just a desk in the restaurant, the Internet didn't work in our room, no room service, unacceptably dim lighting, burner in the kitchenette on the fritz, etc. Still, we are very finicky and high-maintenance when it comes to hotels, and I think lots of people would like this place. It has a cool restaurant, a great look, low prices ($220 for a double) and the location could not possibly be more convenient for people who want to explore both the old town and the fashionable Kries 4/ Zuri-West. It's also right on a big tram line, which is great in a city where cabs cost more per ounce than caviar.

Hip, delicious, restaurants in Zurich, avoiding the beer halls and spatzle

Zurich is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, near the Austrian border, and the combination of all the money, the liberal society, and the influence of the sensual and decadent Austrians means that this is a great town for pleasure. I, as a respectable married woman, did not get to visit the Red Light District, nor did I figure out how to buy the semi-legal marijuana, but I did eat well. Since our guidebook was abysmal (thanks for nothing, Lonely Planet) I'm writing listings for everything I saw and researched, regardless of if I ate there or not. My personal Zurich shortlist is: Volkhaus, Mauri's La Rocca and La Salle.

Stauffacherstrasse 60, Kries 4, +41 (0)44 242 11 55

Volkshaus was our most spectacular find in all of Zurich. It's a huge hall on Stauffacherstrasse that used to be/still is a "people's center" with public baths and meeting rooms and other functions. The part we saw is the first floor, where there's a great, hip cafe and restaurant, done up in adorable plaid table-cloths and velvet-flocked walls and vintage deco lamps and so on. Here is a photo of Adeline sitting in the wooden, cane-bottomed high-chair they had. (They also had a box of toys and didn't seem annoyed when she spread out on the floor with them—we were there during an off-hour. Another miracle: In Zurich, finding lunch after 2pm).

The hipster-retro-traditional menu was in German, which was unfortunate since the waiter really couldn't translate. Duck liver terrine, sausage salad (this was a local specialty that I never tried, assume it makes more sense than it sounds like it would), spinach spaetzle, ravioli with pecorino. There was also an artisanal cocktail menu in the new style. And when Ivan asked for schnapps, they rolled out the following trolley:

Overall, beautiful vibe, great food, friendly service and a lively, thriving place for lunch, dinner, sitting with coffee, etc.

La Salle
Schiffbaustrasse 4, Zuri-West, +41 (0) 44 258 70 71
The glamor of Zurich is private-bank glamor, the glamor of vaults and strings of numbers and impassive Swiss faces.... Zurich is money, crime behind a facade of industry. The first thrilling scenes of the Bourne Identity, when Matt Damon goes to investigate the account number he found on the chip implanted in his hip, are set in snow-covered, winter Zurich. La Salle, probably my favorite restaurant of the trip, channels that...conservative avant garde, if you'll allow me the oxymoron. The menu is a high-end, modern but essentially traditional fusion of French, Italian and Swiss—we had the only interesting spaetzle of our trip here. Ingredients are perfect, the carpaccio is so thin it may have been painted on the plate, the cocktails are impeccable. Yet the restaurant is located in the Schiffbau complex, an enormous converted-warehouse with a jazz club and glass-cube bar on top (Nietturm), in trendy Zuri-West. The industrial glass-and-girders room glows with champagne light like a French bistro and is hung with an enormous, pink Venetian crystal chandelier. A lovely, sexy, exotic evening.

Muggenbuhl Gastuben
Muggenbuhlstrasse 15, +41 (0)44 482 11 45
I found this restaurant on a list of most-interesting openings of 2009, and though it's a little out of the city center, it was open New Year's day, so we tried it. This was a very odd experience indeed, a restaurant in a freestanding house next to the highway, with a bowling alley in the basement and four or five brightly lit dining rooms hung with cheap, stiff lace curtains and lined with banquettes in cheery-synthetic yellow fabric. Again, menu only in German. The very nice chef was rolled out to help explain to us what to eat, and all best dishes seemed to be hunks of meat breaded and fried etc. I didn't take notes but I think I ate some veal breaded and fried and wrapped around cheese and a piece of ham.... a Cordon Bleu? The subtlety of why this was on a best-openings list eludes me.

Mauri's La Rocca
Limmatstrasse 273, Zuri-West, +41 44 271 02 77
This restaurant is right across from the Lowenbrau center (contemporary art museums and galleries in a former brewery in Zuri-West) and we happened to stumble in for lunch, to our great delight. A beautiful crowd—glamorous tall girls in glasses and their blond Italian boyfriends.... An art dealer? An owner of a small motorcycle company? lingering over light, refined Italian dishes. The menu, again, was German to us. I ordered at random and ended up with a meatball-and-eggplant dish in crimson-red sauce, accompanied by silk handkerchiefs of hand-cut pasta so sublime it could have been dessert. Absolutely worth it to understand the flavors of the city, despite that Italian in Switzerland is not the obvious call. The restaurant design was intimate and casual, with blow-up black-and-white 70s film stills printed straight on the walls and exquisite Deco details. This was the butter dish (and you can see how good that home-made bread ws from the photo):

Also, there was a lunch special for 22 CHF (the exchange rate with dollars is basically 1 to 1), a fantastic deal in expensive Switzerland.

Si O No

Ankerstrasse 6, Kreis 4, +41 (0)44 241 0301
An casual, somewhat distressed wine bar in Kries 4 that's obviously a beloved neighborhood laptop cafe during the daytime. Smoky, alternative.

Rämistrasse 4, +41 44 262 99 00
Didn't try this one but am including it because it was recommended several times as the most famous restaurant in Zurich. Probably a tourist place, probably very expensive, but at least one friend has been and liked it. There's also a bar next door that supposedly lets you get the experience without having to pay to actually dine here.

Heinrichstrasse 267, Zuri-West, +41 (0)44 271 1030
A mod-looking brewery serving Asian food. Don't know, but it was on my list to try.

Caduff's Wine Loft

Kanzleistrass 126, +41 44 240 2255
A foodie place that gets some play in media about Zurich. I didn't try it, as it has gotten mixed reviews (none of them particularly trustworthy, so it's a real toss-up) and is slightly outside the city center. There is some rigamarole surrounding the enormous wine cellars that could be fun for the enthusiast.


Schlusselgasse 8, Old Town, +41 (0)44 225 4040
Again, I'm only including my vague rumors because the English info on Zurich is so poor. This is a restaurant right on the main square where St. Peter's cathedral is, supposedly in a historic house and serving Swiss food. I would only go here if I were desperately slogging around the Old Town, wondering which expensive touristy restaurant might also be edible. Looks nice but stodgy from the photo.


Fabrikstrasse 12, Zuri-West, +41 (0)44 271 3919
Claims to be a seasonal organic restaurant serving Swiss specialties. We went, but it was closed for lunch on Tuesdays and looked somewhat weird from the outside. However, anyone else tempted by the promise of Swiss seasonal organic, could check it out, and if the inside looks equally dubious, it's a short walk from Mauri's La Rocca and at least one other nice-looking Italian restaurant whose name I didn't note.

Backerstrasse 19, Kries 4, +41 (0)43 317 9919
Nowhere are the insane high prices more evident than in restaurants you'd expect to be selling cheap take-away cuisine. SomTam is a new, minimalist-decor Thai place that has an authentic sounding menu. We didn't try it, but after days of rich continental food in Austria and Switzerland, we wanted to. Don't know what the dinner scene is like, but it's in indie Kreis 4. To the American mindset, paying $21.50 for a Thai soup is almost inconceivable, but as we saw in Zurich, such prices are not on the highest end.

Blue Monkey
Stussihofstatt 3, +41 (0)44 261 76 18
This restaurant was listed in the english-language Zurich Guide we picked up, and one night we ordered take-out to our hotel from here. (Baby sleeping; sick of room service.) Well, we did not save any money, as I realized mid-order that the pad thai was $36. I only bring the place up because the so-called Thai food was bland and someone dumped a can of coconut milk on some chicken, basically, for every dish. Also, it may have been a fusion thing, but that $36 pad thai? Made with spaghetti noodles!

+41 (0)44 433 1414
Last but not least, anyone else crazy enough to want to order delivery food can go to thid website, which has dozens of restaurants delivering by neighborhood.

Traveling with an iPhone and other necessary Europe-hacks

I know I should have been blogging live from my latest trip—Zurich, then Lech-Zug-am-Arlberg in Austria, but it seems that no amount of foreign travel experience prevents the slew of technical difficulties that accompanies each trip. My problems this time were a combination of a) everything in Europe being closed on Sundays and holidays b) mountains and c) iPhone.

I'll start with c. I did some online research on how to travel with an iPhone without breaking the bank, and was directed to sign up for a data roaming package; the smallest amount is for 20 MB for around $20. I signed up for this online with AT&T, and off to Europe I went. Well, the data roaming package was not applied to my account, which, I discovered later, seems to be because I also needed to sign up for an additional $5 for the international dialing plan. They aren't linked on the website, but it seems you can't use the data plan withough the dialing. I did all the other things recommended: reset your usage so you know how much bandwith you've sucked since going abroad; turn data roaming on only sparingly, manually check e-mail, but still got hit with about $20 in unexpected charges for text messaging while abroad. I sent and recieved maybe 4 text messages but have been charged for 38 at a shocking rate.....I'm sure there's an explanation & it won't be in my favor. I eventually called customer service and got the phone working, and with very sparing usage for about a 10 days, squeaked in under the 20MB limit.

a & b, well.... at this point I think of wireless internet as a basic human right, but obviously hoteliers do not concur. I am going to start asking hotels if they have WiFi in the rooms, and if I get my money back if it doesn't work, as so often seems to be the case. Both of our hotels on this trip claimed to have it, but didn't work in our rooms. It's either 'cause you're on a high floor or the thickness of the walls or always some bullshit. In the case of the Zurich hotel, the Helvetia, we arrived New Year's Eve, went to a party, and when we woke up New Year's Day and tried to use the Internet for the first time, discovered that our Internet didn't work and there was no way to fix it because the hotel was closed and the staff was gone for the holiday. No one appeared till January 2, when essential services like coffee was restored, but nothing else--no food, no bread, no Internet. This, I suppose, is the wage of European quasi-socialism. Laborers have more rights and are higher paid, so people just don't have to work as much. Sounds great, but it means the cities shut down entirely on Sundays and holidays and sorta on Mondays as well, and it can be a real pain-in-the-ass to the American traveler, who isn't used to it. Remind me, next time, not to expect to be able to DO anything on New Year's Day, and to avoid the continent on Sundays.