River Deep, Mountain High: The Great Outdoors in Zürich

The following morning, I bid farewell to Umer as he set off on his own trip. Before he left, he gave me his dads monthly travel pass again. “My father said he won’t need this today, so you can borrow it for one more day while you’re staying here. It let’s you go a lot further around the city than one of the standard daily tickets, so perhaps you’d like to make use of that while you can.” It was the last of the numerous suggestions and tips that Umer had offered me, and I thanked him for his stellar advice as he headed off to the airport.

***

The first thing I did that morning was head back to the centre of town to the dock at Lake Zürich. The monthly pass that I was using today also covered use of the ferry, which made round trips around the lake to certain points much further down the shore. There were long trips that went to the other end, as well as shorter ones that did rotations to closer docks. Umer had said it was a nice relaxing way to spend the morning, and it was a beautiful day to be out on the water. I took one of the shorter trips, which still took the better part of an hour, and watched the shoreline glide past, admiring all the adorable traditional houses that were situated right by the water. One thing that I would continue to notice during my time in Zürich is that the Swiss love their outdoor activities. It has something to do with the seasons – during the winter there is very little daylight, and the cold doesn’t permit people to be outside for too long, so when summer rolls around and the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm, people seem to take full opportunity of as many daylight hours as possible.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

There were lots of pools and parks along the edge of the lake, and plenty of people were out sunbathing and swimming and kicking balls and all sorts of recreational activities. I sat in the sheltered shade of my seat in the ferry and just took it all in. I had just come from the small coastal town of Ancona, and I had been expecting to be returning to my tour of major cities when I arrived in Zürich, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a small village feeling very much entrenched into the essence of this place. Even in the major intersections where trams tracks overlapped and cars seemed to be turning in all sorts of random directions, there were no skyscrapers, no obvious central business district, and no particularly large or overwhelming buildings. The feeling was cute and quaint, and it suited the city perfectly.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

***

After my tour across the lake, I returned to the shore where I had plans to meeting some. Robin was to be my second Couchsurfing host in Zürich. Originally I had had three lined up: Umer had been the first and Robin the third, but my second host had to cancel at the last minute, which was why I was staying an extra night with Umer’s parents. Robin currently had a friend staying with him, which is why I could not come to stay with him any earlier, but when I told him Umer was going away he said he would be more than happy to meet up to see some more of Zürich with me. When I told him about the pass I was using for the day, he suggested we catch the train south west, just outside of Zürich to the mountain Uetliberg, which was another popular site for recreational activities in the city. Robin’s friend Tammy was busy filling out an application – the two of them were Chilean, with Robin living and studying here and Tammy visiting him, but also applying for courses so that she might be able to come back and live here too – so it was just the two of us as we hopped on the train and set off up the mountain.

As I chatted with Robin, he confirmed what I had observed from the boat – that everyone in Zürich was slightly obsessed with physical activities and outdoor recreation. The bike on the train up the mountain had quite a few people with mountain bikes, which they would ride down steepest parts of the mountain, following the popular trails before turning around and riding back up again. The public transport passes in Zürich ran on 24 hour period, so you could ride as many times as you liked as long as you were in a zone that was covered by your ticket. Robin had to buy an extension on his regular ticket, and off we went along the train towards the mountain. We got chatting along the way up – Robin was a sweet, short and soft-spoken guy who spoke with a pretty heavy accent. He was currently living in Zürich doing research and writing a Masters thesis, about a particular niche in microbiology that I would struggle to reiterate in any further detail, but it was definitely quite interesting.

When we reached the Uetliberg station – it was only about a 20 minute trip – we headed along the short hiking trail that led to a lookout. On the way we saw dozens more people out and about, who were doing a whole manner of exercising such as running, jogging, riding bicycles, and even taking part in what seemed to be some kind of boot camp drill work out. Robin and I casually trekked our way up the hill and dozens of people passed us by – we had all afternoon while Tammy filled in her application, so there was no rush. We eventually reached the lookout at the top peak of Uetliberg and gazed out over the impressive view. There was a metal tower that looked something like a huge lightning rod that we were able to climb, so Robin and I marched up the stairs to the viewing platform at the top. From there you could see the around the whole mountain, the horizons lined with even higher mountains that were cloaked in clouds and a pale pink afternoon sunlight. Up there the air was so fresh, and I breathed in a lungful as I soaked in all my surroundings. Robin pointed out a few of the natural features of the area, and we chatted about each of our home countries, our travelling experiences, and our impressions of Zürich. The nice thing about Couchsurfing is that no matter who you end up meeting or staying with, there’s always at least one thing you usually have in common – a passion for travelling. It’s the reason most people get involved – to be able to go travelling themselves – and in turn allows other people to go travelling and see the world. The more experience I had with the website and organisation, the more amazed and impressed I was at such a simple idea that very could very literally change lives.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

After soaking in the sights from the top of Uetliberg, Robin and I headed back to Zürich to meet up with Tammy, and once we did we headed to the west of the city, where Robin told us there was an outdoor concert happening. He didn’t have too many details, but he thought it might be something cool to check out, so we jumped on a bus across the city. When we arrived, we found what seemed like a huge picnic in a park, with people spread out across the relatively small stretch of grass. In the corner, a large folk band was playing all kinds of music, and there was a crowd who had gathered around them to watch. We bought some snacks from a nearby store and laid out on the grass, listening to the music from across the park and just hanging out, enjoying the cool, pleasant evening air. It was actually getting quite late, but twilight was still lingering over the city, and there didn’t appear to be any signs that the party would be dissipating any time soon. I had to get home though – I hadn’t told Umer’s parents what time I was expecting to be home, so I didn’t want to keep them waiting too late into the evening. I bid farewell to Robin and Tammy for the evening, making plans to see them again when I arrived at Robin’s place the next morning to stay with him for my last two nights in Zürich.

***

The following morning I left Umer’s parents place and made my way to Robin’s. He would be working during most of the day, so that’s when I would do my typical and touristic sightseeing, but in the afternoons when he was free Robin introduced me to some of the activities he did during his spare time and, like any typical resident of Zürich, those were outdoor activities. Enter slacklining: a sport that holds a lot of similarities to tightrope walking – you are required to balance on, and walk across, a piece of nylon or polyester webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points. However, the main difference is that while a tightrope is rigid and taut, a slackline gets its name in having a considerable amount of slack – it is stretchy and bouncy, almost like a long and narrow trampoline. The more extreme variations of slacklining involve doing it unsupported in crazy places such as between skyscrapers or mountain peaks, but Robin was taking me to learn in a much safer but still rather exciting place: over the River Limmat.

We got to one of the bridges that crossed the river, down near the riverside bars where everyone had congregated on the warm, sunny afternoon. We weren’t the only ones setting up a slackline over the river – there were two other guys setting up a much longer one than Robin’s, from the bridge to the rivers edge. “That guy is very, very good. He does it professionally,” Robin said as we set up our slackline. There were a couple of guys walking along the other slackline, but one of them was obviously extremely experienced. He would stop in the middle of the line and do all sorts of acrobatic tricks, bouncing on the line and landing on one foot, or even on his hands, pushing himself back up to keep bouncing and even walking across the line. It was seriously impressive. Robin had only been getting into slacklining recently, he assured me, so he wasn’t that good. I assured him he would be better than me, but nevertheless I was still keen to give it a go.

Once I first stepped onto the line, I realised how sensitive and reactive the slackline was to my body. It wasn’t too windy that afternoon, but as soon as I stepped out onto the line it violently shook from side to side, like a leaf in a hurricane. Robin held my hand to steady me as I took my first step, but he couldn’t take me the whole way. I tried my best to stay balanced, but as soon as I took my first step on my own, I came tumbling down to land in the river. I plunged into the cool and deep blue water, and when I finally resurfaced I realised that I had already floated a couple of metres downstream. The river was flowing exceptionally fast, to the point where if I tried to swim upstream, it was the equivalent to running on a treadmill – going nowhere fast. I quickly swam back to the edge of the river to rejoin the others on the bridge. Robin was definitely a lot better than myself at the slackline – for the first time ever he managed to cross the whole way across the slackline without falling off. That only happened once though – most of the times we both always ended up plunging into the river. I quickly learnt that you can’t be afraid of falling, and when you do fall you have to let it happen and not fight it. The one time I panicked and tried to stay on the line, I fell so awkwardly that I landed on my back in the water, and the impact left a huge red mark on my back that attracted quite a lot of comments from passers by.

Slow and steady across the slackline...

Slow and steady across the slackline…

... keeping his balance...

… keeping his balance…

... and he made it!

… and he made it!

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

The first, and only, step...

The first, and only, step…

... and down I go.

… and down I go.

Splash!

Splash!

That wasn’t the only reason strangers talked to us, though. The shared love of outdoor activities seems to seamlessly bring all surrounding people from all walks of life together, and make new friends out of complete strangers. Robin and I had plenty of people come up to us and ask us questions about slacklining – most of which I couldn’t answer, though – and asking if they could have a turn. The area was already pretty social with the bars lining the river, as well as a bunch of other cool things – there was a restaurant that also doubled as a DIY garage where people could come and use tools to fix and customise their bikes – so the slacklines on the bridge were just another added element to that friendly social vibe that seemed to be almost everywhere in Zürich. It made for a fun and interesting social experience – all the activities that were happening around the city made me realise something about my life back home: I didn’t have very many hobbies. The closest thing I had to a hobby was playing guitar and writing music – other than that, I just spent a lot of time drinking with my friends and going clubbing. It was a refreshing change, and I think that afternoon was when I made a pledge to myself that when I got home, I was going to find fun new things to do with my time other than drink myself stupid.

It was also an exhausting afternoon though, so afterwards Robin and I headed home for a relatively early night. We sat up for a while just chatting in his room though – there’s just something unnatural about going to bed before the sun does.

***

The following evening we set out after Robin finished work to meet some people in a nearby park. “I haven’t met these people, but there’s a group on Couchsurfing that organises hikes and other outdoor trips and stuff,” Robin told me as we made our way there. “We’re planning something for this weekend, so we’re meeting up to go over the details.” It made me realise that Couchsurfing wasn’t just a place to stay – it was a global, online community. When we arrived at the park, it was a similar sight to my first night in the park with Robin and Tammy, except instead of lazily enjoying the outdoors, everyone was extremely active. There were games of volleyball and soccer, people doing yoga and other aerobic activities, people throwing balls and frisbees, and Robin even brought along his slackline again, and set it up between two trees. It was quite remarkable to see so many people outside until the very limits of daylight. “It really is the summer drawing everyone out,” Robin later said. “The winter was horrible this year – it lasted five months and it was terribly cold, so everyone is very excited now that the warmer weather has finally arrived.” It was a familiar story that I had been hearing for the last month from all over Europe, from Finland and Sweden to Germany and even France. Not so much in Spain and Italy, but I had started heading north again, away from the Mediterranean.

It made me realise just how lucky we are with the weather in Australia, especially the temperate climate in Sydney. It’s never exceptionally cold, and only very occasionally does it get extremely hot. We get a healthy balance of rain and sunshine and we never have days with extreme excess, or lack, of sunlight. Watching these people flock outside to enjoy the weather made me realise just how little I appreciate the weather here, and so in Zürich I made a pact to myself to not only get a few more hobbies when I got home, but also to get out and enjoy the outdoors a little more too.

Walking in Sunshine: Summer on the streets of Madrid

While pride continued to be a defining feature of my time on Madrid – day and night, you couldn’t walk up or down the street without being cruised several dozen times by some sensationally attractive men – I did manage to play the tourist card while I was in the Spanish capital and visit a few of the landmarks that the city has to offer. I didn’t do a great deal on my first morning other than potter around a few plazas and lazily practice my dreadful Spanish while ordering a light breakfast. After that, it was all systems go for the afternoon of drinking at the hostels pre-pride party.

However, on Sunday afternoon I took a break from walking on the wild side to discover some of the more tranquil corners of the city, in particular Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge public gardens that stretched out next to the botanical gardens and the train station. I stopped by a corner store and gathered a few bits and pieces for a small picnic, then headed over to the park. It was a fierce summer day, and I periodically had to step out of the sunshine and into the shade of the trees. I eventually took a seat at a park bench to sit and eat my lunch and attempt to read my book, but I must admit that for the whole time I was in Parque del Buen Retiro, I was extremely distracted by the amount of people I saw exercising – mostly because they were all ridiculously attractive and obviously very fit, both men and women. It was such a hot day that even the idea of going for a light jog brought a slight tear to my eye, and I had a sneaking suspicion that – given the attractiveness quota that was being met this afternoon – that a good deal of these people chose to exercise at this time of day purely to show off the bangin’ bodies that they were rocking. In all fairness, I would probably do the same if had that body, and I certainly wasn’t complaining about the view.

There were a lot of people who weren’t exercising though. They were generally older and not as attractive, and more often than not they were staring at me, rather than vice versa. I wouldn’t know it until later when I was casually scrolling through an online guide to gay Madrid, but the area of the park where I had chosen to eat my lunch also happened to be a popular cruising area. Whoops!

After lunch I wandered further into the park to see some of the more official attractions, starting with La Rosaleda, or the Rose Garden, at the southern end of the park. I strolled along the loose pebble paths and passed under wire archways that were overgrown with vines, the whole way admiring the vast collection of roses. When I reached the edge of La Rosaleda I encountered a rather more sinister landmark – the statue of El Ángel Caído, which in English means the Fallen Angel, the title bestowed to Lucifer of Christian mythology after he was cast out of Heaven. It’s one of the few statues in the world that is dedicated to the devil himself, and it rather eerily sits at 666 metres above sea level. I stood next to that fountain for quite a while, actually, contemplating the story of Lucifer. He butted horns with his dad and broke a couple of rules that were set for him, and suddenly he’s kicked out of home to be forever hated to anyone who would hear the story the way his dad tells it. The story obviously has a little more meat to it, and Lucifer probably didn’t have to continue on as the Prince of Darkness, but I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for the devil. Take away the fire and brimstone and Christian heresy, and his story actually seems rather human in nature. I mean, who hasn’t had one or two heated arguments with their parents?

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

After I was done feeling sorry for the devil, I ventured further into the park. I followed a bunch of winding and twisting pathways, not really sure where I was going to end up, but eventually I stumbled upon the structure Palacio de Cristal, which appeared to be a palace made of glass – or, if you will, crystal – that was set on the edge of a small lake. The palace was completely empty on the inside, but was currently the home of a rather abstract art exhibition, so I stepped inside for a quick peek. The place was essentially a greenhouse without plants though, so it was far too hot to stay inside for longer than a few minutes. The final major attraction I visited, and arguably the focal point of El Retiro, was the Monument to Alfonso XII, a huge structure complete with about half a dozen marble lions around the base. I didn’t go all the way up to the monument – it’s set on the edge of a huge artificial lake, or estanque, and I had ended up on the other side and was far too exhausted from the afternoon sun to walk the whole way around it. Instead, I admired it from afar as I watched other tourists take paddle boats out across the lake, considered them mad for intentionally depriving themselves of shade for so long. On the western side of the lake where I was situated, I happened upon a pair of buskers, a cellist and a harpist, who were playing the most beautiful and enchanting music. I lay down in the shade on a nearby lawn and listened to them play recognisable classics such as Beauty and the Beast and enjoyed the sweet, relaxing music. After the nights of partying I’d previously had, I could have very easily fallen into a deep sleep there in the park. However, I decided that that wasn’t the safest thing to do, so I headed back to the hostel for a siesta before heading out for my last night of pride partying.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

***

On my final full day in Madrid I decided that it was probably about time to hang up my dancing shoes and actually see some of the true culture and history within the Spanish capital. It was another bright, blisteringly hot day, so I got up and ready in time to join the free walking tour that was run by the hostel. I was still thoroughly exhausted from the weekend, and I knew that I didn’t see the city as some part of guided tour, I wouldn’t have the motivation or the energy to trek through the scorching heat by myself. I’d also done minimal research on what sites there actually were to see in the centre of Madrid, so I figured that for once, a group tour was probably the best option.

Almost as soon as the tour had begun, I remembered why I despised such touristic activities. There was an overwhelming amount of Australians in the group, with perhaps a small smattering of a couple of Americans and one of two people from elsewhere in Europe. Now, I don’t want to sound like I hate Australians, because I don’t, but Jesus Christ – there were so many bogans! I’ve often stated that I didn’t come halfway across the world to simply hang out with more Australians, as was the case in the first nightclub I visited in Barcelona, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to interact with them at all. After all, all my friends back home are Australian. But most of the people in the group were people who I could never see myself being friends with. There were a few strained attempts at conversation with a girl who was so okka that she might as well have been plucked from the middle of the Australian outback and placed straight into the walking tour. She seemed like a nice girl, but eventually the stifled conversation died and we walked along in a far less uncomfortable silence. The rest of the tour was in seemingly impenetrable groups of rowdy Australian men, though I really had no interest in engaging with them anyway. I walked along just listening to the guide and trying not to faint in the heat.

The first destination on the walking tour was Plaza Mayor, the main public square of Madrid. Plaza Mayor was an important site for many key spectacles throughout the history of Spain, including the beatification of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of Madrid, in 1619, bullfights which garnered 50,000 spectators that continued until 1878, and the interrogation and condemnation of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. It was partially destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1790, and ever since it has been a focal point of city life in Madrid, supporting many markets and festivals. The statue in the centre of the plaza is Felipe III, the man who ordered the plazas construction, and is used as a common meeting point for residents. Around the base of the statue, I noticed padlocks engraved with lovers names attached to loops in the iron frame, much like the bridges I’d been in Irkutsk and Helsinki. I guess there weren’t any bridges in Madrid that were as important, or provided as much of a spectacle, as Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The next interesting stop along the tour was Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, a quaint little restaurant that holds the Guinness World Record for the Oldest Restaurant in the World. It has been in operation since 1725, and is famous for its suckling pig and roast lamb that is cooked in wood-fire ovens. Of course, it was early in the day and the restaurant wasn’t yet open for business, but as part of the tour we were able to go inside and have a look around, including the wine cellar downstairs. Some of the bottles were so dusty that I felt like they’d also been here since 1725, and were now probably nothing more than bottles of vinegar. We took a few photos of the charming little venue and continued on our way.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín - the oldest restaurant in the world.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín – the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Other sites we visited were the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace that was rebuilt in 1755 after the previous palace burnt down. Visitors are welcome, but not without a fee, and since this was a free walking tour most of us were happy to simply marvel at the architecture from the outside. Beside the palace, in Plaza de Oriente, is the famous monument of Philip IV on horseback. Nearby was Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, the Catholic cathedral that was built after the capital of Spain moved from Toledo to Madrid. This stop provided us with some shelter from the midday sun, and I paced the halls of yet another elegant and lavishly decorated European church.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

The trip took us on a loop around the centre of Madrid, and after blindly following the tour guide through the streets I realised that the final stop on our trip, the famous Puerta del Sol, was actually one of the plazas I had been partying in a couple of nights ago for pride. It looked so different in the daylight – it was still extremely busy and bustling, but the crowd appeared sparse compared to the tin of sardines the plaza had been on the weekend. After the tour concluded, the group dispersed among the crowd and we all made our own way, whether it was back to the hostel to commence siesta, or to one of the many eateries that lined the edges of the plaza and the surrounding streets. For all the negative feelings I harboured toward mass group tours and anything overly touristic, I have to say that on this day I was very glad they had existed. After Madrid pride I don’t think I had the mental capacity or brain functioning to navigate the city’s main sights by myself, and it truly is a vibrant and beautiful place that I would have been very sad to not fully experience.