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Sunday, 4 August 2013

Travel report: Richard Wagner in Zurich

Mark Rees travel report  - Richard Wagner in Zurich

I was lucky  enough to fly out to Zurich earlier this year to experience how the  Swiss are celebrating the bicentenary of legendary composer Richard Wagner. And yet again, even in the most unlikely of places, I managed to find a South Walian flavour to proceedings...

Among the decadent restaurants and cutting-edge fashionistas, sprawling alleyways and ancient monuments, outdoor baths and glacial water, and flamboyant chocolatiers and traditional cheesemakers, beats a loud, proud, and ever so tuneful musical heart at the centre of one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities — Zurich.

And this year, to commemorate the bicentenary of revolutionary composer Richard Wagner, the largest city in Switzerland pulled out all the stops to give its annual Zurich Music Festival a radical makeover.

Now, while Wagner might rightfully be considered to be as quintessentially German as bratwurst and glockenspiels, the Swiss can lay claim to the fact that the divisive composer spent nine of his most productive years there while in political exile from his homeland.

It was during this time that he penned his most ambitious work, including the text for his 16 hour magnum opus The Ring Cycle, and the music for his anthemic, Hollywood adopted signature theme, the Ride of the Valkyries.

Flying out myself, with Swiss airlines rather than a winged horse, I was surprised at how quickly we arrived, with the journey taking just over an hour to land.

And getting to Heathrow Airport was equally straightforward, as the National Express, the UK’s largest coach operator, directly connects Wales with all the major airports.

Landing half an hour away from the city centre, transport back and forth in Zurich couldn’t have been easier either, with the locals living up to their reputation of being the most punctual country in the world.

And so I swiftly arrived at my accommodation, the colourful and environmentally aware 25hours Hotel, situated in the desirable, flourishing Westside of the city.

Unique to Zurich is an ingenious tourist device known as a ZurichCard which, following a one-off payment, can be used for practically anything that the city has to offer in the form of transport and culture. This includes unlimited train, tram and even boat rides, and entry into over 100 galleries and 50 museums.

And it was the galleries and museums that proved to be one of the highlights of my visit, two of which had strong connections to the composer at the centre of the celebrations.

Kunsthaus Zurich, the museum for modern art, boasts a collection of over 4,000 paintings, sculptures and installations, from surrealist heavyweights like Salvador Dali to the fantasy worlds of Johann Heinrich Füssli.

While for a more traditional experience, the Museum Reitberg, situated on a hill overlooking the city, is set in the beautiful, historical grounds previously known as Villa Wesendonck.

It was while staying here in the 1850s, as a guest of prosperous silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, that Wagner gave birth to some his more romantic music — albeit, it would seem, in order to woo his charitable friends wife.

The villa is now used as a museum for non-European history, but has maintained its original appearance.

The outer façade of the building, which is revealed following a steep walk through the luscious gardens, is a breath-taking sight worthy of the trip alone.

Another opportunity to get up on high in the city is at the Hotel Ambassador à l‘Opéra, a high-rise haven for opera buffs.

Bang in the middle of the city next to Zurich’s impressive opera house, the hotel not only boasts separate floors dedicated to famous composers, but even has a Wagner tailored menu in the restaurant.

Other themed activities included a wonderful concert from Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, during the interval of which appeared a classical music flash mob, and a fascinating walk around Wagner’s Zurich with local historian Eva Martina Hanke, which took in his time spent in a property constructed by national hero Alfred Escher.

It was also comforting to know that, despite being a long way from home, the festival began with a nod to one of South Wales’s greatest actors: a continuous, unbroken, eight-hour screening of Richard Burton’s epic TV series Wagner.

But far from being an entirely classical affair, the influence of Wagner could be felt in many contemporary ways, including Wagner’s Greenhouse, which was, quite literally, a greenhouse filled with Wagner paraphernalia on the sparkling Zurich waterfront.

Wagner aside, there was a chance to enjoy some of the other experiences on offer, such as standing on the spot where Winston Churchill famously called for a United States of Europe, to joining hundreds of revellers as they tangoed through the night at an outdoor Midsummer Night’s Ball — in the city’s main train station!

An inspiring, vibrant city, with an innovative music festival as varied, and as moreish, as its celebrated chocolate.


The facts:
  • Best for: Easily connecting transport and culture
  • Don’t miss :Any live music, from jazz to opera
  • Need to know: Buy a ZurichCard at the airport
  • I stayed at: 25hours Hotel
  • Zurich Tourism: www.zuerich.com
  • National Express: www.nationalexpress.com

Mark Rees

Originally published in the South Wales Evening Post, Wales's largest selling newspaper.

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