Welcome To Zurich, Home Of The $12 Big Mac Meal

zurichThere are no Dollar Stores in Zurich. But if there were, they’d probably offer single sticks of gum, paper clips or kernels of popcorn. In February, Zurich assumed the top spot in The Economist’s annual list of the world’s most expensive cities, knocking Tokyo off its perch, largely due to the strength of the Swiss Franc.

I’m a frugal traveler – the kind of person who prides himself on finding good deals, even in the most expensive places. So I viewed a recent three-day trip to Zurich as the ultimate challenge. If you can find bargains in Zurich, you deserve a Ph.D. in budget travel. And besides, I’ve always been smitten with Switzerland and the Swiss. It’s a country with four official languages and 37,000 miles of sign-posted hiking trails. It’s best known for neutrality, cheese, knives, watches, secretive banks, chocolate and Roger Federer.

I was up for the challenge but on my first day, when my toddlers requested – no, demanded – McDonald’s, it became painfully obvious that sticking to a budget in Zurich would be a challenge. My kids’ Happy Meals cost the equivalent of $9.15 each. Want a Big Mac value meal? $12.51. No joke.

After they ate, my wife and I repaired to a hole-in-the-wall fast-food Turkish restaurant the size of a broom closet. We ordered doner kebabs and two small bottles of water. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.34. The menu said that doners were 9 francs ($9.81), so I was confused.

“How much is the bottle of water?” I asked.
“Four francs,” said the Turkish proprietor.

In all my years of travel, I don’t believe I’ve ever paid $4.35 for a small bottle of water and I wasn’t about to start in a zero star take-away, so I asked for some tap water.”We don’t have any,” said the Turk, half apologetically.

We ate our doners with nothing to wash them down and left the place thirsty. I assumed that we’d be able to walk into a shop and pick up a bottle of water for a franc or two but soon realized that the entire city is full of what must be some of the world’s most expensive bottled water.

expensive bottled waterI passed a vending machine that was also charging 4 francs, and checked the menus of various other fast food outlets, and all were charging about the same. I found a kiosk that was selling water and cokes for 3 francs, ($3.27) but still couldn’t pull the trigger. I’d read somewhere that the supermarket Migros’s takeaway outlets are a great place for bargain meals, so I ducked into one to check their price. A small, cold bottle cost $3.81 and mediocre looking slices of pizza were going for $7.07. No sale. In the basement supermarket, liter sized bottles at room temperature cost less than a franc.

In no other city in the world have I spent more time comparison-shopping for water but I couldn’t help but record all kinds of pricey offerings in my little notebook.

Here are a few examples:

  • Large cheese pizza in a sit-down Italian restaurant – $41.36
  • “Special” burger at a brasserie in the Old Town – $24.49
  • Club sandwich at a casual restaurant – $23.95
  • Plate of spaghetti in the cafeteria of the Zurich Zoo – $16.11
  • A cup, not a pot of tea in a café – $5.44

How do the good people of Zurich afford these prices? The monthly minimum wage is about $3,488, and most make much more than that. The Swiss are also careful with their money and aren’t prone to impetuous behavior of any kind. Case in point: they recently voted against giving themselves an additional two weeks of vacation time per year.

Expensive food and drink is really just the tip of the iceberg in Zurich. Take a stroll down Banhofstrasse, the city’s most elegant shopping thoroughfare, if you really want to get a taste of moneyed Zurich. There, and all over the city, one cannot help but notice how well put together the residents of Zurich are. In my neighborhood in Northern Virginia, I often see adults shopping in pajama pants, but in Zurich, everyone looks like they just stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine.

zurich shopping  pradaI did some window-shopping at Louis Vuitton, Prada, Cartier, Bvlgari and Salvatore Ferragamo, all the while working up the courage to actually enter one of these temples of consumerism with my two young sons in tow. I took a few steps into an Ermenegildo Zenga store and immediately felt unwelcome.

Feeling as though security was about to press a button to release us down into an underground dungeon, I asked a lovely young sales associate, who accosted us, how much a suit in the window cost. She gave me a half-smile and a sort of pitying look, as if to say, ‘There is no chance you can afford it.’

She checked the price, nonetheless, and said, “It’s two thousand, four hundred and fifty francs.” (A bit more than the annual per-capita GDP of The Philippines.)

“Is that all?” I wanted to say, but thought better of it, as sarcasm doesn’t usually play that well across linguistic and cultural lines, particularly in absurdly high-end shops.

“Will it go on sale?” I blurted out, feeling ridiculous but wanting to save face somehow as we backed out the door.

“On sale?” she asked, as though she was unfamiliar with the term, despite her apparent fluency in English.

“Never mind,” I said before we slinked out.

But of course, people have been bitching about the high cost of living in Zurich for a very long time, even well before the surge of the franc. James Joyce, the legendary Irish writer lived in Zurich for years, and is buried there (see video) and he apparently felt that his monthly rent of 40 francs in 1916 was highway robbery.

Joyce wrote Ulysses in Zurich but was constantly short on cash, and lived in a variety of very ordinary apartments, including one that Mrs. Joyce claimed was infested with mice. These days, 40 francs barely buys you a pizza and struggling writers, as Joyce was during his early years in Zurich, still have plenty to complain about.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Zurich on a Dime: Budget Travel Tips for the World’s Most Expensive City.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

Got Milk? This Swiss Soft Drink Does

It looks like soda. It tastes like soda. But the Swiss soft drink pictured above has a peculiar key ingredient: milk whey. First introduced in the 1950s, Rivella beat out both Coke and Pepsi in sales in its home country, and a spokeswoman once said the Swiss people are “almost as familiar with it as breast milk.” Still, the drink remains practically unknown throughout the rest of the world. Efforts in the early 2000s failed to introduce the drink as a “health food” product to Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, and today the Netherlands is the only country that seems to have embraced the product, drinking up 90 percent of Rivella’s foreign sales.

My assessment? The first sip was okay, mostly because I wasn’t told that it was made from milk. My boyfriend, equally unaware and severely lactose intolerant, was even more aghast when the key ingredient was announced to us. Needless to say, he steered clear of a second taste. I was a little reluctant to take another sip after hearing the news but had no complaints about the carbonated apple juice flavor. Besides milk, Rivella is made with lots of fruit and herbal extracts, and sources say that the filtration process used for the serum removes all the fats and proteins from the whey, making the soft drink rich in vitamins and minerals. Next time, I’ll probably try the version of Rivella with the yellow label, which is made with soy rather than dairy milk – it should be a little easier to stomach for both my boyfriend and me.

[Wikimedia photo by Parpan05]

Six Of The Most Scenic Train Trips In Europe

Forget flying around Europe. At 30,000 feet it’s impossible to truly experience the continent’s remarkable landscapes. Rather than being shuttled around in a plane that only allows a birds-eye view, train trips immerse travelers in the terrain. There’s a reason why trains are often thought of as the most romantic mode of transportation: riding the rails makes you feel more connected and in tune than air travel ever could. Instead of feeling like a chore, as flying often does, train travel can be an experience in itself. In fact, there are plenty of scenic train rides in Europe that are worth the trip just for the view. The following are top rated train trips, and from the rolling hills of England to the craggy Alps of Switzerland, each one offers travelers something different.

6. United Kingdom
London to Edinburgh
The rolling, green hills and moors that are often associated with Yorkshire make this one of the most scenic train trips in Europe. When entering the northern parts of England, travelers will catch glimpses of the rugged coastline along the North Sea. During the 4 1/2-hour train ride, English speakers will notice a distinct difference in passenger accents as the train gets closer to Scotland. Although the common language is English, it can be hard to decipher as the Scottish brogue gets thicker and thicker.

[Flickr photo via boutmuet]

5. Holland
Amsterdam to Groningen (best in April)
In Holland, the most scenic train trip isn’t necessarily about being on the right track; it’s actually all about timing. Travelers will want to hop onboard in spring – particularly in April – to see the blanket of colors that results when the famous Dutch tulips are in full bloom. On the two-hour route between Amsterdam and Groningen, travelers will also be able to spot plenty of windmills, another quintessential part of the Dutch landscape.


[Flickr photo by Amy Bonner]

4. Italy
Rome to Verona to Venice
Train trips don’t get much more romantic than the ride from Rome to Venice, especially if you make a stopover in Verona. The train ride starts in Rome, the enchanting “Eternal City,” and then makes its way through the Tuscan farmlands to Verona, a pleasant city famous as the setting for Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet.” Make a day of wandering around the city’s lovely corridors (pictured above) and passing some time in a local cafe or bar. Then head to Venice, Italy’s famed “Floating City,” that is by far one of the most romantic destinations in the world. The train approaches through Venice’s lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, and upon arrival you can hop on a gondola ride for two – what could be more romantic than that? Another scenic train trip in Italy is the route from Venice to Trieste. On this trip, the train hugs the coast of the Adriatic Sea until reaching Trieste, a charming destination with beautiful sea views and several cafes and pubs for you to spend your days and nights in.

Balconies in Verona, Italy [Photo by Libby Zay]

3. France
Montpellier to Nice
The train ride through southern France from Montpellier to Nice is another visually stunning trip. From Montpellier to Marseille, travelers will see the typical Provençal landscape of red-colored soil, tall cypress trees and expansive fields of lavender and olives. As the train gets closer to Nice, the coastal scenery along the Mediterranean Sea comes in to view. Note that if you have a France Rail Pass, it’s possible to break the ride up to spend some time exploring small Provençal towns, such as Aix-en-Provence, the famous home of Paul Cézanne, or Nimes, with its stunning Roman amphitheater that is second only to Rome’s Colosseum.

[Flickr photo by paularps]


2. Germany

Black Forest Railway
The Roman’s gave this thickly wooded and mountainous region in Germany the name Silva Nigra (i.e. “Black Forest“) because the dense growth of trees blocked out most of the light inside the forest. Experience the spectacular scenery on the Black Forest Railway, part of the German National Railway that connects Offenburg and Singen. The 93-mile-long route ascends (or descends, depending on which way you travel) more than 2,000 feet as it passes through 39 tunnels and over two viaducts. The section between Hornberg, Triberg, and St. Georgen is particularly pretty. The stretch is also popular with locals, who use it as part of their regular commute between the towns they live in and larger cities. Tourists, however, will probably think it looks straight out of a storybook – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Black Forest is the setting for the Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel.” But don’t worry, you won’t need to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to get back home.

Look closely for one of the viaducts trains along the Black Forest Railway pass over in Hornberg [Wikimedia photo by Prolineserver]



1. Switzerland
Wilhelm Tell Express (May to October only)
Switzerland is known for some of the most stunning scenery in all of Europe. This trip from Lucerne to Locarno connects two of the prettiest parts of the country, central Switzerland and the Italian-speaking Ticino region. While in Lucerne, travelers can opt to take a boat ride on a vintage paddle steamer where they can enjoy lunch or dinner. When the boat reaches Flüelen, step onto a panoramic train that will whisk you past lone cottages on pine-covered hills, glistening streams, cerulean lakes, vast valleys covered in green, and craggy, snow-covered peaks, as it makes its way to Ticino. If you get a chance, make a stop in the tiny town of Bellinzona, an easily walk-able place that is well worth a day trip in order to explore one of their three medieval castles. Switzerland has some of the most fantastic scenic train trips in Europe with the Golden Pass and Glacier-Express also offering awe-inspiring views through panoramic train windows.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

10 best places to live for avoiding world conflict

New ZealandExpatify.com asked the question, “Where would you be the safest if World War III broke out tomorrow?” The answers arrived in a post titled “10 Best Places to Live for Avoiding World Conflict.” Irrelevant as it may seem to you, the claws of conflict affect a revolving roster of nations. The knowledge of where not to go because of conflict, or better yet, where to go to avoid it, can be useful if you’re planning to live, or even just spend some time, abroad. According to this article, countries that make the safety cut are: Switzerland, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Seychelles, Finland, Tuvalu, Iceland, Bhutan, and New Zealand. Most of these choices make sense to me, based on what I know, but the undeniably gorgeous Seychelles seems like a somewhat uncertain choice. News stories covering the Somali pirates swarming the Seychelles area are prevalent. To be fair, I’m not convinced Somali pirates are a current threat for World War III. What are your thoughts? Where would you move in order to be as far removed from world conflict as possible?

Explore More Options with These Art Maps for the Home

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The battle of leaning towers: Germany wins

Germany and Switzerland have long been known as bastions of cool efficiency, where the trains run on time, locals scold visitors for jaywalking and everything works. But travelers might be surprised to know that these countries are also home to four of the world’s most crooked towers, all of which lean more dramatically than the much more famous Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.

Since the completion of a decade-long restoration project reduced the angle of the Pisa tower’s tilt from 5.5 to just 3.99 degrees, a host of other towns have stepped forward to proclaim that their towers are the world’s biggest leaners, in the hopes that tourists will follow. In 2007, Reverend Frank Wessels, the pastor of a leaning church in the northwest German village of Suurhusen, contacted Guinness World Records, which confirmed the church as the world’s “Farthest Leaning Tower.” (see image above)

Wessels recently told Der Spiegel that the church now receives about 10,000 visitors per year. Not bad, but still quite modest compared to the 426,000 tourists who visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa last year, according to a tourism official quoted in The New York Times. But a number of other leaning towers have emerged in the wake of Suurhusen’s crooked anointment.
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A medieval defense tower in Dausenau, in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, claimed a slightly greater tilt at 5.24 degrees, compared to 5.19 for Suurhusen, but Guinness rejected the bid because the tower is a crumbling ruin, not a functional, freestanding structure. A 12th century tower in St. Moritz, the tony Swiss ski resort, might have laid claim to the record, but a recent stabilization project reduced St. Mauritius’ slant from 5.4 degrees to 5.08.

Meanwhile, a 174 foot tall church bell tower in Bad Frankenhausen, a spa town in the eastern German state of Thuringia, has its own claim. The degree measurement of its slant is more modest than that of Suurhusen’s, but because its tower is nearly twice as tall, its total margin of deviation makes it appear even more crooked.Confused? Just wait. A steeple in Midum, a town near Suurhusen in the German region of East Frisia, claims its tilt is a whopping 6.74 degrees. But church leader Udo Aalderks hasn’t gotten around to making the claim with Guinness yet and it’s unclear if it would dislodge Suurhusen anyway, because the church in Midum is only 46 feet high.

An expert told Der Speigel that some 70% of the medieval churches of East Frisia are hopelessly tilted. Experts say this is because the region is “low-lying and marshy.” Many of the structures were built on wooden supports which are now rotting. Restoration is extremely expensive and the tower in Bad Frankenhausen is due for at least partial demolition unless the town can figure out how to pay for the needed repairs.

In 2010, Guinness sanctioned another leaning tower, this time in the Middle East. The Capital Gate tower in Abu Dhabi was purposely constructed with an impressive 18 degree slant and has been dubbed the world’s “Farthest leaning manmade tower.”

If you’re a crooked building aficionado, you might also check out the Leaning Tower of Pisa replica on Touhy Ave in Niles, near Chicago; the Crooked House in Sopot, Poland, and the Errante Guest House in Chile, to name just a few sloping beauties. And there is also the Crooked Road, Southwest Virginia’s 253-mile heritage music trail.

But despite all the competition for crooked glory, tourism officials in Pisa are apparently unconcerned by all the slanty claims. When a reporter for The New York Times asked Daniella Purchielli, Pisa’s tourism director, about the other towers, she said, “frankly, we haven’t heard about them. Our numbers are increasing.”

Gallery images via Wikimedia Commons, and Hippygit, Jaseman, and HarshLight on Flickr.