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]

10 landmarks for lovers of Western literature

shakespeare and company bookstoreAre you an enthusiast of everything Voltaire? Can you not get enough of Shakespeare and James Joyce? If you are a lover of Western literature, add these 10 landmarks to your upcoming travel itineraries.

The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
Paris, France

It is only right that the first landmark on the list be in Paris, France, as this is where many French writers, such as Voltaire, Proust, Balzac, and Baudelaire spent most of their time. The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore has had some of the most well-known writers of the 20th century as clientele, including James Joyce, who published his famous Ulysses under the stamp of this bookshop. In fact, the founder of Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach, was close friends with many of these writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. What’s also special about this shop is not only do they host literary walking tours around Paris, but you can also sleep there as long as you help out with the chores.erneest hemingway houseErnest Hemingway House
Key West, Florida

Not only is Key West home to beautiful beaches and energetic nightlife, but it’s also a place with a literary history. In fact, Ernest Hemingway himself lived at 907 Whitehead Street for more than ten years. It was at this house that he created some of his best work, including the final draft of A Farewell to Arms, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. While Hemingway passed away on July 2, 1961, his old home is now a museum that is open to the public.

The Globe Theatre
London, England

According to David Joshua Jennings and John McCarroll at BootsnAll, the Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and hosted some of the most influential verses to date. Even the notorious quote “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players” was uttered by William Shakespeare himself at the Globe. While the original theatre burned down in 1844, it was rebuilt to be almost exactly like the original. Attendees of this theatre should expect to sit on simple wooden benches, just like in the days of Shakespeare.

Walden Pond
Concord, Massachusettes

It was at this site that Henry David Thoreau wrote his novel Walden, which he wrote during his two years living on the pond from 1845 to 1847. His home was a small hut on a piece of land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. This area helped to inspire the novel itself and was also influential in the American Romantic movement in literature. Today, the pond has been made into a state park where visitors can hike through trails, explore Walden Woods, or see the replica of Thoreau’s cottage.

Vesuvio Cafe
San Francisco, California

Travelers should love this landmark as it is the stomping grounds of many Beat Generation writers including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsburg. The cafe is also right across the street from the famous City Lights bookstore. According to Stephanie Yoder at BootsnAll, there is a famous story of Kerouac “holing up in the bar, getting incredibly wasted and missing an important meeting with Henry Miller”. If you visit, be sure to order The Jack Kerouac, a mixture of rum, tequila, and orange juice.

Chelsea Hotel
New York, NY

There are few hotels in existence that could rival the clientele of Chelsea Hotel, which includes Titanic survivors, Bob Dylan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Wolfe, and many other famous actors, writers, musicians, celebrities, and directors. Madonna’s Sex book was even photographed in room 822. The hotel is a cultural hub of art and literature, and visitors interested in learning about the hotel’s literary past can book a public tour.

james joyce dublinJames Joyce’s Dublin
Dublin, Ireland

While this technically isn’t a landmark but a series of related landmarks in one area, it is definitely worth adding to the list. James Joyce, Ireland’s most famous author, used Dublin as an influence for much of his work. In fact, a fun activity for visitors of Dublin is to trace the different sites that are mentioned in his writing. For the full James Joyce experience, start at the James Joyce Center, where you can see a recreation of the writer’s bedroom, then head over to the James Joyce Tower and Museum. Another noteworthy landmark is the House of the Dead, a small museum created in the house where Joyce spent his Christmases and is the setting in his novel Dead.

Mark Twain Museum
Hannibal, Missouri

Mark Twain, according to Michelle Fabio at BootsnAll, was born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, the town that inspired his famous Adventures of Tom Sawyer novels. To honor Twain’s memory, the town has created the Mark Twain Museum, which is comprised of eight buildings that all played an important part in Twain’s youth. If you want to see the house where Twain grew up, visit 208 Hill Street, where you will find recreations of what the home looked like when it was still being inhabited by the author himself.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum
Haworth, England

Come to England and you can visit the home of three of the most famous 19th century British authors, Charlotte, Emily, and Ann Brontë (although their pen names were Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell). These three were responsible for works such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. At the museum, you will see the dining table where these authors brought their ideas to life, as well as old photographs, original furniture, letters, and manuscipts.

The Eagle and Child Pub
Oxford, England

According to Stephanie Yoder of BootsnAll, not only is this a nice place to relax with a cold beer, it’s also the home to creative thinking. One infamous writing group, who dubbed themselves the Inklings, would meet here once a week to have a drink and compare manuscripts. Some names you may have heard of include CS Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and JRR Tolkien who created The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Have a seat at their old table and take in the moments, sketches, and photos of these famous writers.