After our extensive tour of Zurich yesterday, we resumed our Grand Tour of Churches with three spectacular examples of Reformation Switzerland.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know anything about Zurich’s history when I arrived. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t think the city was nearly as old as those we’d just left. And it’s not, but it’s darn close.
Like much of Europe, the local history extends back to the presence of Celtic tribes in and around the lake as far back as the 5thcentury BC. The Romans established a military outpost here in 15 BC, fortifying an area of the city today known as the Lindenhof. The foundations of Roman walls are still seen here, on a tall hill overlooking the river. The Roman name of the later settlement, “Turicum” is attributed to a grave from the 2ndcentury AD and describes the town as a customs point, controlling trade between Italy and Rome’s northern European possessions. Additional fortifications and a castle were added to the top of the original walls during the 3rdcentury, as the empire was collapsing.
The events of the Middle Ages are largely unknown, aside from various barbarian invasions. The area came under the control of Frankish Merovingians in the 6th century and then subsequently Charlemagne. The area continued to be part of the Carolingian empire under his successors. Charlemagne and notably his grandson Ludwig the German founded many churches in what would become the city center. Many churches date to the 8th and 9th centuries including the Grossmünster, Fraumünster and St. Peter’s, all of which we visited today. The third is the oldest and suspected to have been founded much earlier, perhaps in Christian Roman times. The relics of Sts. Felix and Regula are interred in the Grossmünster, having been martyred in 289 AD. According to legend, after being decapitated they picked up their heads and walked to the site of the Grossmünster where they were buried. The relics were traded back and forth between churches in the ensuing centuries until they were “liberated” and taken to the city of Andematt during the Reformation. Supposedly their skulls remain there today while the rest of them was returned to Zurich in 1950.
Zurich was the center of the Reformation in the 16thcentury, which makes the churches we visited all that much more interesting. Built by Catholics, they were eventually converted to Protestant use when the Catholic Church was ousted from Switzerland in 1522.
The Grossmünster dates to the 9th century and was reportedly founded by Charlemagne in tribute to Felix and Regula. It underwent significant expansion and modification during the next 6 centuries, to the point where it was decommissioned as a Catholic church and stripped of the finery associated with that faith. It’s a beautiful space, far cleaner and brighter than what we’d just left in Italy, and because of this it appears to be in much better shape. There is a stature of Charlemagne in the crypt dating to 1460. Originally located outside on a tower, a copy fills that niche today. Stained glass panels by Giacometti date to 1932 and another set by modern Swiss artist Sigmar Polke was installed in 2009.

The Wasserkirche, the historic site of Felix and Regula’s martyrdom stands next door, but was closed today so we went on to the Fraumünster. Founded by Charlemagne’s grandson Ludwig, it too shares the clean lines and bright space of its neighbor. Originally a convent, the buildings associated with that function were torn down after the site was deeded to the Reformation church. Featured here are 5 stained glass panels done by the Marc Chagall. There is an excellent interpretive museum in the ancient crypt, with exposed foundations dating to the 9th century. Unfortunately, no inside photos allowed.

The old part of Zurich is eminently walkable, much like many medieval towns with some steep ups and downs and tons of shops. Less touristic things though, rather upscale boutiques. Also, not a lot of restaurants compared to say, towns like Toledo or Segovia, both of which I thought of as we were wandering about. We visited St. Peter’s church before searching for lunch. It’s an oddball, an 11th century apse attached to an early 18thcentury Baroque nave and a 12th century clock tower featuring a 28’ diameter clock face, the largest church clock face in the world.

We had a nice lunch in a little café overlooking the river and then went looking for coffee and Amaretti. Sprünghli is Zurich’s fanciest sweet shop so we headed there and were able to get the coffee but not the cookies, at least at the same time. So, we drank first and ate second, satisfying my goal, albeit not in a single action. Sometimes you just have to be flexible.