Ask any Irishman and he’ll tell you, Ulysses, by James Joyce, is the greatest novel ever written. Even those of us who have never read the book know that! Dubliners are particularly proud of this portrait of their city immortalised in literature. Funnily enough, when you reach the last page of the greatest yarn ever spun, you discover the final words: “Triest-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921”. Not a single word was actually written in the dirty old town by the Liffey; the bulk of the book was penned in Zurich’s fair city. The visitor to Zurich today could easily search in vain for any sign of Joyce. And yet, when you know where to look, you can easily walk, or even stagger, in his meandering footsteps. And, if you know Joyce at all, you’ll have already guessed that the place to look for him is in the cafes and pubs of Zurich.
Leaving the main exit of the Central Railway station, where Joyce first arrived in the city, we find ourselves on the sophisticated Bahnhofstrasse, Europe’s most expensive shopping street. In 1918 Joyce wrote a melancholic poem named after this street, in which he wonders where his youthful dreams have disappeared to;
Highhearted youth comes not again
Nor old heart’s wisdom yet to know
The signs that mock me as I go.
Central Railway Station and Bahnhofstrasse
When Joyce originally left Ireland it was Zurich he headed for, back in 1904. He had just married Nora Barnacle, but on the days and nights of ferries and long train journeys that brought them from Dublin to Zurich the couple had not yet had a chance to consummate their marriage, as they say. Upon arriving at the railway station they headed for the nearest cheap accommodation that they could find, and there the deed was done, in a guesthouse called “Hopeful”. Alas, nothing remains now of that historic establishment, and no memorial commemorates the spot. Instead we have the practical but ugly Post Office building to the right of the main railway station.
Joyce’s first stay in Zurich was brief, but a little over a decade later the couple were back, together with their two children, Giorgio and Lucia. It was 1915 and Europe was at war. Zurich had become a haven for an army of international revolutionaries, reformers, philosophers, artists, and pacifists – all escaping the continent wide butchery.
So many refugees from the war found a home in Zurich that the Bahnhofstrasse became known as Balkanstrasse. A five-minute stroll along this street and we turn left into the Augustinergasse and right there we come to one of Joyce’s many watering holes in the city, the Restaurant Augustiner. It has become a wee bit more expensive then in Joyce’s time, when he would be a regular for lunch, sitting elbow to elbow with Swiss workers and Czech immigrants.
Augustinersgasse with Restaurant Augustiner on the far left
Further up the street we find the Augustiner Church and the community of Old Catholics who worshipped here were a fascination of Joyce’s. The presence of Greek immigrants and refugees in this quarter inspired Joyce as he worked on his ‘Greek’ novel, Ulysses. On the left we have the James Joyce Corner, one of a few remembrances to him in the city, and to the right we find the James Joyce Foundation. They have a small library here, conferences and readings are organised and the friendly staff are always welcoming to visitors.
The Joyce Foundation
Proceeding down through the Old Town we reach the River Limmat and on the opposite bank, beyond the twin towers of the Grossmunster cathedral, we find a great old restaurant with a huge oval window. This is Café Terrace, again, one of Joyce’s regular places to meet friends and drink Swiss white wine. A lovely place to eat a pricey meal in the summer, you can drop in for a refreshment too.
Across the road, just down from Starbucks (yes, I’m afraid it has reached even here …) we find one of Europe’s grandest cafés, Café Odeon. It was here that Einstein explained his ideas on relativity to his students from the nearby Federal Institute of Technology, and years later Herman Hesse would be a nightly visitor as he worked on his novel, Steppenwolf. In Joyce’s time Lenin, the father of the Russian revolution, came here to quench his thirst and dispute with other Russian revolutionaries, while the wild artists and poets of the Dada art movement argued and raged against bourgeois cultural values. There’s a good chance that Lenin and Joyce both sat and drank here at the same time, but we have no evidence that they ever actually laid eyes on each other. Which hasn’t prevented Tom Stoppard from writing a play in which they do.
On the corner opposite the Odeon we have restaurant Kronenhalle. Joyce didn’t come here often during World War I – it was beyond his budget. But in the 1930s while living in Paris, he returned to Zurich frequently and after becoming friendly with the owners this quickly became his favourite restaurant. The Kronenhalle became somewhat of a Mecca for artists and today its walls are decorated with works by the likes of Miro and Picasso, but they still have the famous Joyce Table too, surrounded by photos of the writer. The Kronenhalle has one more claim to fame - it was here that Joyce ate his very last meal in January 1941. After dinner he became ill, was hospitalised, and died two days later. Not a great ad for the restaurant, though I have been assured that the food is excellent, and perfectly safe.
If we now walk up the Ramistrasse, up a somewhat steep hill between the Kronenhalle and the Odeon, we come to Joyce’s favourite watering hole. How many favourites did he have, I hear you ask. But no, seriously, this was his very favourite – the Pfauen or Peacock. Joyce, having the kind of mind that he had, took some satisfaction that “Peacock” sounded just like “Pee/cock”. Maybe that’s why he named Zurich in his last novel Finnegans Wake, “Peacockstown”. Another reference to Café Pfauen in that difficult work is, “Evropeahahn cheic house”. It was here that Joyce held court, reading from the manuscript of Ulysses, breaking into song while swilling down bottles of Fendant de Sion and later, still singing, walking home through the snow filled sober streets of Zurich. Alas, the cafe is much changed since Joyce's days, and is now known as cafe terroir.
Formerly Cafe Pfauen
And we can follow him back down the hill and swing left at the Kronenhalle, past the Opera House to our right and onto the Seefeldstrasse. Joyce lived in no less than four houses in this area, but not at the same time of course. The houses are all still standing though not one of them carries as much as a plaque. They are all just a five-minute walk from each other. The Joyce family first lived in two cramped rooms at the Reinhardstrasse 7. The house today looks much like it must have done then, just about ready to collapse. Goodness knows how long more it will stay standing. An artist rents one of the rooms and you can hear a babble of different languages if you stop at the door, which is usually open, as I do. Then the family moved to the third floor of a prominent yellow building on the Kreuzstrasse 19. Today the ground floor is a sex video store called “Sexy Market”. I can hear Joyce chuckling at that one. Six months later they moved to the Seefeldstrasse 54, above a garage then, today it is still above an Alfa Romeo garage. But Joyce complained of the dampness and in January 1917 they moved into two spacious rooms facing the street on the third floor of Seefeldstrasse 73. It is still a lovely building today, with an antique store on the bottom floor.
Now after that bit of house hunting it’s probably time to sink a pint in true Irish style. Let’s head back along the Bahnhofstrasse and turn into the Pelikanstrasse where we can nip into the James Joyce Pub. It may not look like the real thing from outside, but push open the door and you enter an authentic 19th century Irish pub. The James Joyce Pub is nothing less then the original Juries Pub that Joyce frequented in Dublin and that even gets a mention in Ulysses. The entire furbishing was bought by a wealthy Swiss businessman, and Joyce fan, and shipped here, lock stock and Guinness barrel. Slainte!
Replenished we head back to the train station and out the other side, into the park that lies behind the neo-Gothic National Museum. Here, at the confluence of the rivers Limmat and Sihl, we stand on what was Joyce’s favourite spot in Zurich. It earns a mention in Finnigan’s Wake when he refers to the River Limmat: "Yssel that the Limmat?"and a number of photos of Joyce standing at this point, with his back to the Limmat, were taken here.
Back at the National Museum we can take tram 6 for three stops to the Universitatstrasse 29. Right at the bus stop we find yet another house where Joyce lived and worked on Ulysses. This is the only one that bears a plaque. It says, in German: “Here lived the Irish writer James Joyce in 1916 while he worked on his novel Ulysses”.
We have one more stop to make. Tram number 6 brings us to the end of the line. Literally. Simply follow the crowds. They are going to the zoo. But we turn at the first gate into a graveyard. A stone map will indicate the route to the Dubliner’s last resting place. He had returned to Zurich in December 1940, fleeing a war even more bloody than the first. The family was near penniless, the daughter, Lucia, was insane; Joyce himself was blind, haunted by feelings of guilt and depression, and crippled by a new ailment, a pain in his gut. He died on a cold January morning two weeks later. Nora Barnacle stayed on in Zurich, sinking into an ever-deeper loneliness, and died here in 1951. Today the couple share a grave in a peaceful corner of the wooded cemetery, backing onto the zoo. The only statue of Joyce in this city marks the plot. A Japanese maple turns fiery red in spring and autumn. The Nobel Literature Laureate, Elias Canetti is a neighbour. At night, as in all cemeteries, silence reigns, broken only by the occasional sound of animals encaged.