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When Zurich gets festive: how to get Sechseläuten right

My first experience with Zurich’s Sechseläuten Festival almost 20 years ago was, like most of my best travel experiences, completely accidental and random, and I missed most of it. I saw only enough to make me want to return, which I have done now, several times. But while these return trips have been thoroughly enjoyable, each has also revealed challenges that make me want to keep returning, and doing it better the next time.

My first visit was mostly a trip to Florence, Lucerne, and Berne, and I only visited Zurich because it was the convenient airport gateway. Worth spending a day, since I had to be there, but not a primary objective in itself. The day I spent there was mostly a disappointment. At that time, early in my travels to Europe, my only objectives in the major cities were the art museums and the cathedrals. And on that particular day, a third Monday in April, neither the Kunsthaus Zurich nor the Grossmünster were open.

So I wandered the city for a while, and a beautiful city it is, but not very large. I was fortunate enough the find the Fraumünster open, which was very pleasant for being my first encounter with Chagall’s stained glass windows. I have since sought these out in other cities, and have never been disappointed. But because the main tourist sites were closed, and I had an early flight the next day, I returned early to the hotel to waste away the rest of the day with a nap, packing, and early bedtime.

pic: readingaloud/flickr

I only ventured out late in the afternoon to find dinner. I left the hotel only to find a crowd on the Limmatquai sidewalk, watching a parade on the street. I do not particularly care for parades, but this one was right outside my hotel door, and I thought I might as well look. And I was immediately charmed by the spectacle. The first thing I noticed was how much fun everyone was having, both the participants and the spectators. People having fun is fun! I poked my head back inside the hotel to ask the desk clerk what was happening, and was told was that today was a holiday, which explained why the Grossmünster and other sites were closed. So I went back out and watched, and enjoyed the people marching and riding horses in medieval-looking costumes. Spectators running out from the sidewalk to give flowers to the marchers and riders! Lots of bands. An occasional wagon hauling wine bottles, which the costumed marchers were pouring into glasses held by the spectators. And me without a wine glass. But all in all, a pretty good time.

I watched for an hour until the last marchers and wagons passed, then made my way to a restaurant which was, other than myself, deserted. I found this odd, given that there had been thousands of parade-watchers on the street shortly before. I soon learned why. The server asked me why I was not at the Opera House, to which, of course, I had no intelligent reply. She explained that they were about to burn something – I could not quite catch what she was saying. But then she showed me, on a television set in the corner, what looked like a large bonfire. Big deal, I thought – so they light a bonfire. Even if I had known, I would not have gone. Time for dinner and early bed, which is what I did.

Only on my return to the US did I try to find information on the holiday. In those pre-internet days, I was lucky to find a brief description of the festival in a book on the history of Zurich. And I immediately realized how close I had come to witnessing a wonderful event, and had blown it.

For Sechseläuten is not to be missed! The festival has its origins in pagan and Roman spring festivals, and acts as a celebration of the end of winter. The festival is much longer, more complex, and more filled with symbology than I could have known by stumbling upon it. The festival begins on the third Sunday in April (usually the third, but sometimes the second), with a Children’s Parade which is adorably cute. This parade on the Bahnhofstrasse is much smaller than the main parade on Monday, but is important as it serves to carry the Böögg to its place of honor on the open square in front of the Opera House. The Böögg is an effigy of a snowman, made of wood and straw, standing about 15 or 20 feet high, and representing winter. He is hauled on a wagon as the highlight of the Children’s Parade.

On the Monday, the members of the medieval guilds arrive with their horses, floats, and costumes. The main parade begins at 3:00 pm, and takes about 3 hours. It starts somewhere near the Opera House, crosses over the Limmat River to the western bank, progresses north along the Bahnhofstrasse, crosses another bridge back to the east bank, and proceeds south along Limmatquai to end at the Opera House. At the Opera House, the Böögg is lit on fire at precisely 6:00 – Sechseläuten roughly translates as “six by the clock”. This is the bonfire that I watched on television, and had not thought worthy of my attention.

But oh, what I missed! It is not simply on fire. The medieval guilds, on horseback, race in circles around it very fast, as it burns. Each of the guilds has their own unique costume, so one group will ride around a few times, and then be replaced by the next group, continually switching out with each other in a beautifully choreographed dance. The horses’ hooves make a thunderous sound, and the bands are all playing as the flames creep up higher towards the Böögg’s head. Then, all at once, a bang! Then another one! And more! Because the body and head of the Böögg are loaded with explosives. The explosions increase in intensity until, all at once, a large final bang rips the entire head off of the thing, and the crowd goes wild! I am not certain of the complete ritual, but I understand that the length of time it takes for the head to blow off is somehow indicative of how quickly spring will come, similar to our American groundhog. The remaining parts of the Böögg continue to burn for a while, but as the flames settle down, the medieval participants and the crowds disperse, unquestionably with the intention of drinking and partying on into the night.

Once I understood what I had missed, I resolved to make up for it by visiting Zurich during April again. On my first return trip a few years later, I had a fantastic time, and saw most of the festival. But I also learned that some insider knowledge, and some practice, are needed to fully savor the Sechseläuten experience.

Pic: readingaloud/flickr

On this second trip, I managed to see the whole Children’s Parade on Sunday. And on Monday, I managed to procure a wine glass early. I was settled onto a spot on the Limmatquai, by 2:00, ready for action. I got the see the whole of the parade, had some wine, and savored how much more enjoyable these moments are when you have some idea what is going on. The only drawback during the parade was that it was a hot and sunny day, and my position on the sidewalk of the Limmatquai faced towards the southwest, right into the sun. Not having planned in advance for either optimal positioning or sunblock, I got a nasty sunburn sitting there for four hours.

My next move was to follow the last of the parade towards the Opera House, to watch the burning of the Böögg. Only to learn more lessons that would have to be applied in the future. For the square in front of the Opera House fits, I am told, approximately 250,000 people, and by the time I got there, it was full to the brim. Actually, not quite full. By walking around the outer edges, I was able to find that there was plenty of space on the southeast side of the square. And from this vantage point, I was able to enjoy all the preparations, the beginning of the horses circling the Böögg, and the lighting of the fire. I could not believe my good fortune in having found such a good, open spot to watch among the enormous crowd.

I soon learned why I was able to capture such a prime location. The wind was blowing that day, strongly, from the northwest. As the flames on the Böögg grew larger, I caught a whiff of smoke, then more smoke. Smoke started burning my eyes. Then sparks! Soon, it was almost unbearable, being directly downwind from thing. People in my area, undoubtedly all Sechseläuten rookies like myself, started squeezing into the crowds on either side of us, trying to maintain a good view, but with less of a risk of smoke inhalation or catching on fire. I managed to see most of the action without permanent damage, but now I knew what I had to do. I had to come back again, and do it better next time.

My third visit had to wait until approximately 10 years later. I arrived in Zurich on Sunday morning, checked into my hotel by about 11:00 am, and asked the clerk what time the Children’s Parade started. Blank look. “What parade?” “The Sechseläuten parade, of course.” “Oh! But that was last week!”

I was stunned. Everyone knows that it is always on the third Monday in April, not the second. I actually looked the dates up on the internet, in advance, to make sure I had it right. Several Zurich events websites listed the date as today! My host explained to me that the festival is always on the third Monday, except once every few years, when it isn’t. It apparently has something to do with Easter, and full moons, and things like that.

So my third trip to see Sechseläuten was a disaster, at least as far as the festival went. But I adjusted. Fortunately, the visit to Zurich was only part of an overall hiking trip. I immediately checked out of the hotel, crossed the Limmat into the Bahnhof, and looked up at the board for possible destinations. Fifteen minutes later I was on a train, and by 4:00 in the afternoon, I was in Davos, ready for a few days of hiking.

Pic: Adnan Yahya/flickr

I planned my fourth trip to Sechseläuten for the very next year. I was mad about the third trip, and was resolved that nothing was going to stop me this time. And nothing did stop me. Although I continued to learn lessons that I will have to apply, next time. For instance, on my first two trips, I had simply stood or sat on the Limmatquai sidewalk and watched the events, up close and personal. But now on this fourth trip, I found that the sidewalks were lined with benches, and I was told that seating on the benches is reserved. How one reserves them, I have no idea. I wandered around before the parade, but was unable to find a location without benches. I’d like to say that it was okay, standing behind the benches, but it really wasn’t. The view was not that good, there were arguments among people regarding who had reserved seats and who didn’t throughout the whole thing, and I spent much of the time continually trying to re-position up and down the Bahnhofstrasse to get a better view.

I also had deliberately planned my positioning in advance, to maximize my viewing opportunities. By my calculations, it took any single marcher in the parade approximately one hour to cover the route from start to finish. So if you position near the start of the route, and watch the last marcher, then you have an hour to get a prime position at the Opera House. So in my location on the Bahnhofstrasse, I expected the last marchers to pass at about 5:15, allowing me to be positioned at the Opera House by no later than 5:30.

But the last marcher did not arrive. At 5:15, not only were they still going strong, but I could see that they were still winding along the Börsenstrasse, and showed no signs of ending. At 5:30, I started to worry, and began to make my way south, trying to watch the parade and make progress towards the square at the same time. Thousands of other people were doing the same. By 5:45, the last of the marchers were just beginning the route, and most of the people had long since stopped paying attention to the parade as they scrambled to get to the Opera House before 6:00.

I managed to get to the square and squeezed into the throng as best as I could, on the upwind side. As the Böögg was lit, paraders were still marching into the square, and they continued to arrive throughout. I actually had an excellent view of the Böögg, since it was elevated, but I could only hear, and not see, the horsemen racing in mad circles around it. But it was worth it, and when the Böögg’s head blew off, I went crazy along with the rest of the crowd.

Clearly, full enjoyment of Sechseläuten requires planning, cooperation of the weather, and hoping that events run on time. It is probable that a flawless Sechseläuten trip does not exist, and that is okay with me. I am sure I’ll continue visiting for years to come.

One of the benefits of Sechseläuten that I highly recommend is combining a trip to Zurich with visits elsewhere in Switzerland, which is entirely awesome. Zurich is reachable by train within a few hours from anywhere in the country, or even parts of Germany. So you can wake up in Berne, or Freiburg, or pretty much anywhere in the Alps on Sunday morning, and be watching the Böögg being hauled to the Opera House at the end of the Children’s Parade by Sunday afternoon. You can plan an extra day in Zurich, which I have come to love for itself, not just for its central location and easy accessibility. Make sure to climb the Grossmünster tower for a view of the Alps, and if you are like me, you might spend hours in front of Chagall’s windows. Zurich is also accessible to awesome day trips, including the churches in Lucerne, a boat trip on the Vierwaldstättersee (cold in April!), or the incredible monastery at Einsiedeln. But make sure to research in advance for exact dates, and to reserve a location on a bench! Note the sun position and wind direction. And bring a wine glass.

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