"Never go down to the Niederdorf at night, dear," she warns me now that I am 40. "You are sure to get knifed by a Turk or a Yugoslav. A man was killed only the other day. Just think! We support these people with our taxes and then they come and rob us at knifepoint!"
Zurich has its social problems. There are drug addicts in Platz Spitz and beggars who pester the opera queue. Yet even on a Saturday night, the Niederdorf, the ancient cobbled district of bars and shops leading from the quay to the cathedral (Grossmuenster), is not nearly as bad as Aunty Helena believes and positively genteel by any British city centre's weekend standards.
In Zurich, we foreigners see leafy streets, quaint clanking trams, the world's most expensive sweet shops, and an innocent clutch of Rip Van Winkle church spires beside a long, silver lake overlooked by a trio of snow-topped mountains.
But Aunty Helena imagines only metropolitan degeneracy and heroin needles in the late-night city streets. The Swiss have an overdeveloped sense of danger, bolstered by experience. After all, whenever Bohemians of all types converge on Zurich, the biggest city in the tiny but secure Alpine kingdom, it is a sure sign that all is not well on the plains of Europe.
Both world wars drew intellectuals, artists, refugees, bandits, cowards and cynics to Zurich by the trainload. Musicians such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Strauss sheltered here at different times. Paul Hindemith, fleeing the Nazis in 1936, staged the first performance of his opera Mathis der Maler at the Zurich Opera House to great, yah-boo-sucks-to-Germany acclaim. The young Georg Solti fled occupied Hungary and paid his way in Zurich by playing the piano at such decadent establishments as the Cafe Odeon and the Kronenhalle Restaurant.
Lenin spent the First World War here denouncing both capitalists and pacifists which, in Zurich, was pretty well everybody. Half a century earlier, Marx's friend Georg Herwegh headed a dissidents' circle which Wagner joined when he arrived in Zurich after escaping arrest for his part in the Dresden uprising of 1849. As usual, he made himself immediately unpopular by taking up with Mathilde Wesendonck, a local industrialist's wife, and disseminating pro-German Romantic idealism.
In 1916, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, and others at Hugo Ball's Cabaret Voltaire on Bellevue overlooking the Lake of Zurich, scoffed loudly at the European folly, stuck a pin in a dictionary and invented Dadaism. "It is life without carpet slippers," they said and declared themselves against everything, including making sense.
Although nostalgic tributes to the Cabaret Voltaire and its membership do crop up from time to time on Swiss TV, Zurich is not particularly proud of this association. The Kunstaus, Zurich's main art gallery, dedicates but one tiny room to the Dadaists and hangs the most important work - Theo van Doesburg's and Kurt Schwitters' Kleine Dada-Souree, a collage of illogical statements and signatures - above the doorway where it cannot be read.
The Cabaret Voltaire no longer exists but the Cafe Odeon and the Kronenhalle do and, now as then, attract the "Leftists" as Aunty Helena describes everyone under 40 who has not been apprenticed to a bank. Wealthy art lovers hog the tables at the Kronenhalle. At the Cafe Odeon, eternal students with dyed hair and earrings perch on bar stools or sprawl at Parisian- style tables, smoking defiantly and summoning the spirit of Swiss writers Max Frisch and Friedrich Duerrenmatt who sat here in the 1950s and attempted to draw the attention of a complacent, not to say complicit world, to what they saw as their country's collusion with Nazi Germany while sipping its coffee and enjoying its freedom. The Zurich harbour front is the nearest thing the German world has to a cafe society.
It could be said that the city of Zurich has revolution in its cobblestones. The Grossmuenster stands on Platz Zwingli, named after the rebellious Swiss priest who, with Luther, cocked a snook at Rome and established a Protestant church. This, among other things, did not take the sin of usury (lending money for interest) quite so seriously as the Pope did. Hence the fabulous banks.
The city's other smaller, more feminine cathedral, the Fraumuenster, has a window created by the Russian-born artist Chagall. Zurich has always held art dear and the banks have paid dearly for it. Artists, similarly, have always held Zurich dear, not only as a political haven but also as the natural place to deposit their earnings. The European soul has an instinct for Switzerland. The vaults in the mountains echo with mythic appeal.
Much has been invested in setting up a summer arts festival for the first time this year. Despite being conceived less than 12 months ago, it has managed to attract the sort of names who usually say their diaries are full until the year 2000. Sir Georg Solti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mtislav Rostropovich, Cecillia Bartoli and Peter Schreier are all lined up for concerts between 28 June and 20 July. "My dear, they probably all have bank accounts in Zurich!" says Auntie Helena who is a realist. "Everybody trades with Switzerland," she beams, "and the country is not even a member of the Common Market!"
Talented youngsters from all over the EU have auditioned for new, well- paid posts in the Tonhalle Orchestra (pounds 45,000 for a back desk violinist) which plays at the Kongresshalle, one of the finest "shoebox" concert halls in Europe. It is panelled and painted: one studies the ceiling in slow movements. In 1895, Brahms conducted Beethoven's Ninth at the inaugural concert.
The fortunes of the Tonhalle Orchestra have been further enhanced by the appointment of a new and charismatic conductor. David Zinman waved the baton at the London Symphony Orchestra on the million-selling recording of Gorecki's Third Symphony five years ago and has scored such a hit with Zurich society that he has been invited to join the exclusive Zurich Golf Club. "He's never out of the papers," confides Aunty Helena. "He's not much good at golf, but terribly good fun at the clubhouse."
"Oh how lovely!" she exclaims when I tell her we have tickets for the Tonhalle, "I hope you've got a clean shirt, Richard." People still dress to attend Tonhalle concerts. People still dress to go to the golf club for dinner. We sit at a table overlooking the links. Distant figures practice their swings as the sun sets behind a hill of fir trees. A waiter brings the Wiener Schnitzel which has been beaten to the size of a frisbee. For such is the golf club renowned.
Aunty Helena shows me a letter she has received from Denis Thatcher. The families are old friends who used to holiday in the mountains together in the 1950s. Carol Thatcher refers to "the lovely people at Lenzerheide" in the biography of her father. She means Aunty Helena. Denis's letter contains a few personal family details and a note of Carol's address in Klosters, where she has taken an apartment with her young Bergfuehrer (ski instructor) boyfriend to write a second book.
The Thatchers are frequent visitors to the Confederacio Helvetica, or CH as the land of 26 cantons is known to car bores. In 1990, Aunty Helena, Denis and Margaret were guests at a dinner party given by Lady Hurlimann- Glover at Schloss Freudenberg on neighbouring Lake Zug. The PM's 40 bodyguards lurked among the Grecian urns in Switzerland's most magnificent formal gardens. When cigars and brandy segregated the sexes Margaret refused to leave the bankers and sent Denis off with his gin and tonic to entertain the girls.
From anyone else, such behaviour might have given offence, Zurich society can be formal to the point of obsession which is why the trains are never late nor the cuckoos unpunctual. The order, precision, cleanliness and sense of fair play (they hold referendums on everything) are what Aunty Helena, the Thatchers, and the rest of the world admire about Zurich and Switzerland, even if some will not readily admit it.
Zurich people demonstrate their love of fine things by installing public phone booths which automatically play German classical music when you open the door. When the sun is out or the warm Foen is blowing up the lake from the south of France, shirt-sleeved citizens play games of chess with giant-size pieces on the pink and white paving stones of Platz Zwingli. When both are not, you take an overcoat - preferably an expensive one. "Kleider machen Leute" (clothes make people) wrote the 19th-century Swiss author Gottfried Keller and never spoke a truer word of his countryfolk. "A man is not a man without a Burberry," says Aunty Helena. "I am not letting you go down to the Bahnhofstrasse, Richard, looking like an Albanian." FACT FILE Getting there Swissair (Reservations 0171-434 7300), six flights daily from London Heathrow Crossair subsidiary of Swissair; (Reservations 0171-434 7300) three flights daily from City Airport. Lowest available fare pounds 129 plus tax.
Entertainment Opera House: Falkenstrasse 1, 8008, Zurich (0041 1 268 6666). Schauspielhaus (Theatre): Zeltweg 5 (Tel 0041 1 265 5858) Tonhalle: Claridenstrasse 7 (0041 1 206 3434). Kunsthaus: Heimplatz 1 (0041 1 251 6765). Planetarium: Uraniastrasse, Zurich 8001. Rooftop observatory in the city centre. Open 8-11pm when night sky is clear.
Zurich Festspiele Central box office for all festival events (0041 1 215 4082) Accommodation Zurich Hotel Reservation (Tel 0041 1 2115 4040). Grandhotel Dolder: Kurhausstr 65, Zurich 8030 (0041 1 251 6231), new mountainside location with lake views; access to centre by funicular. Hotel Dolder Waldhaus: Kurhausstrasse 20, Zurich 8030 (0041 1 251 9360), older hotel near the above; forest ambienc e. 10 mins from centre by funicular. Pool and ice rink. Atlantis Sheraton: Doltschiweg 234, Zurich 8055 (00 41 1 454 5454), overlooks city from Uetliberg mountain. Widder Hotel: Rennweg 7, 8030 Zurich (00 41 1 224 2526), new conversion of six town houses ; fabulous restaurant.
Eating out1 Baur au Lac: Talstr 1, Zurich 8022 (Tel 0041 1 220 5020) Lakeside restaurant next to the Tonhalle concert hall.Reuse content