04/02/2013 13:00 GMT | Updated 06/04/2013 06:12 BST

Going Dada for Zurich

I was sitting in Cabaret Voltaire in the old town of Zürich, drinking pastis and contemplating revolution.

By all accounts it was in this bar, in this city, that in 1916 the Dada movement was born.

A movement rejecting reason and logic, and prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition - Dada-ism was a response to the horrors of World War One. The artists and poets that hung out in the Cabaret Voltaire at that time began holding anti-war and anti-bourgeois exhibitions, discussions, and gatherings, and this soon inspired an international artistic movement that embraced the radical left.

There's a couple of competing theories as to why the movement was called 'Dada', but for the artists involved (many of whom had fled Romania and Germany during the war), the abstraction of Dada-ism enabled them to shock the prevailing order - to fight against the social, political and cultural norms of that time. The movement was a key influence for the development of styles such as the avant-garde, surrealism, pop art, and performance art.

At the same as the emergence of Dada-ism, just around the corner from the Cabaret Voltaire lived a different sort of revolutionary - Vladimir Lenin. It was while living in his Zurich apartment that Lenin developed his plans for the revolution in Russia.

For me, on a cold wintry January day, it was extraordinary to sit there, in that bar, and realize that not so many years ago the people in this little corner of the old town of Zurich had such a dramatic and lasting impact on the world as we know it today.

Of course Zurich has a long history of being a forward-thinking city and of embracing change. In the 1520s it was Zurich's Huldrych Zwingli who led the Protestant Reformation - preaching from the twin-towered Grossmunster church just down the road, stripping it of its ornamentation, breaking the control of the Roman Catholic Church to replace it with a different type of strict religious and civil adherence.

Today Zurich remains the epitome of a socially progressive, democratic city-state. Corine Mauch was elected as Mayor in 2009 - Switzerland's first lesbian mayor. In 2002, residents of the Zurich administrative canton voted in favor of the proposed legislative change to allow registration of same-sex couples. Direct voting on legislative proposals is an important component of the c.400,000 residents' involvement and ownership of the day-to-day governance of the city of Zurich.

One example of that grass-roots democratic power is the vote in 2008 when the people of Zurich voted in favor of a quantifiable and fixed limit of CO2 emissions per person - this is requiring a significant rethink in the way that the city operates and has led to investment in public transport, the enlargement of the bicycle lane network, as well as research into renewable energy initiatives.

Throughout all of these years, all of these changes, the Limmat river has been steadily flowing from Zurich's lake through the stone walls of the city.

I sat, in the Cabaret Voltaire, drinking pastis and contemplating revolution.



The easiest way to travel from London is to fly Swiss air from London City to Zurich.

Public Transport

Pick up a ZürichCARD at the tourism service center at Zürich Airport. You can get a card that is valid for either 24 or 72 hours - the benefit is that it gives you free public transport (including the train to and from the airport) as well as access to all the city's museums.


Hotel Platzhirsch is located in the heart of Zurich's old town and is the perfect base to explore the city.

Information and tours

The website of the Zürich tourist board is a great starting point for everything you need to plan your visit to the city.