'Tis the season for holiday festivals in Zurich

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ZURICH, Switzerland -- Despite its reputation as a staid banking, insurance and finance capital, this historic, lakeside Swiss city is prone to periodically loosening its necktie, laying down the ledgers and enjoying some of life's less serious pursuits.

From the citywide dance madness each summer of the annual Street Parade techno-music event to the Freestyle.ch extreme-sports competition this fall that attracted international snowboarders, skateboarders and mountain bikers, Zurich reinvents itself at least once each season.

Perhaps no time of the year is more chock-full of street fairs, parties, theater and events than the monthlong, pre-Christmas Advent season, when residents and visitors alike find themselves transported to a holiday winter wonderland.

The Grossmunster cathedral and Niederdorf quarter are focal points of Advent celebrations in Zurich.Oh, Tannenbaum

First come the lights. On Nov. 23 at 4 p.m., some 20,640 holiday bulbs will illuminate Zurich's renowned Bahnhofstrasse commercial street each night through New Year's Eve.

Five days later, Europe's largest indoor Christmas market opens its 140 stalls at the Hauptbahnhof, or main railway station, for the seventh year.

This year, the fair's 50-foot Christmas tree will sparkle with as many as 6,000 Swarovski crystal ornaments; for more information on the market, visit www.christkindlimarkt.ch on the Web.

Across the Limmat River, a more traditional outdoor Christmas market -- common to nearly every northern European city- sets up shop in the charming Niederdorf quarter, or "Lesser Old Town," from Dec. 10 to 23.

As this reporter, a recent visitor, can testify, the Niederdorf -- packed with ancient guild houses now home to first class restaurants; elaborate, colorful fountains flowing with potable water; and soaring churches, such as the austere but inspiring Grossmunster -- is a spot to linger and explore in detail.

Helping potentially disoriented visitors find their way to top sites, city tourist board Zurich Tourism will host two-hour, guided Christmas strolls in both German and English through Niederdorf, the Bahnhofstrasse and the Christmas markets to the Advent Calendar House -- at the Schweizer Heimatwerk store on the Limmat -- from Dec. 4 to 22.

The excursions depart the tourist office at the main rail station on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 5.30 p.m., Saturdays at 3.30 p.m., and on two Sundays, Dec. 8 and Dec. 22, at 3.30 p.m.

No advance reservations are required, and prices run about $14 for adults, $10.50 for students and $7.00 for children ages 16 and under.

Private tours at any time also are available for groups of up to 20; for more information, call (011) 41-1 215-4088 or e-mail [email protected].

A tour option for those with children is the Marlitram Fairytale Tram, driven by St. Nicholas himself as two angel assistants entertain young riders with stories.

Tickets at available at the Jelmoli department store, located at Seidengasse 1 off the Bahnhofstrasse.

Speaking of commerce, shoppers usually frustrated by European hours of operation needn't fret this holiday season, as most local shops extend their hours in December.

Stores will be open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Friday; until 6 p.m. on Saturdays; from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Dec. 8 and 22; and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 24 and 31.

Snow shows

Cognizant that the holidays are all about spectacle, Zurich plays host to several theatrical events, circuses and concerts.

The Christmas show "Heaven and Earth" runs at the Oerlikon exhibition center through Dec. 31; the Salto Natale circus debuts the Cirque du Soleil-style "Chameleon" Nov. 29 to Jan. 5 under a big top in the Allmend park, 30 minutes from the main train station; and the classic Christmastime Conelli Dream Circus kicks off for its 11th season in a tent on the Bauschanzli peninsula on the Limmat from Nov. 11 to Jan. 2.

Classical music fans should head to the Tonhalle concert hall Dec. 19 and 20 for a performance of Handel's "Messiah" and a Dec. 22 evening of vocal works by Bach.

On Dec. 24 and 25, the "Dominicusmass" by Mozart will be sung by the Amadeus Choir at Sts. Peter and Paul Church.

All the holiday celebrations culminate in parties around the Zurichsee lake and upper Limmat on New Year's Eve from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.; the festivities peak with fireworks just after midnight.

Hotel steals

To lure more holiday visitors, Zurich Tourism crafted a special -- but noncommissionable -- two-for-one deal on accommodations at 44 area hotels, valid Fridays to Mondays from Nov. 29 to Jan. 6.

Properties offering two nights for the price of one include the five-star Arabella Sheraton Atlantis; the four-star Glockenhof and Steigenberger Bellerive au Lac; the three-star Altstadt and Novotel Zurich City Technopark; and the two-star Ibis Zurich Messe-Airport.

A more profitable option for agents is the "Old Zurich Weekend" available Fridays to Sundays through Dec. 31 from the cozy Hotel Adler (see Room Key, below), smack dab in heart of the Niederdorf. The hotel pays agents 10%.

Priced at about $95 per person, per night -- with a $20 single supplement -- the deal includes accommodations, breakfast, a 24-hour public transport pass, a fondue meal (without drinks) at the hotel's Swiss Chuchi restaurant and a copy of an illustrated book highlighting six walking routes to the 52 Old Town landmarks that are painted on the hotel's guest room walls.

For more on Advent and holiday events -- or to book the hotel special or walking tour -- call Zurich Tourism direct at (011) 41-1 215-4000 or visit www.zuerich.com on line.

Agents also can contact Switzerland Tourism at (877) 794-8037 or www.myswitzerland.com on the Web.

Room key: Hotel Adler

Address: Rosengasse 10, Zurich, Switzerland
Phone: (011) 41-1 266-9696
Fax: (011) 41-1 266-9669
Reservations: Lexington Services at (800) 537-8483 or www.lexres.com; or Switzerland Destination Management, (212) 757-5944
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.hotel-adler.ch
Manager: Hans Peter Kaiser
Rates: From about $95 per night, single, on weekends or $116, weeknights, to $224 to $252 for suites; packages available
Commission: 10%
Built: 1580; renovated 1955, and again in 1997
Rooms: 52 (11 junior suites)
Facilities: Swiss restaurant
Noteworthy: Trendy, modern, decor; ideal base for walking tours; no phone surcharges.
Not worthy: Rooms are small; strong daytime odor in lobby of fondue cheese from the restaurant.

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