James Joyce started and ended his exile from Ireland in Zurich. It’s where he fled to from Dublin in 1904, found refuge during the first World War and died in 1941. In between he lived in Trieste, Rome and Paris, but Zurich has a special place in his legacy — because Zurich is where he mainly wrote Ulysses.
Sitting in Zurich’s Café Odeon on a sunny summer lunchtime, 100 years after its publication, I wonder how much of the city made it into the book.
Are there shades of the Odeon in the descriptions of the Ormond Hotel bar, Barney Kiernan’s or Burke’s where Leopold Bloom stopped off on his famous walk around Dublin on June 16th, 1904, the day James Joyce first walked out with Nora Barnacle from Galway?
Less than four months later, James and Nora were in Zurich, sometimes referred to as the city of their “honeymoon”, though how much of a honeymoon it was for Nora, left alone while James was off finding out his job offer at the Berlitz school was a hoax, is debatable — and they weren’t even married anyway.
They left for Trieste but returned to Zurich in 1915, when the Odeon was just four years old and a meeting place for exiles, artists and avant-garde intellectuals like Lenin, Einstein and the newly formed Dadaists.
One of Joyce’s favourite cafes in the city, today the Odeon is a smart venue for a well-heeled crowd with its marble topped tables, red banquettes and Art Nouveau vibe.
After a lunch of salad, beef stew and potatoes (€25 for two courses), I walk up towards the lake, passing the stylish Kronenhalle, another Joycean favourite where Coco Chanel, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso also held court. Today as well as bar and restaurant (where you’ll pay €20 euro for a cocktail and double that for a main course), it’s a cultural centre and foundation, set up to support arts initiatives and fund creative projects.
Zurich’s old town is laid out along the River Limmat which flows from Lake Zurich and at Bellevue (“beautiful sight”) I cross the Quaibrucke — Quay Bridge — which separates them. The streets by the lake are buzzing in the sunshine with dog walkers and tourists, people dining on the cafe terraces and picnicking on benches at the water’s edge. Screened behind trees, the city traffic rushes past, below the balconies of the lucky people who live in the heart of the city with a lake outside their front door.
I turn back north along the Limmat with its swimmers and sunbathers and wonder if it reminded Joyce of the Liffey. There mightn’t be too many swimming in the Liffey these days but swimming in Zurich’s crystal-clear waters is big with the locals.
I pass the river’s Frauenbad (”women’s baths”), traditionally reserved for women, with its covered-in section for privacy and, further down, the Fraumünster (“women’s church”), with Marc Chagall stained-glass windows, built on the site of a 9th century women’s abbey.
In January 1941, Joyce had his last night out in the Kronenhalle. He went to hospital in severe pain the next morning ...
Ducking in behind the 9th century St Peter’s church, with its distinctive tower and the largest clock face in Europe, I sit under the shady lime trees on Lindenhof and watch a chess game played on a giant board with life-size pieces. High above the city with stunning river views, this area has variously been home to the Celts, Romans and Ottonians and housed temples, castles and palaces.
From here I can see the University district where the Joyces lived at 38 Universitätsstrasse in 1918, when James’s fame was beginning to spread. The tram stops right outside, a small plaque marks the building. That year, the first episodes of Ulysses were printed in American avant-garde magazine The Little Review — “the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have to publish”, said founder Margaret Anderson.
Back on the river, the sun is sinking lower and wine bottles are being uncorked on benches and restaurant terraces. I make my way to the Hotel Storchen and my stylish room overlooking the Limmat, swans bobbing outside the window. The Storchen is a hotel so fancy it has its own river boat which ferries guests to sister hotel The Alex on the western shores of Lake Zurich.
A member of the exclusive Preferred Hotels and Resorts group, its riverside terrace is a scenic spot for a glass of the local sparkling wine, while an upstairs cigar bar, all leather padded seats and dark wood, lets you smoke inside looking out at the river. (Rooms from £380, preferredhotels.com).
I have dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-starred La Rôtisserie on the first floor terrace, a luxury feast that includes scallops, oysters and ravioli, several amuse bouches, various foams and infused delectations, with views of the twin towered Grossmünster church on the river bank, the snow-capped Alps in the distance.
James and Nora would have loved it. Unlike conventional Trieste, in Zurich wives regularly accompanied their husbands to theatres and restaurants and James and Nora enjoyed regular nights out. Fond of a drop, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be carried home.
The next morning I’m back on the terrace, where I’m offered eggs from the hotel hens (they live on a farm near the lake) and coffee so fine it almost makes me weep. The sky is a bit cloudier today as I head north to Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s stylish shopping street where Nora bought her finery when they were finally in the money. Joyce said it was so clean that you could eat minestrone off it without using a spoon. (He was also known to dance on it after a few jars.)
Nearby on Pelikanstrasse, the James Joyce pub is decked out in the former Victorian interior of Jury’s Antique Bar on Dame St (the barmaid gets a mention in Ulysses), shipped over from Dublin in 1978. It was the meeting place of the 7th International James Joyce Symposium a year later and in 1985 the Zurich James Joyce Foundation was set up around the corner on Augustinergasse.
I walk past the National Museum to Platzspitz park where the Limmat and Sihl rivers meet, a spot Joyce loved to visit and where his favourite photo was taken, standing facing the river. Fleeing Nazi-occupied France for Zurich in 1940, he took his little grandson Stephen to see it as soon as they arrived, despite the fact it was December, snowing and he was struggling with agonising stomach cramps. Today the names of the river are inscribed on the wall as Ljmmat and Sjhl — the “j” replacing “i” in his honour.
In January 1941, Joyce had his last night out in the Kronenhalle. He went to hospital in severe pain the next morning and died three days later — the cramps diagnosed as “nervous energy”, a perforated ulcer.
It’s really clouding over as I take the tram from the train station to the end of the line, a journey up steep hills past leafy streets of detached mansions, where the residents either have very good leg muscles or cars. The last stop is the zoo and it’s raining heavy as I get out, umbrella raised, to visit Joyce’s grave in the Fluntern Cemetery next door, surrounded by trees and flowers. He was fond of the zoo’s lions, and when he was buried Nora said she liked to think of him lying there hearing them roar.
James Joyce may have left Ireland, but Ireland never left him, and for all his rejection of the country and the nets it casts over our souls, he missed it. In Zurich he wrote Ulysses, a book about journeys but mainly it’s a story about coming home.
Getting there and around
Swiss Air flies direct to Zurich from Dublin, Swiss.com. For more information on the city visit Zuerich.com and MySwitzerland.com. A Swiss Travel Pass, from €238 for three days, offers unlimited travel on the country’s rail, bus and boat network, Mystsnet.com.
Richard Ellmann wrote the definitive Joyce biography in 1959 and Gordon Bowker one of the more recent in 2011, but for a women’s take on Joyce read James Joyce by Edna O’Brien, published in 1999.
The Brenda Maddox biography of Nora Barnacle, Nora, is a classic, and you can also read a fictionalised account of her life in the One Dublin One Book choice for 2022, Nora by Nuala O’Connor, published earlier this year.
This article was edited on August 15th to correct a factual error.