There is always a History – The Schanzengraben

Posted on June 17, 2010


The  Schanzengraben is not what it seems. I always thought it was a little stream, squeezed between the Limmat and the Shil, but, as a friend of mine recently let me know, it is in fact, an extremely long moat, dug by the inhabitants of Zurich to protect themselves from the attacks of  Catholic nations after the reformation. My friend also told me that no stone bridges were built over it at that time, but only wooden ones, so that, should the need arise, they could all be quickly burnt down, leaving the enemy stranded on the other side.

I had discovered the Schanzengraben by chance on one of my earlier wonderings through Zurich, when I had used it to reach the old botanical gardens. Now, I could see it in a different light, as my historian friend pointed out how it once flowed through Bahnhofstrasse, but was then redirected to allow for the paving and commercialisation of the now-famous street. He showed me the original parts of the moat where the walls on the other side were about three storeys high and paused where there had once been plaques and signs illustrating the story of the area, but which, he complained, had all been removed because young people were vandalising them. He pointed to a huge irregularly shaped but smooth boulder made to be a kind of grass-surrounded centre piece along a pavement stretch, and asked me where I thought it had come from. Knowing that Lake Zurich was the result of the melting of a glacier, I guessed that it was a boulder eroded and transported to the area by the ice. Hearing this, he let out a loud ‘yes!’, impressed by my good guessing.
It is always interesting, of course, to learn a little bit about the places you stumble upon, to diligently fill the space in your head dedicated to history and to the past, but beyond everything that the Schanzengraben used to be, what it is today is what warms my heart. Lower, as it is, than the surrounding buildings and streets, the sounds of the city do not make it to it. On sunny days, the light trickles through the crisp foliage  of the trees, and ducks quack and bustle around. Shallow at its Northern point, it gets progressively deeper at its source, Lake Zurich. I find it a shame that you cannot walk all the way down to the lake at water level, but have to occasionally surface back onto the street. One of the things which causes such diversions is the Mannerbad, a series of river pools built over the Schanzengraben, and reserved exclusively for men, with the female version on the larger Limmat. But it doesn’t matter, because there is no lack of spots where to sit by the water, listen to the soft sounds of a different world, and forget for a moment that the offices, banks, shops and traffic are just a few metres above you.


– Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @

Posted in: Zurich