Friday, 11 October 2013

The Winterthur Tour

The second Swiss tour comes from Winterthur a city that was new to me and which I was visiting for a few days to give a performance as part of the Perform Now Festival. There are a number of public and private tours on offer and I took one that is run by Winterthur Tourism, a company that handles the tourist information service for the city. This tour was titled FROM TRADING TO HIGH-TECH LOCATION and it was basically a thematic local history tour.

We assembled in the city centre and there was a steady morning drizzle to dampen the spirits but people seemed used to it and they weren't going to let it stop them. Another thing I noticed was that almost everybody came in couples, I was the only person to have come by themselves. 

Standing outside, we listened to the chimes of the clock tower and when the last bell rang at the stroke of 10 the tour began. This was a precisely timed Swiss tour that really did work like clockwork! First stop was the Gewerbemuseum where we were shown the collection of clocks and heard the varied history of the building.

I suspected that the pubic taking the tour were mostly Winterthur locals and not visitors from afar and this was confirmed by not one but two cyclists stopping to say hello to people they knew who happened to be on the tour. While Winterthur may be the 6th largest Swiss city it is not a major tourist destination, the museums being the biggest pull the city has. That is probably why the tours on offer are more thematic than general so that they are of interest to residents. The tours are given in Swiss German and I benefitted from intermittent bursts of translation as our multi-lingual guide was originally from the UK. 

I heard about one of the other thematic tours which combines eating and walking: you take an aperitif in one place, walk a while then go somewhere else for the starter, walk and go somewhere else again for the main course. I've heard of gastro-tours but this is a nice addition of breaking up the different courses with a stroll and change of establishment. It immediately makes me imagine a version whereby you travel and only eat the same food at each place and so make it a food comparison tour. In fact I have a friend who wrote a North London kebab shop review for The Guardian a few years back, a low cost version of this idea...    

A consistent feature of the tour was that the industrial heritage was told not through statistics but through stories. Here we learnt about the role urine played in the fabric industry. This 'infotainment' approach seemed to strike a good balance and there was some humour which helped keep people's attention too. I wasn't sure if choosing to talk about urine while gathered on a footbridge over a flowing water channel was a subtle joke or not, but it amused me none the less. 

Only having two hands can be a problem when you're trying to show pictures, talk about them, stay dry with an umbrella and not tie yourself up in knots. Solution: enlist your public to hold the umbrella. It made for a simple but effective solution that transformed a problem into an opportunity to connect on a human level.

As often happens on tours there is a steady rhythm of stopping to talk about a location and then walking to the next one. This tour had a pretty good rhythm mixing indoor and outdoor locations and during the walks between them people could ask questions. I rather like this moment in tours when the format becomes more open and conversational but it is also a dangerous moment if the guide doesn't know what they are talking about and are just parroting a script they have learnt. Fortunately our guide was well informed and could answer people's questions. I learnt that the way the tour is taught is that it is first learnt as a script but the guides are then encouraged to do their own research around it so that they expand and personalise the industrial heritage tour in whichever way works best for them.

My understanding of German is poor so while I could follow broad themes and moods I could not really get the detail of anything. For example, one running theme was the relationship between Winterthur and Zurich. There was a lot of contrasting them by saying, for example, that at such and such a time certain things were forbidden in Zurich and allowed in Winterthur and at other times there were things allowed in Zurich which were forbidden in Winterthur. The two cities are perhaps a little too close to one another for such relations not to exist. Another ambiguous story concerned the frauenhaus. I later learnt that my confusion as to what this was, was natural as the place had transformed itself over a long period of time from an officially sanctioned brothel into a woman's shelter. 

There were several moments when I stopped and thought, "this would never happen in a British city" and this was one of them. The group is simply standing on the road, looking and talking. They are here  standing and talking on a crossing and at other times also walked and chatted on the roads. I can only guess that they had this relaxed attitude to road safety because the roads genuinely are safe. In the UK they are not so safe and to make matters worse there is now a litigious culture meaning guides are often quite hyper about road safety. 

The guide knew this tour well and had worked out good spots from which to speak, many of them being natural stages. It is not rocket science but finding steps and elevated points like this helps the sightlines. It wasn't critical as the audience was not so large but she definitely benefitted from knowing her route and how to make the most of it.

The tour was well prepared and the guide had a good number of laminated pictures that served to illustrate her points as well as a selection of other objects she pulled out of her bag, like cotton samples. Inevitably I started to consider these pictures from an art performance point of view and I could see how they could do much more than show what was on the site before or what sorts of things were produced there, as this picture does. For what this tour was attempting to do however, these pictures were perfectly adequate and they were indicative of more general level of care and attention to making an informative tour. In general I'd say this tour of Winterthur was  neither flashy nor particularly ambitious, it was, on the contrary, simple, engaging and well done.

There is an English language audio tour of Winterthur that is also available, in fact it comes as part of the City guide phone app. Starting at the train station you listen to a series of audio recordings of a older man and younger woman talking about the city, its history and architecture. The recordings are linked to a map that shows you the walking route and the points at which to stop along the way and listen to the two recordings. The problem for me was that they chose to have the man play the role of the city's architects of the past and to slip in jokes that are not so very funny. I'm glad they tried to do something more ambitious than a sleepy important building tour like the Sierre tour, however the danger of trying a different form is that if it goes wrong it can really go wrong. Added to that, the application started to crash in the second part of the tour and needed to be reloaded repeatedly. I like the idea but I think it still needs to be worked a little more before it is completely there.    

Finally, when my tour was done and I was at the station about to leave the city, an unusual thing happened. I was instructed by a police woman to leave the platform and to wait in the subway below along with everyone else who was also waiting on the platform. We had to decamp because a train of football hooligans was coming! I was expecting epic brawling like British football in the 80s, the days of the 6.57 Crew having it out with Millwall. But no, this was Switzerland and all that simply happened was that a train passed overhead and out of sight, we were spared viewing the unspeakable hooligans and, when it had gone, we could then go back up the stairs in time to catch the punctual airport train. It all worked like clockwork.

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