Bern, the capital of Switzerland, its medieval city now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must-visit destination, steeped in history and charm.
I find myself waiting in a cluster of people. This isn’t a rare occurrence. I’ve often happened upon a group standing around staring, stopping to ask, “What’s everyone waiting for?” One time, it was to see Prince Charles and Camilla pull up and alight at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Another time, it was for free pizza at the local Buskers’ Festival. I waited for the pizza.
But here in Bern, the German-speaking capital of Switzerland, I can see what everyone is staring at, but am not sure what they’re waiting for. The Medieval Zytglogge towers overhead. The 13th century clock tower (Zytglogge is Bernese German for “time bell”) features a large-faced, astronomical clock, and is the most popular attraction in Bern. Little figurines adorn the clock, their tools in hand, waiting to be called upon to fix anything around the tower. The clock strikes noon and I get my answer to the waiting party, as the puppets come to life and dance for the crowd, their arms and legs waving, keeping time with each chime.
The clock tower is the crowning glory of the Old Town and the perfect jumping off point from which to tour the cobblestoned city. Now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, the Medieval city of Bern is built on a hilly peninsula encircled by the turquoise River Aare. Funiculars funnel polite-yet-shy locals and inquisitive tourists between the lower and higher city districts, while bridges connect the Old Town to more modern regions beyond the river’s edge.
Surrounding the Zytglogge are 6 kilometres of covered shopping arcades, meaning shoppers can hit up the H&M’s and Mango’s come rain or shine. I amble from a milk-and-cookie-scented chocolate shoppe (Toblerones heavily featured) to Albert Einstein’s apartment-cum-museum, Einstein-Haus. Math and physics buffs can tour the pied-à-terre where Einstein lived from 1903-1905 while working at the local patent office and from where he published his Annus Mirabilis papers.
A longtime fan of flea markets, I tour the marketplace facing the monolithic Bundeshaus (Federal Palace of Switzerland – pictured above). Located at Bärenplatz square, the market, featuring meat, cheese, produce and flowers, is open daily. Additional vendors arrive on weekends supplying artisanal crafts, jewelry and antiques. I complete my market tour by watching two gentlemen play chess on a life-sized board, à la Harry Potter wizard chess, and decide it’s time for lunch.
While most streets feature attractive bistros and cafés, I suggest a visit to Le Mazot off the market strip for some real, cheesy, Swiss comfort cooking – and a full sensory experience. The atmospheric aroma of Le Mazot is a cross between sewage and dead animal (does cooked cheese really smell that badly?), but I breathe through my mouth while awaiting the Swiss delicacies. The three musts in this, or any, wood-paneled chalet of Germanic gastronomy are fondue (cheese of course), rösti (a hearty potato-based dish) and raclette (semi-firm, cow’s milk cheese melted over a fire).
I leave the market plaza and come face to face with the 15th century Münster St. Vinzenz, Bern’s great gothic cathedral – gargoyles and all. I can hear the choir practicing for the evening service, and find them singing on the balcony before a massive, ornamented pipe organ. After resting a moment in a wooden pew and admiring the stained glass windows illustrating Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion (circa 1441-50), I feel ready to climb the steep, rocky path to the Rosengarten (Rose Garden), high above the city.
Thighs burning, brow sweating, I rise to the top and take in the heart-stirring panoramic vista. Scanning the multicoloured Rosarium, I notice a group of guys with a barrel-sized beer keg at their table and am reminded how much I could go for a cold one after that hike. At the base of the hill stands the Tramdepot – Bern’s most popular brewpub, originally the city’s old tramway station. I grab a brewskie while parking it on a stool overlooking the must-see bear habitat.
Since the 16th century, Bern kept their mascot animals in a rather archaic bear pit. The new Bärengraben opened in 2009 and offers its four bears an open-air, natural habitat with river access to swim. I love watching the little cubs, with their legs sprawled out behind them, relaxing by the river.
The current of the Aare is swift and unforgiving, which makes swimming difficult and dangerous for someone like me. Since failing Goldfishie 2 twice for refusing to put my head underwater, I can doggy paddle at best. I do, however, enjoy watching the braver water waders drift down the river while I wallow in the shallow end of the public swimming pool at Marzili…in floaties.
After a full day of sights and sun, I grab a glass of wine at Mr. Pickwicks, the city’s Brit pub. Here, English speakers and locals mingle during happy hour and go mad together when the football’s on!
Walking back to my room, the silhouette of the snow-capped Alps bathed in evening sunlight catches my eye. I marvel at the sight and daydream about my next day’s excursion to the Bernese Oberland.
Bim Zytglogge 3
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Grosser Muristalden 6
Lead image © Daniel Schwen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license; image of Bundeshaus © Dodo von den Bergen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; image of barman Reudi courtesy Tramdepot website