Mark and I are well into our quest to see the major cities of Switzerland. Mark’s goal is to visit every canton (county) in Switzerland. This time he actually took some time off work to take a long weekend in Bern.
Bern is the capital of Switzerland, and fittingly so. It is beautiful! And, apparently, a 2012 Mercer survey ranked Bern as one of the top ten cities for quality of life. The old town is nestled in a loop of the Aare River. Mark points out this is an excellent strategic location while I point out it makes for a beautiful city view.
Bern is supposedly named after the first animal that Berchtold V, the founder of Bern, hunted back in 1191 when he came to the site of Bern. They love their bears. There are statues and pictures of bears everywhere. The bear is on their city and canton crest and they keep bears in the barengraben – bear pit – in the city. And they have since about 1440. (Their names are Mischa and Mascha for those interested. They were hibernating so we didn’t get to see them.)
They are so committed to their city mascot that when the French occupied Bern during the 1798 French Revolutionary Wars they took away the bears that were in the pit, leaving a newborn bear cub to die. The Bernese, being tough as nails and able to hold a grudge like none other, took the dead cub, stuffed him, and posed him with a small crest of the city to remind them forever how horrible the French are and how they will never give up. This cub is located in their Natural History Museum.
The old town is built out in long, straight lines. The peninsula is narrow so there isn’t a lot of room for being untidy and building houses just everywhere. This allows for these long covered sidewalks to exist. The shops are in the buildings adjoining the covered walkways and you can walk from one end of the old town to the river without having to come out into the weather except to cross the street.
We also saw these cellar doors everywhere along the street. It turns out that they are actually the front doors to shops that run below the street! It had a very Berkeley, CA feel to them so we were delighted. Particularly with this shop.
And in keeping with the quirky….
Also in the old town was small apartment where Albert Einstein lived while he worked as a patent clerk in Bern AND when he published his 5 papers in physics in 1905. The apartment was only 3 rooms, but it had been made into a museum. The historical preservation office also took the apartment upstairs to build an exhibit about Einstein’s life. The Natural History Museum also has a huge Einstein exhibit. Although he wasn’t born there and although he only lived there a short time, Bern is certainly proud of and heavily promoting their favorite adopted son.
We also found the most amazing clock! It is an astronomical clock and part of the Zytglogge tower in the old town. It is beautiful and is surrounded by these lovely murals on the adjacent buildings.
There was a huge fire in 1405 that burned out the tower. It has once been used as a prison, but after the fire they turned it into this lovely clock. It took them a long time to fix it. They rebuilt it, added some structural beauty, and in 1527 extended the clock function. The damage wasn’t totally fixed until 1983! You get a nice show when the hour arrives. There are six figures on the clock: a rooster, a fool, a knight, a piper, a lion, and a bear. At three minutes before the hour the animals chase each other around, the fool rings a bell and a rooster caws. There is a figure of a man holding a hammer at the very top. When the hour comes he moves his hammer and strikes the bell.
Say what you will about the Swiss. They really know how to make ordinary things beautiful. I think that is one of the major lessons I am learning here. There is an intangible joy I get using beautiful things for everyday work.
There are bears everywhere. They are a devoted people, that is for sure. Bears, Einstein, traditions, grudges. They hold onto it all.
As Shaun will be quick to point out, they did embrace the Reformation and threw out the Catholic Church. They kept the Munster Cathedral, however, they took loads of art and valuable pieces of Catholic regalia and literally tossed it into a ditch. (Which is delighting the archaeologist today.) The church is still very beautiful and they are taking pains to restore parts of it. It towers over the rest of the buildings. It’s height makes it easily the most recognizable building in the entire town.
There is an amazing park outside of the Munster that overlooks the city. We took the kids there at least twice. Once for a great picnic lunch and once as a happy accident to blow off steam. It was one of my favorite parks.
The Bernese are very proud to be the capital of the country. And they show it on their capital building.
They have a great plaza and they have a lovely Saturday morning market, where I got some stylish fingerless gloves and warm stocking caps for the boys. This was in preparation for the Onion Festival!!
The Zibelemarit is held the 4th Monday in November. We hadn’t known about it until we were planning our trip for the weekend. So, since this is a once a year event that the tourism website insists this is a “must do” for all Swiss peoples we figured that we must do it.
The streets are packed with stands selling and people staring at and occasionally buying intricately braided onion and garlic ropes.
The Market opened at 5:00am to a wild confetti fight. Everyone could buy bags of confetti of different colors at a little stand and the children were wildly tossing them at each other and other random people. The streets were covered with confetti. It made for a fun and festive atmosphere. (I bet it was hell to clean up, though. Especially since people tracked confetti into every shop and hotel in the old town of Bern. And in the train station. And in the trains.)
And they were selling mistletoe along with other winter and Christmas decorations to start your season off right.
We are definitely going back to Bern in the Spring. It was so much fun! And it’s only an hour away and we can do it as a day trip! I hope the kids don’t expect more confetti though.