A Good Old Time in Bern, Switzerland
By Gerrie Summers
Just a few days after returning to the States from a trip to Switzerland, I realized one of the things I loved the most about the Swiss capital. As someone who has witnessed the destruction of old brownstones in Brooklyn for the creation of modern atrocities, I appreciated the well-preserved Bern townscape. The entire Old Town of Bern was named an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Bern (also spelled Berne) is located in the west-central part of Switzerland. It is a mostly German-speaking city (followed by Italian, French and a few speak Romansh). It’s not a bustling city. It has more of a laid back, almost sleepy vibe. In fact, I was there when Switzerland won one of the World Cup matches and I’ve never seen such reserved jubilance.
Founded in 1191 as a military post, Bern’s symbol and coat of arms is a bear, from which the name Bern is derived. Legend has it that city founder Berchtold V, Duke of Zahringen vowed that the first animal he came across during a hunt in the woods, would be the name of the city. The unfortunate animal that he encountered and killed was a bear. Unlucky for the bear, but lucky for Bern—it could have easily been a wild boar or a weasel.
The town has kept live bears in a Barengraben (Bear Pit) since the 1440s. The first bear pit was at Barenplatz (Bear Plaza) and bears were on view in the town until 1857 when the fourth bear pit was opened on the eastern edge of the old city. There was controversy over the bear pit, so to improve the living conditions of Bjork (mama bear), Finn (daddy bear) and Ursina (baby bear, born in 2009), BarenPark (BearPark) a larger enclosure, was opened alongside the River Aare and is connected to the old pit by tunnel.
The modern-day BearPark is a tourist attraction, built in 2009 and is next to the fourth bear pit. The park features a cave and a pool and more space for the bears (although one of them looked a bit bored, or perhaps annoyed, by gawking tourists positioning cell phones and cameras, trying to get the slumbering bear’s attention. The bear glanced up at in such a way, it made me think that if he could speak German, he’d growl, “Gah Wäg!” (Go away!)
A short, leisurely walk (and climb) away is the Rose Garden, a floral park where one can view the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Aare River. Once a cemetery, the park now features 200 different varieties of roses, 200 varieties of irises and 28 different types of rhododendrons. It opened to the public in 1913 and is a popular spot for families and visitors. The Rose Garden Restaurant features a traditional Swiss and Mediterranean menu and with picturesque views of the area.
Another famous site is the Clock Tower or Zytglogge located in the city centre at the entrance to Old Town. Zytoglogge is Bernese German for “Time Bell.” The Clock Tower is a remnant of the first city wall gate (1191-1256). The west gate tower was built as part of a defense wall but as the town continued to expand, and it was no longer used for defense, it became a prison until the tower was burned out during the Great Fire of 1405. A mechanical clock and bell were installed above the gate and it has been called the Clock Tower ever since. The Zytglogge is one of three oldest clocks in Switzerland.
Of particular interest is the eastern face of the Zytglogge where tourists gather four minutes before the hour. The clock mechanism is based on a time bell, an ancient public time keeping device through which a hammer rings a small bell on the hour. A number of things happen: a procession of figurines including bears on hind legs holding musical instruments or weapons, a bear on all fours wearing a crown and a knight in armor on a horse begin to move on the revolving carousel. At the hour, a golden cockerel crows three times and a jester (added in 1642) strikes his bells and kicks his legs. It’s a bit underwhelming for some, but if you’re into clocks, the tourism office has daily hour-long tours inside the tower to see the inner workings of the clock, which is actually amazing. You see why Switzerland is famous for its timepieces.
There are over 100 fountains in Bern. 11 retain original allegorical figures, most being created by Hans Gieng, with the exception of the Zahringerbrunnen (Zahringer Fountain) created by Hans Hiltbrand in1535. The latter is a memorial to Berchtold and displays a bear in full armor with a bear cub at his feet.
Two Hans Gieng fountains that were pointed out on a tour were the Simsonbrunnen (Samson Fountain) which represents the Biblical story of Samson killing a lion and Kindlifresserbrunnen (Child Eater Fountain), also called Ogre Fountain, was originally known as the Platzbrunnen (Plaza Fountain) and depicts an ogre eating a child and holding a sack of children about to be devoured. There are many theories about what this grotesque figure actually depicts, one simple theory is that it represents a figure that scares disobedient children. (I wonder how many parents have taken screaming, unruly children to view that fountain?)
Munster of Bern
Munster (Cathedral) of Bern is a protestant Gothic cathedral on the south side of the peninsula and considered one of the best examples of late Gothic architecture. The Basilica with three nave towers has Switzerland’s highest church tower over looking the rooftops of Bern’s Old Town. The bell tower was added in 1893. In addition to providing stunning views, the cathedral has a portal with 234 colored figurines of the Last Judgment.
Zentrum Paul Klee (designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano in 2005) houses the world’s most important collection of works by painter Paul Klee (1879-1940).
Kunstmuseum Bern (Museum of Fine Arts Bern) is the oldest art museum in Switzerland with art spanning eight centuries and works by Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, 19th century Bern painter Ferdinand Hodler, surrealist artist/photographer Meret Oppenheim and others.
Einstein Haus. The Einstein House is located in the Old Town centre; it was Einstein’s home from 1903 – 1905 and was where he developed the theory of relativity. (The Einstein Café and a cigar lounge are also located here.)
Einstein Museum has a collection of memorabilia, written records and film documentaries of Einstein’s life.
Due to over three miles of ancient arcades, Bern has one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe.
Jack’s Brasserie, with its late 19th century ambiance, was awarded 14 points by Gault-Millau, for its market fresh, French brasserie cuisine and classic weinerschnitzel. Jack’s Brasserie is located in the Hotel Schweizerhof Bern.
Located in the old Granary, the Kornhauskeller features Mediterranean cuisine and Bernese specialties. I didn’t particularly care for the food (or the service) but the venue itself has a definite wow factor with impressive high baroque architecture and vaulted ceilings and pillars with paintings of renaissance and mythological figures.
Imbibe & Relax
Kornhaus Galerie Bar is located in the cellar of the old Granary, which was once used to store barrels of wine. The Granary bar is a popular hangout for cocktails and also has ornate vaulted ceilings.
Sky Terrace/Hotel Schweizerhof Bern is the place to go for cocktails and light mezze-dishes and 360 views of the city.
Schweizerhof Lobby-Lounge-Bar is the after-work/after-dinner meeting place for drinks and sashimi and sushi tastings (by Fugu-licensed sushi chef Hironori Takahashi).
The five-star Hotel Schweizerhof is located in the central part of Bern conveniently near the train station and Old Town. The renovated hotel features 99 rooms and suites with rain showers and Japanese bathtubs, elegant herringbone oak floors and charming furnishings. In addition to the aforementioned eateries, it has a spa (member of Leading Spas) and wellness facilities and a Cigar Lounge.
For more information, visit www.schweizerhof-bern.ch.
Travel to Bern
Flights: Coming from the United States, it’s best to fly into Zurich Airport and take the one hour, fifteen minute InterCity train ride to Bern. For information about Swiss International Air Line flights visit www.swiss.com.
Currency: Swiss currency is the franc (not the euro).
Getting Around: Bern has an easy-to-navigate tram and bus system. You can pick up a Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexi Pass to travel by train, bus and boat. For more information, visit www.swisstravelsystem.com.
You can get tourist information at the tourism office located in the Bern Railway Station (Bern Bahnhof).
Language: While the official languages in Bern are German, French and Italian, many citizens speak English.
When to Go
Bern is mild and sunny, during spring through fall. The average temperature is in the low 50s and the warmest month is in July with an average temperature of 63. Winter can be wet and cold, with the coolest month being January when the lowest average temperature is 30. July – mid-August is the vacation season. When I visited in June, the weather was pleasant, though chilly in the morning.