For a capital city in the heart of Europe, Bern is pretty quiet. It has none of London’s restless zip, the tousled morning-after vibe of Madrid or the romantic rush of Parisian lanes. And yet, this quietly elegant city should find at least two nights on your Swiss itinerary. Shubhra Krishan tells you why.
Bern is beautiful : You could liken it to the sight of a graceful woman deep in prayer, face aglow in candlelight. The city has that kind of meditative, mesmeric beauty. Think quiet waters, lost-in-thought church steeples, silent mountains, gleaming fountains, leafy trees. On a Sunday, Bern is even slower and quieter than on most days. Shops are shut, too. If you happen to be there, rent a bike and coast along the city…you can never get enough of its beauty.
“It is the most beautiful that we have ever seen,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in a letter to his friend Charlotte von Stein during his stay in Bern in 1779.
The city has oodles of history and character: Walking about in Bern, you will sniff and sight history on every corner, in every lane. Sit down to eat in an elegant restaurant, and you might be told it used to be a granary or a stable. Get into a glittering store, and someone might casually mention that Albert Einstein lived upstairs! Standing here, listening to a guide telling you how Bern was burned in 1922, gives you the shivers. The city was built almost entirely of wood back then, so the fire ruined it almost entirely. Gazing at its near-perfect beauty today, your respect for its people deepens infinitely.
It reminds you that life is simple: in typical Swiss fashion, the residents of Bern have made their city an almost impossibly clean and efficient one. Cleanliness is next to godliness, someone said—and Bern is where you realise how true that is. The cleanliness yields a beautiful byproduct: calmness. Even the pitter-patter of a poodle following its master along a river bank can be heard on an average day. Yes, it’s that kind of calm.
Bern has a river : In summers, river Aare provides an opportunity for an ultimate bathing experience. The swimmers allow themselves to drift along the clean and pristine Aare while enjoying a view of the House of Parliament (Bundasheh) which is open to the visitors most of the time.
And bridges: Bern…those bridges! That’s the first memory to float into my head each time I think of this quiet, graceful city draped in beauty. Arching over the Aare river, the picturesque bridges are among the most serene walkways in any city. Not to mention the most photogenic.
…and fountains: sparkling fountains with vivid, vibrant sculptures are sprinkled all over this elegant city, inviting you tomhave a drink. In an ideal world, this is how it should be, no? Bern has more than 100 fountains, most of them commemorating the city’s history and culture in some way. A wonderful example of utility combined with artistry.
…and framer’s markets: If, like me, you love strolling along a row of fresh, fragrant field produce, Bern will delight you deeply. Every Saturday and Tuesday morning, artisan butchers and cheesemakers converge on Parliament Square (Bundeshausplatz in German) to sell smoked meat, cheese and pastries. Across the street from Parliament Square, Bernese are busy buying bulbous loaves of zopf, and warm raisin pastries called schnägge, or snails, named for their spiral shape. The quintessential Bern experience!
It boasts the Old Clock: I could hear the pride in my guide’s voice as she spoke about Bern’s fondest treasure. The tower dominates the central city with its steep copper spire; its astronomical clock workings were added in 1530, about the time of the Reformation. From the 16th-19th centuries this was the authoritative clock in Bern; all clocks were set according to this one. At five minutes before each hour visitors gather before the clock to watch its nearly 500-year-old workings perform. Sadly, I was inside the tower, admiring the innards of the machine, when the hour struck and the cuckoo jumped and the bears danced. But every hour, on the hour, that clock makes magic, stopping tourists in their tracks.
It was home to a genius: The great Albert Einstein lived and worked here for two productive years. Einstein House is located in the center of the Old City at Kramgasse 49, just some 200 meters from the Clock Tower (Zytglogge). Albert Einstein rented the flat from 1903 to 1905 and lived there with his wife Mileva and son Hans Albert. The second-floor residence features furnishings from that time period as well as photos and texts presented in a modern exhibition system. The third floor shows a film that gives an overview of Albert Einstein’s life.
The city has a Baby Eater, too: Don’t worry, there’s no ogre roaming the streets. It’s just a sculpture, but one that is going to catch your eye and make you gasp. It depicts a cruel scene indeed—a demon with the head of a toddler in his mouth. Blogger Bryan Schatz writes, “To experience Bern, a gentle and offensively beautiful town surrounded on three sides by the river Aare, is to feel a deep, peaceful calm. That is, until you see the Kindlifresser, or ‘Child Eater’, and then you can’t shake the feeling that this town has secrets. This town is up to something vile.”
There’s a rose garden: Like most people with a nose, I love the scent of rose. The Bern tourism website tells me that “The Rose Garden is a large park with a wonderful view of the Old Town and Aare Loop. The park is home to 220 different types of roses, 200 types of irises and moor beds with 28 different types of rhododendrons. It used to be a cemetery.” I did not get a chance to visit the rose garden, but the description makes me want to.
There’s lots to please the foodie in you : If you enjoy Italian home style cuisine, you will love the food in Bern. For the more adventurous, German food with its unfamiliar but exciting flavours, abounds. Two favorite local dishes are the Bernerplatte—great slabs of salt pork, beef tongue, smoked bacon, pork ribs, and mild pork sausage cooked down in broth then heaped on top of juniper-scented sauerkraut, green beans, and boiled potatoes—and Berner Rösti, shredded potatoes pan-fried with onions, butter, and chunks of bacon. Like most modern world cities, Bern is opening up to new cuisines. Expect gourmet vegetarian and myriad ethnic influences.
The city has a nightlife: Trendy clubs, vibrant bars, overflowing pubs and a pulsating casino—for all its quiet vibe, Bern enjoys some serious night-time fun! Live music floats into the cool and fresh night air. You kick back the finest of Swiss wine or a hearty Bavarian-style beer, and watch the Aare river glimmer in the distance. If that’s not bliss, what is? It lies deliciously close to the
Emmental Valley: In less than 45 minutes, you can zip away from Bern and find yourself in Emmental, of the famous cheese. Gaze in half-disbelief at scenic beauty of the kind most only dream about. Stunning hilly landscape, scattered with golden flowers. Winding narrow lanes snaking up the bosom of those hills. Cows with bells around their necks, and cheese with holes on their creamy crests. You can spend a day, a week, a lifetime in this exquisite valley. But that is another article, for another issue.
A great place to eat: Verdi Ristorante. Dining at this glorious restaurant is akin to attending an opera performance. It is not just food, it is an experience. The glittering old world interiors will sweep you off your feet, and the exquisite Italian food and wine will
A good place to stay: Hotel Allegro – yes, it is hip and modern, with a fabulous middle-of-action location, but more than that, Hotel Allegro has a casino! Make sure you get room with a nice view out to the pool or a slice of the city—some rooms open out to corridors; not nice!