Bern is the capital of Switzerland. I am sure it must feel like the more successful younger brother given that it is much smaller and less famous than its older siblings such as Zurich, Lucerne and Basel. If it had a doting parent, they would probably prefer Bern to their other Swiss children due to its perfect setting on a peninsula in a crook of the arm of the Aare River and its medieval old centre which has received a UNESCO World Heritage Site award.
Bern’s short sharp name means ‘Bear’ in the Swiss Language and apparently when it was founded back in the twelfth century, its leader claimed that the settlement would be named after the first wild animal caught. Apparently a bear was the first victim so thus began a long association with the bear and its symbol is scattered all over the city in many forms as the images to the right show. Bears have been kept in pits near the river since 1457 but modern sensitivities took over and since the 19th century they have a beautiful zoo-type enclosure along the river bank beside the city’s major bridge, Nydeggbrucke.
Visiting Bern for one day is like speed dating the younger, creative and successful brother of a large family. Coming from Wengen involved three trains via Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken and this took a pleasant two hours travelling time. Being late for our date meant that we only had four hours to determine whether we were personally compatible. In the end I think both sides decided that we didn’t have enough time to get to know each other so we agreed to meet again for coffee just down a bit from Bundesplatz (Parliament Square) where the old guys gather to play public chess.
One of my favourite themes when visiting a new city is to look out for its public statues and fountains. Bern didn’t disappoint. In the medieval centre of the city, the key street crossroads still have the fountains working from when they were the only source of drinking water for the community. Eleven of the fountains were commissioned by the city back in the 1540s and most of them have as their centrepiece, either figures from the city’s history, allegorical figures or religious figures; the Statue in Munsterplatz is the figure of Moses, bearing the ten Commandments. Elsewhere, Samson is fighting the Lion. One of the fountain-statues we encountered early on our stroll around Bern was a statue called the Ogre Fountain. No one quite knows the meaning of what it depicts but it shows a giant consuming a child while at his waist hangs a bag from which other doomed children he has collected are struggling to escape. It may be the figure of the Greek God Chronos or it may be just commenting on a medieval society that randomly ‘consumed’ its children. The most straightforward statue (found on Marktgasse) is that of a town hero, Anna Seiler, who provided the finance for the construction of the city’s first hospital. My favourite piece of fountain art in Bern was the wonderful justice statue at the bottom of Gerechtigkeits. It shows a reflective thoughtful city celebrating its governance compared to neighbouring states. The statue shows ‘Justice’ with her scales and at her feet lies a lesson in other forms of state authority; the Pope, the Sultan, the Emperor and the local Mayor (Theocracy, Autocracy, Monarchy and democracy).
Bern is a very interesting city to wander around, whether you are interested in medieval architecture, the shopping arcades that go on for ever, Swiss cuisine, Swiss watches and jewellery or creative fountains celebrating the city’s past. I will mention two spots that were particularly memorable for me.
When you arrive by train, the city funnels you down hill through old city centre until you reach the tip of the peninsula and you arrive at the Nydeggbrucke Bridge where the views over, up and down the river Aar are stupendous. You can then cross the river and view the old and new Bear enclosures as well as taking on the broad panorama view back up the cityscape. People’s attitudes to zoos are on a broad spectrum and the animal activists would have pointed to the large brown bear continuously prowling from one end of his long enclosure (about 200metres) to the other, neither looking right nor looking left. The pro-zoo types would have pointed out the contented bear, digging a hole and clearly bemused by his/her companion prowling their pathway. There were plenty of watchers from the balcony taking photos of all the ctivities.
The second major site to check out is the ‘Bern Munster’, the Cathedral of the city and a beautiful sight to encounter no matter which approach you take as you meander through the city streets towards it. It was started in 1421 being built over the old church on the site; when the Cathedral was almost finished, the old church was shown the front door by being passed through it, stone by stone to finish the new Cathedral. Even before the Cathedral had started, Reformation ideas had come to Bern and encouraged by theological repercussions after the plague had struck the city, the local Council by 1428 was ordering the destruction of all icons in the Canton. The paintings and statues of the Cathedral were buried in the church yard. Such is the movement of ideas and aesthetics over six centuries, many of these icons that were buried in the church yard were dug up in the twentieth century, dusted off and preserved in the Museum of Bern. The old church yard was transformed into the beautiful Minster Terrace that overlooks the city and a great swathe of Bern.
The tourist site that most visitors come to see in Bern is the Clock Tower (Zytglogge) with its moving puppets that emerge to address the hours. Unfortunately, like most buildings built around 1217, it needs regular renovation so was covered-up on our visit.
Despite the short time we had to view the old medieval heart of Bern, we spent an enjoyable four hours prowling the streets of this fascinating city.