There are cities out there whose history is so obvious that you don't need a book to tell it to you -- you simply have to walk its streets or stand on a vantage point over it, and the history tells itself. This was what the city of Bern told me from the Rose Garden, on the eastern hills: During pre-history, the Aare River chartered its course north from the Thunersee. Somewhere along the way, in the NW of modern-day Switzerland, it decided to take a major U-turn, cutting out a steep valley. The river ran deep, so the land on the inside of this U-turn was high and readily defendable. And so it was civilized and walled in, and defended successfully in war after war against enemies who could not scale the heights. Eventually, it became the city of Bern, the modern capital of Switzerland.
The view from the Rose Garden is shown in the first photogaph, and although you can't see the Aare River very well, you can tell it was there by the way the streets curved around. I wanted to go to Bern because I've heard so much about its scenery, especially from the outside of the Aare Valley looking inward. As the first photo showed, I was hardly disappointed. Bern was a beautiful city.
Surveying the first photograph, a number of Bern's great landmarks stuck out. The most prominent structure at top center was the Munster, the Protestant Cathedral that sat on the city's highest point. Towards the back was the greenish dome-top of the Swiss national Parliament. The two spires just to the right of it were the two city gates to the west -- one of the Prison Tower, and the other of the Clock Tower.
Like most capitals, Bern was a very busy and happenin' place, an impression I got the moment I stepped off the train and wandered into the scene of the second photograph -- that of the Prison Tower. It was close to the end of the business day, and it seemed like everyone was jockeying for places among the many cafés.
Bern's city motif was very different from the other Swiss cities I've visited and written about in this website. The main streets heading west-to-east are largely rows of plain-concrete buildings with the road made of cobblestone and sporting streetcar tracks. Meanwhile, the sidewalks are completely covered. Stone archways are visible on either side of the road in the second photograph. Further down the street, the sidewalk level rose to several feet over the road, enough that it supported a number of underground stores. In the middle of the road were a series of colorful columns, with a single painted figurine on top. I found no reference to the figurines, some of whom were simple folk while others were caricatures (such as the one in the fourth photograph showing a man dressed in a royal cloak devouring a toddler -- not exactly politically correct). The only one I was able to positively identity was Moses, carrying the two tablets. That column directly faced the Munster.
But more important that the architecture were the people I encountered. Bern was definitely true to the Swiss model of multiculturism, with stores and restaurants representing just about the whole world over. I took a break at a brewery near the scene in the third photograph and just listened to the conversations going on around me. People from different ethnic backgrounds were sitting together, freely switching among English, French, German, and Italian -- Switzerland's four most prominent languages. I noted similar harmony just wandering down the crowded streets.
Yet part of that was likely due to Bern's obvious affluence. The city was wealthy and its citizens well-dressed and behaved. Service in the various cafés, restaurants, and hotels was top-notch -- but friendly, not snooty. I felt quite welcome.
Wandering around the city was fun, and great exercise. The main city was built high over the river, overlooking the banks which were also built-up. The climb up and down to the banks was steep, about 300 stair steps. The good news was the availability of lifts for only one Swiss franc (roughly 65-80 US cents) each way. Nearly every structure in the city was a landmark, and there were numerous fountains and monuments among the traffic circles. I particularly remembered the Helvetiaplatz with a huge fountain and very elaborate sculptures. I also noted the massive Stadttheater (city theater), the exquisite white brick casino, and the wonderful Swiss military museum.
I spent a good couple hours combing the entire breadth of the city, enjoying the scenic views. I have a particular fondness for river shots, and Aare makes for some spectacular ones. The sixth photograph was taken from the south side of town, before the Aare bends, toward the Swiss Parliament building. Doesn't it just look stately up there?
Dinner, I must warn you, will not be cheap, but it will be high quality. I had a fantastic dinner at a Japanese restaurant not far from the Clock Tower (fifth photograph), and it was great. The most popular restaurants seemed to be concentrated in pockets near the Clock and the Prison Towers. So, if you are getting famished, I suggest heading toward the west end of town. But I also suggest proper dress. I found Bern to be a sophisticated town and the Swiss liked to dress up when going out even for routine dinners. Suits and ties were commonplace even in the art galleries.
On the other hand, if you are looking for something less sophisticated, go to the old Tram Stop at the Nydeggbruecke at the end of the road below the Rose Garten. There was a brewery there and the Bear Pits (yes, Bern has its own real live bears, they were just hibernating when I went, you see... :-) ).
Bern was a good place to visit, certainly the best city in Switzerland I've seen. It's nice when you can visit a place and just imagine what its history was like.
Trip Taken 5-6 October 2002 -- Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin