A day in Bern, the Swiss CapitalOctober 4 in Switzerland ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C
Before travelling to Switzerland neither of us would have been able to name its Capital; Bern. Having researched this diminutive city, located in the Mittelland region, we decided it was most definitely worth a visit.
With the provision of a metered car park (belonging to the Paul Klee museum) just 2km from Bern's central square, we chose a day visit instead of staying overnight at a less central location. Charges came in at 2Sfr (£1.60) an hour, or 7Sfr for the day.
Bern is a small city, the roads are well designed and despite being a Friday, were quiet, so the drive in was as stress free as any we've experienced.
Modern, efficient and frequent electric buses had a direct line into the centre, but we thought we'd gain more of a feeling for the area on foot. What immediately struck us was the calm, uncongested and unhurried atmosphere; not what you'd expect in the suburbs of a capital. Well designed and maintained low rise apartments mingled with elegant townhouses and surprisingly, an orchard with a small flock of sheep! Compact gardens and balconies grew colourful flowers, ornamental grasses and shrubs, while ancient Beeches and Horse Chestnuts thrived in larger plots of wild ground. We were definitely liking what we'd seen so far!
Bern's UNESCO listed Old Town, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, occupies a tongue of land within a sharp meander of the Aare River. Even on this drizzly grey day the view of the terracotta tiled houses rising up from the turquoise blue water made our hearts melt. Protruding above the skyline were the Gothic spire of Bern Münster and the green and gold domes of the parliament buildings, each sporting the square Swiss flag.
Crossing the arched stone Nydegg Bridge we passed the Bärenpark, home to Finn, Björk and Ursina, three brown bears. Bern has a long history with bears, some even say this is where the city's name originated. These creatures have long been kept in cramped pits, the last one closing in 2009 following the death of its remaining occupant. Whilst this new Bear Park is 6000 square metres with trees and a river fed pool, we weren't convinced with the ethics of keeping bears captive in this city centre confine while tourists leant over the bars of their enclosure trying to attract their attention for photo opportunities.
Once over the bridge we were caught up in the quaintness of cobbled streets, flanked by porticoed walkways, off which lay a smörgåsboard of boutiques. Many outlets contained skilled crafters making and mending leather goods, watches and shoes. Others sold fabrics, fashion, souvenirs, Swiss Army knives and antique curios. Bern again defied our preconceptions, having the feel more of a high end market town than a major administrative centre.
So enthralled were we that the need to find food was forgotten, until Vicky turned from Jekyll into Hyde. There were a range of options; fondue, kebab and some really expensive looking restaurants, but mindful of our limited budget we opted to find sustenance at Bread à Porter bakery, who heated up a tasty mozzarella and tomato baguette and a small leek quiche for us.
Now it was time to see the sights! So compact is the Old Town that we ended up criss crossing the same latticed streets more than once, but first we headed to a viewpoint on Kirchenfeldbrücke, where looking back revealed even better sights of parliament on the left and the cathedral spire on the right. We timed our arrival at the Zytglogge just right. A few tourists were beginning to gather in the fenced off 'tourist photo' areas at the junction under the medieval Clock Tower, while a traffic warden made sure buses didn't have to dodge those focussed on their selfie sticks. At 12:56pm a chime rang out and the miniature carousel of figures embedded into this arched old western gate revolved a quarter turn. For the next four minutes we listened and watched as further notes were struck and the guilded characters came to life; the cockerel flapping its wings and the bell player striking their instrument. The artistry of these and the astronomical clock was impressive, but the hourly event a bit of an anti-climax.
Next port of call, less than 500m away was the Bundesplatz outside Parliament. The grey skies and dull light didn't show this square, nor the fine sandstone building off to their best, but they were impressive nonetheless and the 26 water jets layed into the paving (one to represent each Swiss canton) added a modern element of fun. Our hope had been to enter and watch the house sitting from a gallery, but arrangements seemed to have changed from when our guidebook was written because we were informed by security that we'd need to book online.
Nevermind, we'd saved the best for last! The tallest church spire in Switzerland rises 100m and belongs to Bern Münster. For 5Sfr you can scale the tightly spiralled stone staircase at one corner of the bell tower, peaking through tall, narrow, arched openings as you climb to see the terraced rooftops dropping away beneath you. At 46m we emerged onto a walkway leading around the outside of the rectangular structure, before taking another 90 steps to the second, smaller, octagonal gallery platform at 64m. From here we took in Bern's position, cupped amongst lush green hills, with far off views of the snow capped Bernese Alps. We spent a long time enjoying this new found perspective, Vicky was particularly taken with the different hues of hexagonal tiles capping identically shaped dormer windows and surrounding cutesy roof top gardens. Although many were hidden by the arcades lining each cobbled thoroughfare, we still marvelled at how few people we could see. Perhaps Swiss prices make foreign tourists (like us) think twice about visiting, but whatever the reason, Bern's uncrowded, unhurried nature is part of this very likeable city's charm.
N.B. Special thanks to our friends Cath and Paul. We counted out 10Sfr worth of their centimes to pay for entry to the Münster spire - definitely the highlight of our day!Read more