Freitag, Februar 22, 2008

Welcome to Romantic Bern

Here's a selection of curiosities that make Bern worth a visit:


The perfect name for a town hall, is it not? Rathaus is a German word and while signs, newspapers and television in the Swiss-German part of Switzerland are all in "high German", the Swiss-Germans speak a dialect so remote from the original language that Germans cannot understand it.

With its four national languages – French, Swiss-German, Italian and Romansh (which is spoken by just 50,000 people) – it is not difficult to find multilingual families speaking a swirl of languages around the dinner table.

Switzerland's oldest pharmacy

The Rathaus Apotheke, which is near Bern's town hall, has been dispensing medicine for 430 years. However, don't expect a feel of the era when pharmacists fashioned their medicines from mysterious concoctions. There are no jars containing pickled tongue of newt. Pity. The pharmacy was refurbished at the beginning of the 19th century, so looks (relatively) modern with its elegant wooden drawers. Like many Swiss pharmacies, this one has a huge array of commercially packaged homeopathic remedies. Switzerland might be one of the world's pharmaceutical powerhouses, but a large number of people still believe in the old ways.

Einstein's hair

Albert Einstein was German but in 1903 he arrived in Bern for a job with the Swiss patent office and lived in an apartment in the main street, which is open to the public. It was here that he dreamed up his theory of relativity and changed physics forever. There is an excellent display at Bern's History Museum explaining the theory but if that is too much for the holiday brain, ignore the physics and concentrate on the hair. Einstein always looked as if he had plugged himself into the national grid. Before interviews he used to backcomb his hair to make himself look more rakish.

This may prove his own social theory: "I become ever more stupid with fame, which is a perfectly normal phenomenon."

Einstein loved sailing even though he couldn't swim. He was a lifelong pacifist and a celebrated womaniser whose conquests (beside two long-suffering wives) included several actresses and a spy.

A big tick

Biel in the canton (state) of Bern is home to such watchmaking companies as Omega, Rolex and Swatch. But when it comes to clocks, nothing beats the grand-daddy of them all, Bern's town clock. Built in 1530, it is one of the oldest working examples in the world and is housed in a tower in the old city wall, which was once used as a prison for wicked women caught carousing with priests. The clock always has a clutch of tourists waiting for its three-minute performance featuring bears, a rooster and a jester, before Chronos, the god of time, marks the hour. While this is cute, the real attraction is in the pure mechanical poetry of the rods, cogs and 400kg of weighstones that drive the clock.

Every day, a very fit man climbs the tower to wind the Zytglogge, as it is known, which slows by two minutes a day.

Bears with rheumatism

That's what you get when you keep ageing brown bears in concrete pits by the glacially green River Aare. The bearpits have been a feature of Bern since the 16th century and are popular with tourists who love to throw fruit from a safe height. While the Swiss are nervously trying to reintroduce the bears to the wild in the canton of Grisons, the sight of these magnificent creatures trapped in concrete is painful to the zoo-critical eye.

Happily, the embarrassed city is about to spend 10 million Swiss francs ($9.4 million) building a bear-friendly enclosure on the banks of the river.

Slowly does it

Research by the University of Hertfordshire in England has found that since the 1990s pedestrians in big cities across the world are walking about 30 per cent faster. But not in Bern which, in the survey of 30 cities, came third from last. For a capital city, Bern has an undeniable air of remoteness from the world and is virtually unchanged since Hermann Hesse, author of Siddhartha, declared in 1912: "No one can live in such peace as here."

It's a city with a beating heart, no doubt sustained by the large number of shops offering fixes to this nation of chocoholics, who each consume a whopping 11.9kg of chocolate a year.

William Tell overtures

The old town of Bern is truly a Swiss city. It is not French like Geneva, or blandly international like Zurich. It is not hard to imagine men in farmer's pants, coming in from the valleys to admire the guild houses, the long arcades, punctuated by cellars with solid doors, the cobbled streets with statues and fountains. The red-tiled roofs have tiny attic windows perched like hats. Flags and window boxes overflowing with red geraniums add bright colour to the tableau.

The old town, which still has its medieval layout and is world-heritage listed, is the incarnation of all we admire about Switzerland: orderly, compact, and precisely engineered to fit on a sliver of land bounded by the Aare. The city was rebuilt after a fire razed 600 houses in 1405 but most of the buildings are late baroque. Only trams and buses are allowed into the old town, where pedestrians reign to saunter around some of Bern's 6km of arcades. Sit with a beer at a cafe in the old town and get a sense of living history without a crush of tourists.

Building art

Expressionist painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) is one of Bern's most famous sons. To honour him the city commissioned megastar Italian architect Renzo Piano to design a gallery to house more than 4000 works. The result is the Zentrum Paul Klee, which functions as gallery and study centre. It is easy to reach by bus and is constructed in three steel and glass "hills" connected by an airy walkway. The result is a building that appears to emerge naturally from the landscape. At the risk of heresy, I preferred seeing Klee's works in Bern's old Kunstmuseum. The new gallery, although classy, is too intellectual, too light, too breezily modern for Klee's works, which have an endearing naive quality that radiates more keenly in a smaller, more intimate space.

The Bern card

This pass gives free admission to 27 museums and unlimited travel in Bern, including on the Gurtenbahn, the world's steepest tram line. The card also carries discounts on guided tours. It is excellent value and costs 20 Swiss francs. Otherwise, entry to museums costs about 7 Swiss francs.

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